Lift Truck Series: Fleet Maintenance and forklift foresight

Whether a company might uncover thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, fleet managers are finding that disciplined maintenance programs work to replace reactive processes with predictive capabilities.

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As a discipline, lift truck maintenance has developed at an impressive rate in recent years. Telematics and data collection technologies, enhanced equipment reliability, and an economic recession aided this swift transition and brought the industry’s chronic waste into sharp focus. Skimping on repairs and rotation is a great way to increase costs, not curb them.

Of course, plenty of fleets are still treated as mere costs of doing business. In those cases, the emphasis on execution rather than excellence results in organizations pouring virtually unlimited funds into equipment.

At the other end of the spectrum, leading fleet managers boast right-sized fleets, controlled costs, and technology that moves them from reactive to proactive maintenance methodologies. However, as with all process improvement initiatives, there is no finish line and even those at the top of their game continue to hunt for every scrap of efficiency.

“A few years ago, plenty of our customers told us they knew everything about their fleets and wondered why they would ever invest in fleet management technologies and learn to manage a new system,” says John Rosenberger, manager of iWarehouse Gateway and global telematics for The Raymond Corp. “Now, they come to us at trade shows, dealerships, or to Raymond directly and tell us their margins are so thin that removing 1 percent or 2 percent of inefficiencies can keep them competitive.”

Whether a company might uncover thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars, fleet managers are finding that adopting modern fleet maintenance practices is essential to cutting waste and ensuring uptime.

Uptime uplift
Not surprisingly, a focus on uptime is exactly what can drive up a fleet’s maintenance spend. Historically, a given facility probably didn’t have a sophisticated view into maintenance costs, but could more readily identify the costs associated with downtime.

“If you figure out your throughput, any loss of uptime might cost you a lot more than whatever you were worried about paying for parts,” says Torrence Smith, senior manager of fleet management services for Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America. “But even if you’re capturing detailed data from invoices and repairs, it’s not until you structure the data that it becomes information—and, it’s not until you identify patterns in that information that it becomes knowledge.”

The goals and potential uses of that knowledge are different for each fleet owner. One might focus on the asset and spend management and will look for each lift truck’s cost per hour. Another might pursue labor management, using system solutions for elements like access control and checklists.

“Then, a third set of customers seek integration of the two, which is the optimum world,” says Mike McKean, fleet management sales and marketing manager for Toyota Material Handling USA. “Right now we’re at the beginning stages of that integration. It’s often done manually, with an ad hoc report to extrapolate data from each system and merge it, typically in Excel. That needs to be programmed into a system to collect both and report.”

Ideally, such a system could illustrate real-time cost per hour, McKean says, by monitoring the repair process, parts, the technician, the invoice, and the operator.

In the meantime, organizations are sometimes challenged by their very structure, with one department focused on maintenance costs and one on labor. Jim Gaskell, director of Global Insite Products for Crown Equipment, encourages collaboration between the two.

“If you talk to a supervisor about collision damage, he will say operators have to get product out the door and the operators need to meet that standard,” Gaskell says. “Someone else is concerned with controlling maintenance costs, and those two guys have no relationship. The maintenance guy, if he doesn’t have backing from the production guy, has no chance to control those costs. You might need someone above them both to tie that knot together.”

In addition to efficiency, tension between stakeholders can compromise safety. “Is safety subordinate to production? Nobody will admit it,” Gaskell says, “but you can do both, you can meet all objectives, and we can take you to customers who have done it.”

With sufficient data, it will become possible to determine that a given class of lift truck in a given environment will have a certain sort of spend.

Visibility of these trends can enable fleet managers to strengthen their predictive capabilities. By identifying patterns and maintenance spend on a unit-by-unit basis, a fleet owner can more effectively manage costs while ensuring uptime.

Telematics teachings
Telematics fleet management technologies are another valuable way to track trends and address small issues before they become bigger ones. Steven LaFevers, director of aftermarket solutions for Hyster Co., says seemingly minor events often signal approaching trouble, but are often unheeded until they progress to a crisis.

“Very few telemetry programs offer predictive maintenance and analysis,” LaFevers says. “A proactive service model might notice a transmission heating up or a low oil level. So even if the flags on the lift truck’s dash are ignored, a dealer monitoring equipment status remotely can reach out without requiring you to stop what you are doing. Proactive service—acting on the now versus the before—is a common discussion for telematics as a whole.”

Telematics systems also offer efficiencies beyond preventing catastrophic equipment failure. LaFevers gives the example of a customer who proudly explained the process for reporting an oil leak. “If the operator checklist reveals a leak, that operator is to park in a certain area and walk to the manager, who then goes to confirm an oil leak before reaching out for service,” he says. “That’s a lot of time, and that time can be eliminated immediately if the equipment can report the leak itself.”

Electric lift trucks add the additional layer of battery management. Manufacturers of both internal combustion and electric lift trucks continue to address customers’ interest in controlling fuel costs, which are among the largest costs associated with equipment.

“Plenty of lift truck users have right-sized their fleets, and their fleet management programs mean equipment turns over at a healthier pace before they see major catastrophes like transmission and engine failures,” says Brian Markison, director of North American sales for UniCarriers. “For those fleets, the largest costs now tend toward energy and maintenance.”

Advancements in embedded lift truck technology present new opportunities for predictive maintenance. “Onboard sensors will tell you when current draw increases because something is binding,” Rosenberger says. “You could add a load sensor, which could fail and would need to be replaced. But what if I tap into the existing hydraulic pressure sensor on the manifold?”

In that event, when manifold temperature gets to a certain level or the pressure is too great, the equipment will recognize unsafe conditions and prevent lifting above a certain level. “The equipment was already reporting that information for safety reasons,” Rosenberg says, “but we can liberate the signal and have the computer send that data out wirelessly to detect a load without a separate sensor.”

Elderly equipment
Older equipment might not provide this sort of data, but that’s not the only way aging lift trucks can weigh down an operation. “It’s becoming more mainstream to control maintenance on aging equipment and avoid throwing good money after bad, although there are still a lot of pockets where that’s a key issue,” says Pat DeSutter, vice president of fleet, service and aftermarket for Yale Materials Handling Corp. “It’s important to identify when a piece of equipment is fully depleted and make the case that you should put money into it or it should be replaced.”

These decisions are too often based on habit as opposed to data. Smith says that some customers have trouble recognizing that the cost to maintain could be more than the cost for a new lift truck.

“Some will say ‘our culture is’ to keep a lift truck for 10 years, but seven years might be a better idea,” says Smith, who notes that planned maintenance (PM) schedules are often similarly arbitrary. “The disconnect is that fleet management is not their core business, so they tend to manage by cost. But before we get into how much I charge you for a PM, let’s talk about whether I should schedule a PM.”

DeSutter agrees PM schedules are commonly in need of improvement, and although overly frequent PMs are a costly waste of effort by equipment users and service providers, infrequent PMs are much more common.

“It’s definitely a center of mass for costs,” DeSutter says. “Technology and data are enablers, but the customer is coming at the information from different ways. The conversation has evolved to the point where they say: ‘I need to deliver productivity on this level’ and struggle to find out how to achieve that.”

For example, wireless work order management technology enables service providers to quickly manage and respond to customers’ maintenance needs. “Customers often think these solutions primarily benefit the service provider,” DeSutter says, “but that will increasingly be a price of admission to achieve the responsiveness and customer service levels expected.”


About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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