LA VERGNE, TN. Taking care of ever more complex vehicle technology while facing higher service volumes, a shortage of technicians, and greater demand from customers for more accurate and shorter repair times is creating a far more tangled Gordian knot for truck dealers to try and cut.

At a Volvo Trucks event held here outside Nashville, TN, at the new Nacarato Volvo Trucks dealership, Volvo customers engaged in a roundtable discussion with both dealer and OEM executives to tackle a variety of issues facing fleets today.

[To view more photos of the Nacarato dealership please click here.]

“I’m going to spend on average $145,000 regardless of brand for a premium team-driven truck,” explained Grady “Pete” Carpenter, president of PAC Trucking, a FedEx Ground contractor that operates 21 tractors and employers 31 drivers.

“But what really matters to me is how much it’s going to cost me to keep that truck running,” he stressed. “Also, while no one can predict what might go wrong with a vehicle, how you’re treated when you’re in for service is extremely important.”

Carpenter pointed out that vehicle uptime, especially in the time-definite FedEx Ground operational world, has become so critical that sometimes it’s worth skipping what can be a laborious warranty recovery process in order to get equipment back up and running.

“Being on-time in my world is critical because that’s how we earn points to bid on freight; and the more points you have, the better the routes and types of freight you can bid on,” he noted.

Stan Pritchett, general manager at Beacon Transport – a regional TL fleet operating 133 tractors and 360 trailers – said that when he started the company 13 years ago, his business plan deliberately focused on running new equipment to avoid repair costs and downtime issues.

“Now we spend so much more time with maintenance, dealing with repair issues we never had to in the past,” he explained, such as with engine injectors. “Our biggest challenge now is buying product that stays on the road; we’re paying big money for these trucks and we need to keep them up and running, not in the shop.”

To that end, Volvo has been focused on developing a remote diagnostics system to help identify problems sooner and reduce repair time for customers. [You can view a video of how the system works by clicking here.]

Conal Deedy, Volvo’s product manager for communications and electronics, noted that Volvo field tested its remote diagnostics package on 1,300 customer-owned VN tractor models for a year and found it helped reduce diagnostic time by 71%, reduced average repair time by 25% and on average improved vehicle uptime by one day per fault code event.

Deedy stressed that Volvo’s remote diagnostic system – currently in use on 5,000 Volvo tractors – is only in place on Volvo tractors equipped with Volvo engines built after May 19, 2010, and currently only diagnoses engine fault codes alone.

“There are thousands of fault codes on today’s trucks related to everything from engines and transmissions to axles and other components,” he said. “We’re just focused right now on tailoring remote diagnostics to just essential operational items, such as the engine.”

Deeley added that Volvo also is introducing new “quick response” or “QR” codes on stickers that can be attached to its tractors and trucks, allowing technicians to obtain important vehicle details such as model number, mileage, etc., more quickly via a tablet or smart phone.

Mike Nacarato, president of the Nacarto Volvo Trucks dealership, noted that such technological tools are becoming far more important as dealer capacity across the trucking industry becomes more strained.

“We thought that this new facility we built would prepare us for future demand; instead we’ve been it in just four months and discovered it’s already too small,” he pointed out.

Construction of the 13 acre facility – which sits on a 92 acre swath owned by the dealership – began in 2009, with the 45,000 sq. ft. 16-bay body shop and 2 paint booth bays opening in Dec. 2011, with the main 80,000 sq. ft. 28-bay service center opening in Sept. 2012.

Volvo noted that it’s been encouraging increased investments by its dealers in order to beef up the capacity of OEM’s service network. The company noted that its total number of dealership locations increased from 343 to 347 last year, with a focus on the Southeastern U.S. that resulted in a nearly 21% increase in work capacity for that region since January 2010.

During this time, Volvo said its dealer network added 214 truck service bays and 230 Volvo-certified technicians, while parts inventory increased by more than 20%.

Volvo added that work capacity for its Texas locations is up 32%, resulting in an additional 170 truck service bays, 138 Volvo-certified technicians and a 39% increase in parts inventory, while capacity for Volvo dealers  in the Western region of the U.S jumped by 15% over the past three years – which includes the addition of nearly 80 truck service bays, 135 Volvo-certified technicians and a nearly 22% increase in parts inventory.

Nacarato said the design of his dealership’s new location centers around speeding up repair times for customers, to the point where the service writers are located in offices right on the outside of the building so they can more quickly meet with customers.

“We are trying to get customers more information about their repairs so they can more effectively plan around it and we focus on using a ‘team philosophy’ with incentives to get parts, service, and our other divisions to work together more closely in order to solve customer issues faster,” he explained.

Streamlining repair times is also more critical as customers themselves are under more time pressure than ever, added Joe Nacarato, the dealership’s VP.

“The new hours of service rules for example are putting a lot of pressure on customers, because if their driver sits here at the shop, they are running out of hours for him to drive,” he explained. “We can either help with that or end up adding to the problem.”

That’s one reason why Pat Daily, Nacarato’s executive assistant for fleet sales, told Fleet Owner that the dealership not only maintains roughly $2 million in parts on hand, but is wants to ensure it always maintains a supply of “all major components” in inventory.

“The goal is to eventually have on hand every critical part that goes on a truck,” he said. “Because there’s nothing worse than telling a customer their vehicle is going to be down 2 days because we we’re waiting on a $5 part.”

Yet handling higher service volumes is being made more difficult for dealerships like Nacarato by a pernicious technician shortage; one Mike Nacarato believes requires more attention from outside the trucking industry.

“I’ve been a dealer for over 25 years and I am just so frustrated that there are so many unemployed in this country, yet there’s a shortage of truck drivers and technicians,” he said. “We could hire 15 technicians tomorrow to handle the volume of business we have; but they aren’t available. Maybe we need a cultural shift in this country to address this.”

Joe Nacarato added that the efforts his dealership and others undertake to keep their technicians up-to-date on all the technological changes affecting trucks create a “Catch 22” of sorts for dealers.

“We spend in excess of $100,000 a year on technician training,” he explained. “But the better trained our technicians are, the more other companies want to hire him or her away – and our survival depends on the quality of our people.”