Take A Walk on the Lighter Side

Rob Potter prides himself in doing his job right the first time. As an auto equipment technician, it is his responsibility to make sure the light duty fleet vehicles are in tip-top shape for the Verizon fleet he manages in Laurel, MD. Potter is very conscientious when it comes to being accurate, and he believes this helps the overall economy of the company. Every penny counts, especially with a national fleet of approximately 55,000 vehicles.

"Doing the job correctly saves money in the long run, and part of that is that you need to have the proper tools to work in an industry like this. It costs money to save money at the same time," he says.

Every day, Potter is responsible for an average of 30 vehicles, each with unique maintenance requirements, from preventative maintenance (PM) to transmission repair. He's already hard at work in the shop at 5:30 a.m., when most people are just waking up. An early start allows Potter to get ahead of the schedule, and he says an early start equals less downtime and increased fleet efficiency.

Occasionally, Potter has some additional vehicles in the garage that are not part of the normally scheduled repair workload, due to an impromptu-style repair schedule. Drivers call a toll-free number to report and schedule repairs, and those who are in the vicinity of his shop are dispatched to bring the vehicle to Potter's garage. Reports are generated and printed out in the shop, and either Potter or his co-worker make the repair, whether it is replacing a headlight or repairing a flat tire. He says this is especially helpful for a driver who encounters a problem away from their usual repair center, because they're able to simply stop in for service when they need it.

Potter's shop is sometimes dispatched at the same time a vehicle is en-route to the garage for service. Although this last-minute scenario doesn't happen often, Potter describes a recent situation that proves how the Verizon drivers rely upon technician expertise for on-the spot service repair.

What Potter recalls sounds like an a scene from a movie, but it was actually a very real and dangerous situation: a driver was on the road when the engine suddenly shut off. Potter says that the initial problem was 'minor', and could have been easily repaired if it was detected by a technician early enough. Potter's theory of what happened is that the driver most likely knew there was something wrong with the vehicle when he heard a noise, but didn't think it was anything to worry about. By the time the failure happened, it was too late.

When Potter inspected the vehicle further, he discovered the engine was overheating because the water pump was leaking and coolant ran out.

"The water pump was so noisy, it was horrendous. There was no way the driver couldn't have heard it," he says.

Potter replaced the water pump, but that wasn't the end of the problem. "Because the water pump was overheated, it blew the head gasket, so I had to pull the cylinder off. It turned into a major job," he says.

MISSION CRITICAL

Some of the tools that Potter uses in his shop help him with measurements. For instance, he uses brake micrometers to find the exact dimensions of the rotor or drum brakes. He says that using this tool helps him to determine if there are enough materials left to safely machine the rotors on brakes, which is important to have a quality braking system.

"Even on today's modern fuel systems and everything, you have to have more up-to-date tools to scan the systems to be able to get in and help diagnose what is wrong with the vehicle," he says. Potter also uses a MasterTech scanner which is a universal scanner for vehicle testing to determine if there are system problems for ABS or transmission issues, for example.

"You can view data to see what engine temperatures or coolant temperatures are on the car," says Potter. "With different sensors like oxygen sensors, you can view what voltages they are reading and sending to the computer," he continues. "Like the mass airflow sensors that measure the amount of air and the temperature of the air that's going in that the engine's using."

Investing in the proper tools is critical, according to Potter. "You need to have the proper tools to work in an industry like this."

TECHNICIAN-FOCUSED

Christian Corrigan, global marketing manager for the cordless tool division at Ingersoll-Rand, says their product line is focused on making a perfect fit for the technician, whether they are using impact wrenches, drill drivers, cordless ratchets or die grinders.

In traditional pneumatic ratchets, for instance, Corrigan says that when technicians tighten down bolts during a repair, there is 'kickback', or the sudden movement of the tool that often results in knuckle or hand injuries. Corrigan points out that one of the benefits to the electronic circuitry in the Ingersoll-Rand tools is to help prevent kickback, which ultimately helps to prevent technicians from getting hurt.

Another way the technology makes practical sense, according to Corrigan, is by providing cordless tools for technicians to increase mobility in the shop or for technicians who have a mobile repair business.

"In the shop, being able to run around the vehicle without having a cord really adds a lot of value," he says. "One big benefit is that when you look at the technology of cordless tools, it's getting to the point where you're not really giving up much from a performance standpoint. And in many cases, the cordless tools can outperform comparable air tools."

PRACTICAL TOOLS

Corrigan says that one of the main reasons technicians use ratchets is for easy access. "No one necessarily wants to use a ratchet," he says, but adds that the majority of technicians he talks with prefer to use an impact wrench versus a ratchet.

"They use a ratchet when they can't get an impact wrench in there. So when you think about the benefit from a ratchet, it's for access. Throwing a hose on the back of a ratchet really doesn't equal the best access," he says.

Removing the hose gives the user flexibility and mobility to maneuver around the vehicle and be able to get the job done quicker, Corrigan says.

"With electronics, you're going to be limited in your run time, but what is key for many applications when you talk about gasket removal, cleaning surfaces, mating surfaces or cleaning wheel wells out," Corrigan says, "is that these ratchets are great because they allow you to not have to drag the hose out there. You can do it wherever you are in the shop."

Corrigan says that one of the biggest challenges for a technician or fleet manager is being able to build up their tool supply when they are often limited to the pre-determined kits tool companies offer.

"Maybe today you want an impact wrench, so you go out and buy that impact wrench with a charger and a battery," Corrigan says, "but tomorrow you decide you need a grinder or a drill driver. So you have to go out and buy the same kit for the grinder, and now you've got redundant batteries and redundant chargers."

From a cost of operation standpoint, Corrigan says it seems to make sense for a fleet manager to have a cordless line of tools to avoid the obligation of having redundant chargers.

TRAINING AND TECHNOLOGY

Arnold Lauret works for the city of Milwaukee public works department. He and his team of approximately 20 technicians work on police and other light-duty city vehicles. Part of Lauret's job is to coordinate training and purchase equipment for the technicians, which is often time-consuming for supervisors or management.

"Arnold stepped up to the plate a few years ago, because we didn't have the time," says his supervisor, Patrick Brushafer.

Lauret also researches and bids for the kinds of tools or training the technicians in the shop need based on what is available within their forecasted budget.

He says that he periodically asks the technicians about what topics or classes interest them and coordinates training with companies such as Ford, AC Delco or local technical colleges. At one point Lauret thought they were falling behind in getting their technicians up to speed with training courses, but ever since he began to organize and coordinate training schedules and classes he feels more comfortable. He says they are now caught up on general training techniques, but he recognizes that he needs to maintain their interest levels. Now it is just a matter of keeping abreast of current industry trends and technology.

TECHNOLOGY-SEEKER

"Mostly, now, I go looking for new technology," he says. For instance, Lauret says that many of the supplemental restraints have been changing in airbags and seats because they are more electronically controlled. The fleet is also anticipating a late-summer delivery for hybrid and multi-fuel vehicles. Training for these new additions to their fleet won't be immediate because the vehicles will be under warranty, but they're preparing technicians by giving them bits of information ahead of time. Lauret compiled a list of acronyms related to the new technology as a starting point, which will give the team a head start on understanding the vehicles they will be repairing in the not too distant future.

Lauret and Brushafer both believe in a team-oriented approach to managing their technicians. Each month, Lauret moderates a shop meeting for all technicians to raise concerns or to bring ideas to management in an open forum setting. During the meetings, Lauret will also give technicians information about new procedures, techniques or tools that may be helpful for their jobs. It's also a good way for technicians to talk about specific repair problems they've encountered, and share what worked in the repair process with their colleagues.

"The guys here are pretty good at sharing the knowledge," Lauret says. "It helps people feel like they're part of a team."

Brushafer agrees. "It helps to keep people in the loop a little bit."

Another important aspect of managing their team is to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each technician to avoid a negative or competitive environment.

"Everybody has their strong points. My weak point might be the guy across the way's strong point," Lauret says.

"We do try to hand out the work load where we'd rather address somebody's strong points than with something where they're going to stumble and fall," says Brushafer.

Brushafer and Lauret's team consists of 16 technicians on the first shift schedule, three technicians on second shift and one on the late shift. Today, the staff is about two-thirds smaller than what they had 10 years ago.

Lauret says they have a combination of newer and more of what he calls 'old-school' technicians, but stresses that each person is an important part of the team, and they all work together to do their best work.

A VARIETY OF TRAINING

For the technicians at Milwaukee county's department of public works garage, training is easily accessible. A dedicated room above the floor shop is used for individual or group training. The room, complete with a bank of computers and network access, is used for Web-based training or driver education classes, and Lauret says that approximately two-thirds of the training courses are either Web-based or available on DVD or CD-ROM.

If technicians aren't able to participate in training sessions offered at work, the city of Milwaukee offers tuition reimbursement for employees to receive job-appropriate training off-site, at local technical colleges, for example.

Reference materials such as Mitchell OnDemand, and factory service manuals are also commonly used in Lauret's shop, as well as online access to Ford and General Motors electronic service information. This comes in handy, especially with 600 police vehicles in the fleet. In addition to the online manuals, Lauret and Brushafer's team use Ford scanners, proprietary scanners and MasterTech scanners. Whether repairing a new or old vehicle, each has various challenges for technicians to tackle.

Lauret says working with older vehicles can be a maintenance challenge, because it usually becomes a time-consuming restoration project.

"The older vehicles are more work but the newer ones are more complicated than what we had ten years ago, because they have a lot more accessories, more safety equipment, emissions and electronics. It's much more hi-tech," says Lauret.

"We never even had air conditioning 10 years ago on the fleet vehicles, but all the police cars and city vehicles have that as a standard now," he says.

Access to many scan tools helps with the maintenance of the newer vehicles, according to Lauret.

"We're in a big enough place where we're lucky to have proprietary scanners. We have enough people and enough vehicles that we're using them all the time," he says.

Chuck Roberts of the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) says that it's imperative for technicians today to have experience with electronics integration on automobiles.

"Without an understanding of the electronic controls of almost any system on an automobile, you won't be able to diagnose it," Roberts says. "I think the skill set that the competent technician has to possess is really one moving from being a mechanical skill to understanding electricity, electronics, and how they control the various functions of the systems in the vehicle."

"RETURN ON INSTRUCTION"

"There's some excellent training out there. I don't think there's any problem with the training that has been developed for general automotive maintenance," says Al Ebron, president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC) and executive director of the national alternative fuel training consortium based out of West Virginia University.

Ebron says that one of the issues technicians face in being well-trained is that they are working in dealerships or in various fleet management organizations where taking time for training means taking time away from production and their day-to-day work. "So there's a balancing act of trying to get enough training time for the technicians and to produce the work the dealership might need," he says. "And that is exacerbated by a shortage of technicians across the nation right now."

Ebron says that the Internet has played a big role in keeping technicians updated on training and information.

"There are a number of training organizations out there, and a number of automotive trade organizations that keep their technicians trained. There are also a number of online Web sites to provide online communications to help the technicians obtain information and solve problems," he says.

"The Internet has provided some real-time and some extremely timely information for automotive technicians and those in the automotive industry."

Ebron's suggestion for managers to keep up-to date on training for their technicians: pay attention. "If I were a maintenance manager, I would pay attention to my own trade organization and information that comes from there and then follow-up," he says. "I would also find out what training is available and would be most appropriate for my technicians and employees. I would have a training program set up, to allow enough time for my employees to attend. And that is something I think that is extremely important in a maintenance program."

Ebron says that ATMC, the Automotive Training Managers Council, is another resource for automotive professionals. The ATMC is an organization founded in 1984 by automotive professionals, for technical, sales, marketing and training professionals to exchange training ideas and strategies. "Basically, the ATMC helps the automotive training industry and those who are doing actual training in the industry or those who might serve in the training industry," Ebron says.

"The members are interested in improving their 'ROI' or 'return on instruction,'" he continues. "This is done through networking and exchange of ideas for more effective training performance. We want our members to better train their customers and to understand and utilize the latest products and techniques."

SIMPLY THE BEST

Changes in the fleet maintenance industry are inevitable, and every shop must make accommodations or modifications in order to adjust accordingly. Each shop operates differently, with various levels of management, supervisory and technician experience. But almost all have similar goals: to operate their fleets with balance and efficiency.

Strong leadership and career guidance is important to operating and maintaining a fleet and employees, whether it's with a team of two or a crew of twenty. From a management standpoint, keeping up-to-date with trends and training will improve fleet technician skills and guide career growth, which will ultimately lead to success for everyone.

It is also the dedicated employees who contribute to the fleet's overall success, leading by example. The well-equipped and well-trained technician who always seeks better and more productive alternatives to job performance are empowered to excel and to be the best and brightest in their field of expertise.

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