A Brutal Life

If you ask Rob DuPriest to name the biggest challenge to keeping his fleet of 65 delivery trucks on the road, delivering office supplies and office furniture to his customers in Virginia, he'll tell you straight out that it's the drivers who treat the trucks as though they're rental cars.

"It's an ongoing nightmare," says DuPriest, fleet manager for The Supply Room Companies of Ashland, VA. "I don't know what other companies do, but your drivers don't tend to take care of vehicles like they're their own. I don't care if you give them an older model truck or a brand new truck, they don't treat the new one any better. They treat it just like they're driving an old one; it's a rule of thumb, unfortunately."

It doesn't help that DuPriest is responsible for trucks domiciled at eight locations in Virginia and one in Maryland. At his base location, he can only keep his eye on 14 of the 65 vehicles in his fleet. For the rest he's dependent on his supervisors to watch for problems in between coordinating customer deliveries.

"Everything I can hear that could possibly go wrong with the vehicles I'm hearing it over the phone," he explains. "They'll say, ‘Oh, the brakes are making a little grinding noise now.' Well, obviously the brakes were making a noise long before they started grinding. So it leads into another problem of not just putting a pair of brake shoes on the disc brakes but it's rotors, it's the whole nine yards. I try to think that I have control over that, but I'm only as good as when the driver calls me up and says, ‘I've got a problem with a vehicle.'"

OIL CONFUSION

Dennis Soch also manages the maintenance activities for a fleet of delivery trucks that he rarely ever sets eyes on. But in Soch's case, we're talking about 132 straight trucks (in addition to 262 Class-7 tractor-trailer combos) delivering Keebler and Kellogg's brand snacks to thousands of grocery stores across the country.

"We depend on our field management at our distribution centers to watch over our equipment," says Soch, who operates out of Kellogg's Corporate Headquarters in Battle Creek, MI. "Last year I visited all 48 distribution centers. This year I'm staying in the office, reviewing and watching over expenses and repairs. It's hard when you've got oil samples coming in every day, and I have to review repairs and accidents and all those other goodies."

At the moment, Soch's concern is analyzing oil samples to establish efficient PM intervals for the 600 International 4300s and 4400s and 30 Freightliner M2s the company "pre-bought" in 2006. Even though the new trucks are running on EGR technology that's been on the road for nearly four years, Soch finds that there is still confusion in some shops about what type of engine oil to use.

"We are finding some vendors that aren't using the correct oil, even though I put out an approved list," he says. "We still get guys who get confused about different API ratings. The CI-4 classification is important because of the EGR valves. You have to have CI-4 when you're running EGR engines, and we're finding that some of the locations aren't doing that."

COSMETIC DAMAGE

Both Soch and DuPriest contract out their maintenance, and both rely on thorough PMs to avoid costly breakdowns and repairs.

What neither can avoid is the constant damage that comes from demanding P&D work.

"To get to some of these grocery stores, it's tough," Soch says. "We're constantly getting hit by somebody who knocks a mirror off and such. We try to spec low-profile lights and mirrors that aren't as susceptible to damage, but sometimes, no matter what you put on there, even with Lexan lenses, well, a tree limb hits it and just knocks the whole lamp right off the body. And it's not the driver's fault."

"With our box trucks it's true that with backing up you crack a lot of lenses. We do replace a lot of those," DuPriest echoes. "They're not high dollar items, but when you replace a lot of them it begins to be. Those vehicles deliver office furniture, but there are low-lying branches that people don't see, or think they can get under. You get the side of the truck scratched up, or even opened up when you get too close to something and it cuts through the metal box."

When the company's public image is reflected in the appearance of its trucks, that's a bad thing. But cosmetic damage is not easily controlled if the drivers don't speak up, or don't even notice, as DuPriest can attest.

"We also go through a lot of windshields," he says. "A chip here, a chip there, then the weather changes and it'll send a crack out. I try to get those fixed when I know about it, but the drivers don't always tell me they've got a chip."

WEAR AND TEAR

Soch's fleet operates largely at night, starting out at three in the morning to deliver snacks to dark loading docks. Because of this, Soch devotes a lot of attention to the trucks' electrical systems, making sure that the batteries are cleaned and charging properly.

"Because of the way the vehicles are built today, there's a lot of multiplexing," Soch says. "There are a lot of problems with grounds. There are so many ground connections everywhere, and if they lose connections, it's nothing but a can of worms. It's brutal. So, we end up refocusing on a lot of the connections on the PMs, and if we see there are problems we're taking them apart and cleaning them, and putting the sealing over them, and using dielectric grease."

DuPriest's fleet delivers office furniture, copiers and office supplies in the daylight, but the work is no less brutal.

"We deliver a lot of skids of paper, and sometimes there are no bumper guards around things, and if you back into a loading dock you can tear lights out pretty easily," he says. "Liftgates and overhead doors probably get abused as much as anything else. The drivers don't necessarily do things carefully at times.

"But the maintenance on that is not nearly as high as an engine running hot—they notice the temperature needle is high so they stop, but how long did it take before they noticed that the needle was up in the Twilight Zone?" DuPriest asks. "You work on a few box trucks, and that gets a little expensive."

GOOD ADVICE

Clearly, this work is hard on a truck. And since these maintenance managers don't see their trucks very often, their work is cut out for them.

DuPriest sums it up: "Here at the home office I can keep as good a maintenance check on them as I can, and the outside locations is where sometimes, something could have been prevented if we'd caught it earlier."

But the maintenance story is not hopeless, according to Soch. His advice? "Make sure the PMs cover all areas. If the trucks are operating at night, make sure the electrical system is adequate. Make sure the drivers are familiar with all the equipment on the vehicles, so that they don't neglect the equipment."

In this business, it boils down to one thing: delivering the goods. And that, in the end, keeps the maintenance equation pretty simple, according to DuPriest:

"Anything that needs immediate attention, we take care of right away. We're not going to put anybody in an unsafe vehicle."

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