Pragmatic workshop

Getting the balance right between the resources of a small fleet and the requirements to keep the trucks on the road as much as possible can be difficult. Diesel talks to Herb Blanchard Haulage about getting the priorities in the workshop right and trying a new approach.

When Herb Blanchard Haulage first started trading back in 1955, the way to run a workshop was simple. It was just a matter of having the right tools to be able to rebuild what ever was broken. The practical solution was always a matter of dismantling the problem part, seeing what could be fixed and what needed replacement, and then getting on with it.

The days of having a truck in bits across the workshop floor or along the side of the road are long gone for many operators. The cost of running a truck means it cannot afford to stop, so preventative maintenance is king. Fix anything likely to fail in the near future, when it is in for regular servicing.

The cost of running a truck means it cannot afford to stop, preventative maintenance is king, fix anything likely to fail in the near future, when it is in for regular servicing.

At the same time, trucks have become much more sophisticated and some spanners, a hoist and a sledge hammer are just not going to solve most issues in a modern truck. The laptop has become a vital, and expensive, tool, alongside specialist tools for many jobs.

The Blanchard fleet has a number of core contracts which make up a large proportion of the work the trucks are handling. Much of the work involves transporting objects which are long and heavy, timber, telegraph poles and steel. However the fleet has been set up to be as adaptable as possible. Being based in Grafton, a country area, a fleet needs to be able to carry as wide a range of freight as possible.

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For a fleet like Blanchards, the idea of running a workshop is difficult to get right. The fleet consists of 21 trucks which are on the go all of the time. The period around Friday and Saturday, when they get back to the depot for the drivers’ weekly rest period, can get extremely busy. At the same time, there are not enough trucks to justify buying a lot of expensive capital equipment to ensure the workshop can cope with some of the more serious jobs sometime required.

The answer is one many smaller operators, and some of the larger fleets, have taken on board. Simply, handle routine maintenance, oil changes etc, in house and leave the rest to the specialists, the truck and engine suppliers. This can work quite well and, for larger fleets, can average out to a relatively stable cost per vehicle.

For Blanchards, the experience of having one truck go seriously wrong can blow those numbers out considerably. When one of 21 has a serious issue the price per truck for maintenance rises considerably. Conversely, when things go well, the cost per vehicle returns to sensible levels.

“The truck manufacturers we deal with are pretty good at telling us when you need to do things,” says Michael Blanchard, one of the three brothers involved in the company. “There’s the mid-life crisis when you have to do the turbo. They are relatively cheap when compared to SCR mufflers, you don’t want oil in them when the turbos blow. So we will change the turbo well in time to save the cost of replacing an SCR muffler. We also replace jockey pulleys, fan belts and that sort of stuff.”

As a way of insuring against these kinds of fluctuations and allowing the business to plan for its future costs and control cash flow, Blanchards have begun to put some of the trucks in the fleet on contract maintenance. The company decided to find out if the cost of such a scheme upfront would be outweighed by the lack of a surprise costs down the track.

“We bring the trucks in our own workshop for the 15,000 km service but if an oil change is involved they go back to the manufacturer. They also go back to them for their annual inspections.”

There would be no arguments about whether a part is under warranty or not or relying on goodwill on the part of the manufacturer. Just one set maintenance cost per vehicle. When an engine throws a valve it can cost $10,000, even with goodwill thrown in from the manufacturer. There are no $10,000 surprises under contract maintenance.

“We have just put four trucks onto contract maintenance, just so we know what our costs are,” says Michael. “We bring the trucks in our own workshop for the 15,000 km service, but if an oil change is involved they go back to the manufacturer. They also go back to them for their annual inspections.”

“We are trialling contract maintenance out as an insurance policy. You are getting your four to five years during which you have only got to pay for kangaroo hits and damage, anything else is just automatically included. “We also looked at an extended warranty on a Cummins engine, and are going ahead with it. We can take the engine out to 1 million km and I don’t have to think about it.

“We’ve had issues where we have had mechanical problems where you start getting into the argument as whether it is in warranty or not. Can we get goodwill, or can’t we get it. Well, there’s no goodwill involved now, it’s just fix it because it broke. It don’t go, make it go!”

The trucks not involved in contract maintenance are pulled into the workshop every 15,000 km for a service in the fleet, for oil changes and small maintenance issues. All major work, such as engine and gearbox rebuilds, is farmed out to the manufacturers.

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“Costing wise, it’s not detrimental,” says Micael. “Looking at the figures, it doesn’t cost us any more to be under contract maintenance. At the end of the day, I reckon it is going to save us money. Breakdowns, after hours call outs and bits and pieces which don’t involve a truck coming into a workshop aren’t allocated to the cost of a particular vehicle. Those costs were allocated to repairs and maintenance, they will be a saving.

“We are trialling it on these four to see how it goes. We won’t know for sure because they have all gone onto contract maintenance at the same time. “Even if we have all of our trucks on contract maintenance, we will still need the same team. We have all of our trailers to work on and we are still bringing the trucks in at 15,000 km.”

There is enough work in the workshop to justify employing 1.5 people. One full timer is augmented by a part timer during the busy end-of-week period. The two can keep an educated eye on the fleet and flag any potential issues on each truck.

“A driver doesn’t know mechanics, he doesn’t know what is going to fall off next week,” says Michael. “So we are a bit proactive there, we are looking at them regularly. The Volvo trucks are out to a 60,000 km oil change, the Scanias are…

…out to 45,000, and Cummins is at 40,000. There’s a lot of time when just the driver is looking around the truck. However, if you get a mechanic underneath it doing a service at 15,000 km, greasing the ball race, checking the tyre pressures and everything else, you can pick things up.

“Looking at the figures it doesn’t cost us any more to be under contract maintenance. At the end of the day, I reckon it is going to save us money.”

“We will send our trucks down to Pro Aligning in Coffs Harbour to do our wheel alignment. We normally do it when we notice irregular tyre wear. It’s also in the back of my mind that it will save us fuel, but the logistics of getting the trucks to a site 100 km away, means we only do it when we notice the steer wearing, but we will get the drive axles done at the same time. I would like to get our trailers aligned, but because we operate quick hitch trailers it’s hard to get them to the alignment guys.”

Running a small operation is all about keeping stock levels down, and running a workshop servicing a relatively small number of trucks means it is easy to end up holding stock to quite a high value, much of which will not be needed any time soon. By limiting the kind of servicing done on site, the amount of parts and fluids etc they need to hold is reduced.

Blanchards is a fleet which monitors its performance all of the time. It is getting very similar fuel consumption out of all of the three brands of truck in the fleet, Volvo, Scania and a Kenworth using a Cummins ISX E5 engine.

There is also an emphasis on safety within the fleet. Accredited to Trucksafe and NHVAS, the fleet is getting close to a situation where all of the trailers and prime movers are fitted with EBS. Freighter trailers predominate in the fleet and as new trailers come in, they will be fitted with disc brakes. This is something Blanchards hope will keep maintenance costs down. They have been fitting drums with eight inch shoes for some time and have been getting up to 500,000 km with them. They are expecting the discs to perform the same, if not better.

All of the improvements the Blanchard brothers are striving for in their business are based on a rational approach to running the operation. Everything needs a business case to get up. It would be nice to be able to handle many workshop tasks within the company, but if the numbers don’t stack up, then it’s time to look at the alternatives.

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