It Still Takes Brains to Maintain

Dec. 1, 2010
The lift truck’s Information Age doesn’t mean freedom from maintenance; it’s about freedom for maintenance.

Anyone shopping the lift truck market for the first time in a few years might be surprised by some of the new technology. The biggest shock might be how communicative the latest models are. With telemetry devices using Wi-Fi, RF or cellular transmission, lift trucks can be linked into maintenance tracking software and fault codes can trigger work schedule revisions automatically.

If a buyer didn’t know any better, they’d think lift truck maintenance had become a no brainer. Don’t tell that to Bill Collins, general manager at Railex. Railex markets itself as a distribution platform made up of 55-car refrigerated trains that ship the equivalent of 220 truckloads of refrigerated goods from West Coast to East Coast every week, in both directions. Collins manages a fleet of 40 Toyota lift trucks at Railex’s Schenectady, NY, warehouse, and they run all-out to unload these trains at a rate of 12,000 pieces an hour. That’s an entire train of products in less than a day—and there are four trains a week. Making sure these lift trucks keep operating requires not only brains, but discipline.

Collins’ maintenance crew services these lift trucks in the off hours. Their diligence ensures that very few of them ever require unscheduled emergency repairs. In fact most of the maintenance discipline is tied to simple good housekeeping.

“Most of our issues are load wheels, axles and bearings,” Collins says. “And most of that is just keeping our facility clean to keep the debris out of the bearings and the wheels. That’s where we get our most direct savings. We always stress, pick it up instead of run it over. We have an in-house video channel showing some of maintenance’s most difficult repairs. We put it on in the lunchroom so people can see what happens when they don’t do a good job cleaning up. That money comes off the bottom line.”

This facility’s maintenance department consists of five people supported by Summit Handling Systems, Inc., the authorized Toyota dealer based in Long Island. Why not leave all his maintenance to Summit?

“Every facility that has this many pieces of equipment should be able to press on its own tires and make its own hydraulic fittings and hoses and have them on the shelf,” he explains. "That goes a long way to keeping costs down.”

That commitment to upkeep impresses Paul Weymann, vice president of Summit Handling Systems.

“We initially held a 'train-the-trainer' program for Railex and they in turn have very good driver training,” he says. “Preventive maintenance is a must there, and they don’t let them slip. They were concerned about run time, because when trains come in, two men empty them and turn them around. They were concerned with the batteries, but the AC functionality on the rider trucks really helped improve their run time.”

A Tool, Not a Crutch

Although Railex depends on its operators, maintenance crew and dealer to handle any problems that come along, technology is evolving to where the cost of diagnostics will come down and the capabilities will come up, resulting in an ROI that many fleet managers may find easier to justify.

“Depending on fleet size, the return on investment from these devices can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first year,” maintains Theo Rennenberg, fleet service manager for Modern Group LTD, a Hyster dealer serving Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland. “Some of the newer web-linked devices can also relay diagnostic information back to service providers, thereby increasing the first-pass completion rates on repairs which will equal higher productivity.”

Nevertheless, the electronics in a lift truck only represent a fourth of the maintenance equation, according to Jim Gaskell, director of customer support at Crown Equipment. “People get excited about what the electronics is doing and how it’s detecting problems, but ten years ago the electronic portion of the truck used to represent a third of the maintenance expense. The reason it’s going down even though the customer’s utilization of the product is going up is because there’s been a significant move from contactors and moving parts to solid state componentry and better reliability.”

The point is, if you rely on the electronics and technology to handle maintenance, you may miss critical wear and tear issues involving components like load wheels.

“There isn’t a technology that helps you predict those things, so people still have to do planned maintenance and stay up on the equipment,” Gaskell says.

The Dealer’s Challenge

Good maintenance people know the importance of schedule discipline, but economic downturns tend to take a toll on good maintenance, and the recent recession was no exception. Tim Hilton is seeing the consequences now, as the economy improves and business picks up for his customers. Hilton is CEO of Carolina Handling, a Raymond lift truck dealer serving North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and the Florida panhandle. He believes the overall condition of equipment worsened during the downturn, and this will put pressure on dealers to prove they’re up to the task of helping customers bring their fleets back to life. It’s a different business climate now.

“A service organization has to understand the needs of the customer, not only knowing when maintenance can be done to be less intrusive to the operation of the customer, but understanding how often equipment needs to be maintained based on usage of the equipment, understanding the operators and which applications are more stressful than others,” he says. “If the customer can make the operators available for our technicians, we can ask what problems they’re having with the equipment.”

But for Crown’s Gaskell, that’s where diagnostics will prove their real value—on the dealer side.

“If a truck starts having these fault codes and transmits information saying there’s a fault code coming from asset 26, the dealer can know about it before the customer does,” he explains. “Now you’ll have the trucks creating the service calls, not the customer. This code coming from the truck will make the technician that much smarter because instead of trying to have the customer describe what they think the truck is doing, you now have data that tells what’s going on. That’s the piece we’re working on.”

Jerry Sytsma agrees, and ironically, what will help dealers capitalize on this technology are the talented technicians they’ve been able to recruit during the downturn. Sytsma is general sales manager-North America for Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift of America, and he says his organization is better able to deal with the pent up demand for service and equipment.

“Our dealers have been able to pick up a lot of quality technicians from dealers who have closed shop or struggled immensely in the past few years,” he says. “That has allowed them to create custom programs that fit a particular application instead of mass marketing a labor rate and a PM program.”

Work with the Industry

Duncan Murphy, president of Riekes Equipment, a Yale dealer serving Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota, believes that some customers with service contracts may have been over-serviced during the recession if they were running fewer hours. He suggests fleet managers look into this and use it as a way to judge dealers in the future.

“One indicator of a top level service provider is if they have proactively changed service levels to match current usage,” he says. “They should also gather the metrics they’ve collected and share cost of operation trends so a customer fully understands the total cost of ownership.”

He acknowledges this can be a Catch-22 for distributors who are trying to raise revenues while at the same time reducing the total cost of ownership for customers. He’s convinced, however, that both will be possible as customers who wish to stay lean decide to outsource service—as long as the service partner proves the advantages.

The lift truck OEMs are doing what they can to help their dealers do just that. According to Kenneth MacDonald, president of M&G Materials Handling Co., a Yale lift truck and Taylor-Dunn dealer in East Providence, RI, serving Massachusetts, the new information technology will make it easier for customers to get service and for dealers to provide it.

“I think the lift truck industry will evolve to where they’re downloading data on a timely basis,” he says. “Yale already is pre-wiring all their equipment to allow the platform to be in place for end-users to add as they see fit. We are in the early development stages of the new communicative technologies and fleet data management. For lean companies, these data reports will allow greater efficiencies and they’ll avoid operating obsolete equipment so they can maintain the most cost effective fleet.”

Healthy Tires, Healthy Trucks

Just as the health of a person’s feet can determine one’s general well-being, the condition of a lift truck’s tires can predict the extent of that vehicle’s maintenance record. Unfortunately, tires are often among the most neglected aspects of maintenance. Housekeeping is another.

“We wouldn’t sell as many tires if customers had good housekeeping habits,” says Philip Lannon, sales and training manager for Continental Tire the Americas, Chicago. “Tires don’t chunk out in and of themselves, and when you look at scars and dents, that doesn’t happen unless they’re running over things.”

In the worst of conditions, tires are worn down to where they can’t roll properly or they get stuck because there’s such a low diameter to them. Whether you’re talking cushion or pneumatic tires, most lift truck buyers take what comes from the factory. That lack of consideration generally haunts the truck as it is put through its paces.

“Operators typically don’t know when tires should be replaced,” Lannon says. “If it’s a cushion tire, in theory you could wear it down to the steel band. But in so doing you’ll increase maintenance costs on that vehicle substantially. Rule of thumb is, when 30-40% of useful rubber is removed, that’s when a tire’s load capacity and safety requirements are compromised.”

Tires provide the cushioning to protect products and the safety to protect operators. Worn tires increase shocks to loads and people. And if you specify non-marking tires, maintenance considerations figure into that consideration too. According to Lannon, a quarter to a third of lift trucks in warehousing today use a non-marking tires. “But if you want to avoid marks on floors, that’s only part of the solution,” he says. “You also have to make sure you get dirt off the floor with a scrubber. Otherwise it’s like wearing your tennis shoes into your garden and then back into your house.”

That brings us back to good housekeeping. And if you scrub your floors anyway, you may not need non-marking tires—especially if you have electric trucks that you can adjust the plugging. The big concern with tires, according to Paul Weymann, vice president of Summit Handling Systems, a Toyota dealer in Long Island, NY, is the steer axle, mast, worn forks damage you get from letting tires run down too far. Also driver fatigue due to the fact that good tires reduce shock.

Using his client, Railex, as an example, this company used white non-marking tires before investing in the new lift trucks Summit provided.

“They decided to switch to black tires because they wore better at their Schenectady site,” he says. “You probably get a quarter less run time out of non-marking tires than blacks. And Railex uses scrubbers to clean their floor regularly.”

Key takeaway: good lift truck maintenance starts with a clean and orderly workplace. The less junk you run over, the more service life from tires and the lift trucks that wear them.

About the Author

Tom Andel | Editor-in-Chief

Tom Andel is an award-winning editorial content creator and manager with more than 35 years of industry experience. His writing spans several industrial disciplines, including power transmission, industrial controls, material handling & logistics, and supply chain management.