Thinking Outside the Toolbox

One of the biggest and perhaps the most important changes for the heavy-duty truck technician is integrating technology to predict, diagnose and fix problems. How a truck operates today is largely based on technology, but technology is also a tool, and is what helps get trucks out of the shop and back out on the road in a faster, more efficient way. Technicians who accept the changing trends will inevitably become experts in their field, but it is technological expertise and knowledge that will set them apart from their peers as leaders in a new era of heavy duty trucking.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Diesel technician Steve Schultz of Schneider National finds that keeping up with technology is critical to his job and has most likely contributed to his eighteen years of career success.

"For the most part in today's trucking, the technology has advanced so rapidly. To me there are now two sides to a good technician," Schultz says. "You have the mechanical side, which has always been your basic engine: troubleshooting, engine transmission and driveline."

"Now with the technology, you have a second side to that and that is the electronic technician. You have to be constantly educating yourself on what the technology is doing," Schultz says.

Being a good technician also means having the proper tooling to work on it, according to Schultz. Tooling is a major cost factor for a technician, due to the costs associated with building up the basic toolkit. This can be challenging for a young person coming into the field, but the initial investment could help with career advancement.

"What separates the most advanced guys is the fact that they have more detail-oriented tools on hand able to make the fine measurements with meters and so forth," Schultz says.

For instance, Schultz uses laptop computers with component-specific diagnostic programs to diagnose engine, ABS system and dash problems, which can be tricky, he says, because there can be multiple symptoms for the same code.

"You might get a flash code, say 39, and it can mean several different things," Schultz explains, "so you have to have the laptop in order to determine which component is causing the failure."

Schultz also relies heavily on multimeters for measuring electrical values and symptoms on a truck, which he says are becoming increasingly complex.

"As trucks are becoming more complicated, we're starting to have to have more sophisticated meters," he says.

Since there are more complex systems on board, Schultz says, a failure or glitch in any of the systems that tie in with the engine can give a tech the false impression that something is going wrong.

"But it's not really an engine problem," Schultz says. "It's the technology causing that perception."

With all of the technological components on a truck, Schultz says that a technician can't just specialize in engines. "You have to be a total truck technician now," he says.

Because so many different truck systems could require maintenance, Schultz has created a personal library of information to organize and document specific problems he encounters with subsystems. He keeps track of the complaint, what happened and how he fixed it. This is helpful, he says, especially when he sees problems or repetitive codes and a way to monitor trends and patterns.

As a result, Schultz says that he's able to pinpoint problems and solve them faster with detailed documentation, which ultimately saves the customer time and money.

TECHNOLOGY AND LOGIC

"Since almost every part of the truck is tied to electronics, the technician's knowledge is essential to successfully troubleshoot the many needs of the sub-system components," says lead mechanic Kirk Kabel, also of Schneider National.

Advanced equipment also helps troubleshoot areas on trucks needing quick access and repair, Kabel explains.

"The way we measure electrical measurements is a lot more precise than it used to be," Kabel says. "It's not just a matter of getting approximation down, you have to actually test the leads in your meter before you make a call on a component."

Due to strict specifications, a problem could be incorrectly diagnosed if equipment is not calibrated correctly, Kabel adds.
"You have to be a lot more precise with your measurements to make sure all your equipment is in top order," he says.

Another challenge for Kabel is getting current information. Technology has helped to improve how information is updated in recent years.

"When I first started, you'd have repair manuals, the same ones, around in your shop for years. Now, it's pretty much all online."

Even though information is easily accessible on the Web, Kabel says that problems could happen before repair information is available online, or before a technician even knows a component exists. Both issues could potentially delay the diagnosis of a specific problem.

Despite the importance of technological equipment, technicians need to rely on logic to help diagnose problems, Kabel says. Recently, he had an issue with excessive smoke coming out of a truck engine that he was working on. The barometric pressure sensor had a high reading, telling the engine that the air was denser than it actually was. As a result, fuel was added for conditions with more dense air, which the engine couldn't burn. Kabel discovered this as the source of the smoke.

"As far as the computer was concerned, everything was fine because it was given the right amount of fuel for the amount of air it thought was in there. You could read the sensor values with the laptop and all of the components," he says. "But you had to have the logic to figure out that the reading was impossible."

In another situation, Kabel had to troubleshoot a wiring problem in an add-on part under the dash of a truck. Something was amiss, but he couldn't see exactly what it was without completely disassembling the dashboard. Because the fuse and wiring in question were not included on diagrams, Kabel and his team had to physically trace the wire back to the fuse of the failing part in question.

STAYING INFORMED

Sharing information among peers helps Schneider National technicians work faster and smarter. The Green Bay, WI-based company publishes ‘Tech Digest', an internal weekly information bulletin including changes or updates.

Schneider National uses the American Trucking Association (ATA) number system on their Intranet to categorize information published in past issues of ‘Tech Digest'. For example, if Kabel searched under number category 045, he would find all the information he needed pertaining to an engine problem; number category 015 would list information published about problems with power steering pumps.

"That's how we keep each other informed," Kabel says. "We share information with each other, so that when one person goes through the turmoil of finding the solution to a problem, everyone else doesn't have to repeat the same process."

Larry Hibler, manager of information systems and vehicle diagnostic services at Ryder, believes technologically advanced tools make a better-prepared truck technician.

"The tools that really make a person well-equipped are the electronic tools, the diagnostic tools," Hibler says.

Hibler has witnessed many changes with nearly thirty years' experience. He's noticed a big difference in the last ten years, when tools were not technologically advanced. In fact, diagnostic scanners or laptop-based diagnostic PCs didn't exist a decade ago.

"There really was no such a thing as a laptop-based diagnostic PC. You would have had some old, small handheld electronic device that could ‘talk to the truck', but barely," he explains. "They were rather primitive compared to today."

It used to be that mechanical aptitude was the single most important quality for a technician to have, according to Hibler. But now, he believes the best heavy-duty technicians need a combination of knowledge and training in addition to being mechanically inclined to ensure career success.

When it comes to training, well-prepared techs make a difference between those who are interested in a career and who simply want a job, according to Hibler. Training skills and testing are very important for technicians to prove they can do their work, he says.

To Hibler, combining hands-on and knowledge-based training in the classroom or on the Web is excellent for the early-career technician or for those interested in career development.

"We'd really like to have them think more about their own personal development," Hibler says. "But we also want upcoming technicians to understand that they should come in to this work environment with a desire for self-learning."

Hibler also believes mental preparation is equally important as having the physical tools readily available to get the job done.

"We look for and expect technicians who are career-minded to be willing to put forth some effort from a self-led mode as well," Hibler says, adding that additional time for studying and a training plan will help guide and develop new technicians.

He explains that Ryder's TOPS plan, which stands for "Train Our People Systematically", is a program designed to identify specific hands-on and skill-based training needs for employees on a yearly basis.

"In our world, the first thing any technician, regardless for whom they work, needs to be is exposed to a variety of vehicles," Hibler says, and thinks that gaining knowledge about many vehicles helps to make a technician well-rounded. At Ryder, he says the learning curve lies within the variety of work performed on different makes and models of trucks in a relatively short time.

It takes time for technicians to gain experience for personal growth, development and proficiency. According to Hibler, it takes approximately eighteen months to two years to get up to speed.

"It's not an overnight process," he says.

SUCCESSFUL TECHS

Success is defined differently for every heavy-duty technician and is as individual as the job itself. Technicians who accept changes in technology already establish themselves as leaders in the industry. They use hands-on experience, build a specialized knowledge-base, share useful information and work more intelligently.

Whether establishing a new career or further developing an existing one, it takes time for technicians to acquire skills, no matter what level. Technology, training and knowledge will continue to influence the heavy duty technician, allowing them to become well-equipped and well-trained experts in their field.

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