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Long term lift truck maintenance

Tired of throwing good money after bad, fleet managers are turning to training, technology, and dealer support to better understand when to replace, repair, or retire.
By Josh Bond, Contributing Editor
June 01, 2011

For decades the same call has rung out from lift truck maintenance bays around the world: “Get me the truck and I’ll fix it.” But as companies try to do more with less, lift trucks are too often compelled to stay on the warehouse floor as long as possible, where they can keep the product and the organization moving forward.

The historic tension between the needs of the truck and the demands of the business frequently result in maintenance patterns that lead to avoidable damage, over- or under-utilization, and wasted parts, time, and money.

“It’s a sword that’s not only double-edged, it’s serrated,” says Jim Shephard, founder and president of Shephard’s Industrial Training Systems, which specializes in the development and implementation of operator training programs and has trained more than 1.5 million operators. “It’s something that every company with lift trucks wrestles with.”

However, Shephard argues that with careful planning, operational discipline, and perhaps the help of a dealer or other service provider, most businesses can establish a lift truck maintenance program that will increase productivity while optimizing fleet expenses.

But many companies have yet to take the first step.  “With many of the clients I’ve worked with over the past few years, I’ve seen no plan at all,” says Shephard. “They’re basically running reactive maintenance shops.”

Planned maintenance (PM), the routine oil and filter changes, might be as far as a company’s maintenance planning goes, says Shephard. Sometimes even PMs are a challenge. “Maintenance people are saying: ‘The truck’s due for PM, now how do I beg, borrow, or steal it?’” says Shephard. “They usually only get the truck after a breakdown. Even then, they’re forced to get it back onto the floor before the full service is done,” he adds. “Before long, that fleet starts to show the attention you’ve put into it.”

According to Shephard, an effective maintenance program starts with the lift truck operator, the person most immediately aware of the needs of any given truck.
“They are the first line of defense,” says Shephard. “No one else in that operation is going to be as important as the operator. They are the key.”

But although operators today are better trained than ever, says Shephard, skilled operators on bad equipment will revert from good habits to bad ones. Then equipment dollars are wasted, training dollars are wasted, and companies end up with avoidable costs.

“You push one domino over, it will knock the rest over,” says Shephard. “The funny thing is that most companies put so much emphasis on producing a quality product, from design to manufacture to packaging, then they go and handle their materials with shoddy equipment. It doesn’t make sense to focus so much on the front end just to get shrinkage on the back end.”

Shephard says maintenance is no longer a last resort for trucks pushed to the breaking point. Taking the long view allows businesses to control day-to-day expenses and operations while monitoring the performance and value of each piece of equipment. In this way, the life span of each truck is neither shortened nor needlessly extended.

“Before you cross that line, maintenance costs are an investment in your assets,” says Shephard. “After you cross that line, you’re just throwing money away.”

Keeping it in-house
According to Shephard, lift trucks are not only important at the loading bay. “A lift truck in a building will affect every person in that building,” he says. “You get shrinkage and the plant manager hears about it. You get late shipments and customer service hears about it. You get avoidable costs and accounts payable hears about it.”

Given the ripple effect a lift truck can have on an operation, it might seem surprising that their good health is so rarely a priority. But there are significant challenges to in-house maintenance programs, according to Jim Gaskell, Director of Global Insite Products for Crown.

Below about 50 trucks to 70 trucks, maintenance workers might spend only some of their time actually servicing trucks, with the rest of their day spent on other facility needs. Beyond that threshold, the fleet will sustain dedicated maintenance personnel. Managers might begin to make room for a dedicated maintenance bay, which might naturally begin its life as an offshoot of a battery room.

Then the maintenance bay might begin stocking parts, or consigning a parts supply from a dealer. This is where the problems begin. “Companies must have the discipline to track hours of labor and parts costs so they can have an accurate sense of their maintenance costs,” says Gaskell. “That’s the piece they’re most often missing.”

It can be hard to isolate labor hours spent on trucks if maintenance workers are also performing other facility repairs. And parts management can quickly become a cost quagmire. An ideal practice might include a time card for maintenance workers where they could document X hours spent putting X parts on X truck.

“One customer had tool carts in a shop filled with $50,000 in parts in a small area,” says Terry Flanagan, manager of fleet sales for Yale Materials Handling Corporation. “Someone was in the habit of taking parts out of the packaging before shelving them, and although the mechanic knew where the parts were, no one else did.”

“Do you know how many techs are allowed to get their own parts at a dealership?” asks Gaskell. “Zero. When a user’s in-house technicians are allowed to get their own parts, that’s how customers end up with tens of thousands of dollars in parts they don’t need and hundreds of thousands of dollars in parts they can’t track.”

In order to get things under control, a company must first perform a thorough asset survey, documenting costs and utilization. This simple first step can immediately reveal big problems, like whether a company is using the right trucks for the right job, whether trucks are over- or under-utilized, or whether there are other recurring problems with batteries, parts, operators, etc. With this basic data in hand, a company can begin to know whether to repair, replace, or retire each truck.

For many companies, data captured manually can be helpful enough to begin making decisions and improvements. But technology can also help collect detailed information to help make long-term investments, develop programs, and improve day-to-day operations.

About the Author

Josh Bond
Contributing Editor

Josh Bond is a contributing editor to Modern. In addition to working on Modern’s annual Casebook and being a member of the Show Daily team, Josh covers lift trucks for the magazine.


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