In only a few short years, the Technology & Maintenance Council’s (TMC) SuperTech Challenge has grown into a much-anticipated event for fleets to send their best technicians to stack up against other top techs from around the country.
The competition is intense, with some participants spending their vacation time to prepare for the event. Of course, for the few who successfully run the gauntlet to claim victory in one of the 12 skills stations, there are some definite perks.
At last year’s event, those winners received prizes that not only affirmed their “top technician” status but can help them to become even better and more efficient in the shop. Panasonic and Noregon Systems provided winning technicians with some equipment to help make their jobs a bit easier in the future—Panasonic donated 12 Toughbook CF-19 computers, valued at $4,000 each, and Noregon provided their JPRO® Fleet Diagnostic software tool and a year’s worth of free software upgrades.
Panasonic has been involved with TMC for some time, but after hearing about last year’s SuperTech competition, they dove right in to help out. Bill Presler, Panasonic Computer Solutions senior business development manager, for transportation says company officials were quite surprised by how much TMC members and technicians alike appreciated the gesture.
“It was like we had just found a cure for world hunger,” Presler chuckles. “We didn’t realize how big of an event this is to the technicians—(they) would get up to get their award for winning their station, and they were so moved by this; it was the equivalent of winning an Oscar. It was so amazing to see the passion that they had for what they were doing, and how much people appreciate some recognition and honor for the excellence that they bring to the task.”
Noregon Systems director of fleet sales Michael Kinney says their relationship with Panasonic led them to also partner with SuperTech, donating $30,000 worth of diagnostic and software tools so the station winners had something to run on their new Toughbooks.
“We wanted to turn it into a working tool for the winners,” he says. “We’ve looked at other computers; other products out there to use as a platform, and there’s nothing better in our minds than a Panasonic Toughbook. It’s perfect for this environment.”
THE “NEW” TECHNICIAN
Presler says it was an easy decision to return to Nashville this year with a fresh supply of Toughbooks for the station winners. The job of the truck technician has clearly changed in the past generation, though techs sometimes still get a bad rap as “old school” mechanics whose only use for a computer in their service bay is as a paperweight. He says that perception is changing, though.
“We heard people say it would be difficult for the technicians to adopt a mobile computer, and I always thought that was an interesting position, because these are such technically savvy people,” Presler says. “They’re used to reading manuals and understanding how things work and spending time with something until they understand it at a much deeper level than a non-technical person would. We heard some resistance every now and again, but where we would see customers adopting them, they seemed to work out great.”
Presler says one industry expert at a recent event put it best—“It’s easier to teach an old mechanic to use a computer than it is to teach a young mechanic to work on trucks.”
“There is a sea change, and people understand that productivity enhancements are necessary on the floor of the shop,” he says. “It’s necessary to look at whatever productivity tools can increase the ability to do the job, doing essentially more with less, and those tools can make employees more satisfied with their jobs, and reduce turnover.”
The “new breed” of technician, Kinney says, is very technologically savvy and is just as comfortable at the keyboard as under the hood. For these techs, staying on top of computers and modern diagnostic software is becoming a necessary part of their job description, and can greatly benefit their fleet.
“The complexity of these trucks has grown so much—now you’re talking about multiplex wiring, dual-cam systems—it’s not just an old-fashioned diesel engine anymore,” Kinney says. “The technicians have embraced the technology for the most part, and the fleets have embraced the technology, because the more computer-savvy a fleet is and the more control they have over their fleet—specifically the engines—the better fuel consumption they’ll get. With crude oil and diesel an all-time record high, fleets are looking for any advantage they can get, and we support that.”
Having technicians who can quickly diagnose problems right in the shop is a huge financial advantage for fleets, which is the goal of Noregon’s software packages, Kinney says.
“It reduces the amount of downtime that a fleet is looking at for a specific vehicle, and they have the ability now to understand the faults that they are looking at—they don’t have to rely so heavily on the OEM dealership to run the diagnostics,” he says. “It also puts them back in control of the purchasing decisions for the replacement parts.
“They’re relying on a third party to tell them what’s wrong with the vehicle and what needs to be done to the vehicle,” Kinney says. “They almost succumb to the fact they’ve lost control of their fleet, (and say) ‘Go ahead and fix the truck, we don’t care.’ And it’s expensive, where if they have the ability to run in-house diagnostics, and they (may) find out it’s only a $60 part that’s causing the problem.”
Noregon’s diagnostic software can be used on any truck in North America and can go a long way to improve shop efficiency and accuracy, Kinney says.
“It allows technicians to evaluate the engine, transmission, brakes, bulkhead modules and instrument clusters all in one easy-to-view screen, and (you can) toggle between the systems without having to re-launch different applications,” he says. “It provides the fault code information, the look-up code information, active and inactive faults, the make, model year information, right off the truck without having to crack the hood.”
Of course, the service bay is no place for dainty laptops, so the greatest software in the world is worthless if your computer shatters into pieces after hitting the shop floor. Panasonic’s Toughbook has earned a reputation for taking whatever techs dish out and more.
Presler says according to PC Magazine’s annual readership survey, the average laptop has a failure rate of around 30 percent in a white-collar environment. In contrast, the Toughbook’s failure rate is 2 percent in the environment of a busy truck shop. The magazine listed the top three causes of failure as: getting dropped, spilling something on it or crushing the laptop somehow.
Sound like anything that could happen in your shop?
“You’re moving all around; your desk might be an engine block,” he says. “It’s a harsh environment.”
In the end, Presler says it’s all about building products that work for truck technicians.
“It is designed for a mobile technician; that’s the only reason it was built,” he says. “You can use the laptop or convert it to the tablet; it’s lightweight, it’s built to take a three-foot drop to concrete, it’s built to be able to use in the pouring rain, or if you get oil on it, you just wipe it off, the touch screen display, you can see it in direct sunlight or full dark—any environment. It’s built to take the heat, drops, spills, all the things you might encounter in a service bay environment.”
PUT TO THE TEST
One shop where the Toughbook has been put through its paces is Maverick Transportation’s Gary, IN facility, where you can find Zelko Marinac plying his trade. The 2007 SuperTech Challenge Electrical Skills Station winner, Marinac took home a Toughbook from Nashville and has been getting plenty of use from it.
In his 22 years as a technician, Marinac has seen the shift in his responsibilities to include more computer use, and because of that, he says the Toughbook is now an essential shop tool.
“You feel more confident because you’re not afraid if it’s going to fall or something; it’s waterproof and all that,” he says. “I take good care of it though—I know it’s tough, but I do. Everything has been working fine. It’s really easy to use.”
Marinac says the technicians in his shop try to take care of all their equipment, but in the past, sometimes even that was not enough with previous laptops.
“They really wouldn’t hold up in the shop, with dust and bumps and things like that,” he says. “We had a couple of them go out, but (the Toughbook) is holding up real well.”
Maverick Transportation maintenance training manager Claudio Garcia says the Toughbook has made a definite difference in the shop, helping everyone from the novice technician to an award-winner like Marinac.
“We were having to spend so much time with old computers, getting them up and running and having issues,” Garcia says. “When the Toughbook came along, it worked out great. They clean up good, and we have not had any issues with the durability. Now we don’t throw ‘em around, but it could fall on the floor. It does have a lot more exposure for damage than even a personal computer.”
After 33 years on the job, Michael Bogard, Ryder System technician out of Neenah, WI, knows what works in the shop and what doesn’t. Bogard’s SuperTech legend continues to grow after his third straight year of earning the top score on the written exam, adding a Toughbook to his “toolbox” after last year’s honor. He says it is a reliable piece of equipment that helps make his job easier.
“I really like the fact that the screen, you can spin it when you open the cover and change it so it’s like a flat notepad, and the touch screen is really nice, versus trying to move a mouse around and click on stuff,” he says. “That really makes it helpful.”
Ryder outfits all its technicians in the Neenah service bay with Toughbooks, which Bogard says makes life easier.
“When we go out on a service call, they want something that’s a little more durable because that’s being put in a pick-up truck and carried out into the field, and it’s going to be set up outside,” he says. “And inside the shop environment is not the cleanest and most friendly environment, so you’ve got to have something that can take a little bumping around and stuff like that. I don’t know of a problem we’ve had with them yet.”
While most technicians probably had never heard of a laptop computer when he started back in the mid-’70s, today they are an absolute necessity for the modern shop, Bogard says. A technician who is not using a dependable laptop is not going to work as efficiently or effectively as the same technician who is using one.
“With this laptop hooked up to the Internet, (technicians are) able to change the program when the new updates come, and they can do them throughout the country, because we’re all on-line, and they can put in the up-to-date manuals as the changes come along,” Bogard says. “That’s probably the biggest thing because today’s stuff changes from year-to-year so much, so what was new last year is going to be different next year. To have the current manual is very, very important in troubleshooting today.”
The SuperTech2007 Brakes Skills Station winner, Rich Zacholl of Swift Transportation in Syracuse, NY, has gotten plenty of use from his winnings.
“I use the Toughbook regularly, and the Noregon software, I liked it,” he says. “I liked the way the desktop was set up on it and how you could interlink the different programs.”
Like many busy technicians, Zacholl has accidentally dropped laptops in the shop before, damaging their hard drives, but he no longer worries about that with the Toughbook.
“I haven’t had a problem with it getting dirty or damaged at all,” he says.
Besides its durability in a tough shop environment, the Toughbook is also easy to use and handle, increasing his productivity and helping make his work day a bit less complicated, Zacholl says.
“It’s a small laptop, and one of the things I like about it is you can turn the screen so you can actually read it at letter size, rather than having to scroll down through the page, you can flip the screen right on top of the book, and it’s like you’re reading a page right out of a book, which is really nice,” he says. “A lot of people are going with laptops because there’s so much information right now—I have a lot of my service manuals downloaded onto it, and troubleshooting and my fault code lists.”
Presler says Panasonic will again donate Toughbooks to the station winners.
“We like what they’re doing and really want to support it, it’s just a phenomenal event; a lot of pride and passion,” he says.
Noregon will also continue its involvement, and Kinney says he encourages any after-market company to join along.
“It’s something we look forward to every year now that we’ve seen the benefits from it and we see the hard work that the mechanics put in every year, and the competition just seems to be getting better and better,” Kinney says. “These guys are brilliantly smart and they keep these trucks running and they should be rewarded for that.”