As Douglas Clarke says, information technology systems are not only critical to improving contract maintenance services right now, but will eventually play a key role in improving equipment lifecycle strategies.

“Contract maintenance is just a step toward the overall goal of improving vehicle lifecycle management,” says Clarke, CEO of AmeriQuest Transportation & Logistics Resources. “The payoff for improved use of IT in the contract maintenance field is in eliminating paperwork, getting more information in real-time, and then being able to store that information and call it back for benchmarking purposes.”

A key part of AmeriQuest's service package is the “Intelligent Trading Engine,” designed by its Corcentric subsidiary.

“What we are trying to do is develop a platform where customers, service providers and [component] suppliers can communicate digitally with one another — sharing and storing information faster and more efficiently than before,” Clarke says.

When applied to contract maintenance, “going digital” can give fleets access to more information in real-time about the status of their equipment, helping them reduce downtime and track costs better than in the past, says David Danforth, sales manager for Paccar Parts.

“It's all about consistency and quality customer service,” says Danforth, pointing to Kenworth's PremierCare program as one example. “In terms of maintenance, each Kenworth dealer has a different perspective. But by using PremierCare, not only is all record-keeping on maintenance done electronically, it's handled consistently so fleets can accurately track the cost of repairs, parts, labor, etc.”

Steve Gilligan, Kenworth's general marketing manager, notes that consistency becomes even more vital in emergency road service situations, which PremierCare is also designed to handle.

“We offer real-time repair updates via the Internet and also track owners' parts and service preferences,” he says. “We have developed profiles for many fleet customers so that when their drivers call in, we know in advance their make, model and vehicle description. This saves time getting them back on the road fast.”

MANY PLAYERS

There's a wide variety of contract maintenance options available for fleets, offered by an even wider variety of players — dealers, leasing and renting firms, independent garages, truckstops, etc. And a number of these services have become digitized, offering fleets more efficient ways to transmit information.

“Preventive maintenance (PM) is one of the largest service market segments available for labor hours sold today,” says David Albert, manager of customer satisfaction marketing for Volvo Trucks North America. “Volvo customers, including a lot of small fleets, have shown an increased interest in contract maintenance and PM services,” things a typical dealer might not supply.

Volvo is developing a number of tools for dealers, including a “standardized PM template” that is available online for fleets of all sizes. “Customers and dealers have requested an easy way to look at PM items without trying to pull them out of an owner's manual,” says Albert. “The templates give the technician a standardized check list for performing PM service items. [This ensures that] PM items are done the same way, regardless of the dealership or technician performing the service.”

EUROPEAN INFLUENCE

Volvo is also looking into bringing a contract maintenance program it uses in Europe, the Volvo Optimized Service Program (VOSP), to the North American market.

“This [program allows] dealers to design contract maintenance and PM programs specific to the customer's vehicle, particular components, type of operation and operating conditions,” explains Albert. The tool optimizes vehicle uptime by providing a forecasting tool that enables customers to schedule service and thus decrease unplanned downtime.

Full-service lease providers are also looking to the world of e-commerce for ways to upgrade their contract maintenance offerings.

“In my opinion, moving to an e-commerce format in this area helps keep costs low for both customers and service providers,” explains John Grainger, CEO of NationaLease.

“We're in the process of developing an Internet-based maintenance system that will bring together information from all of the NationaLease franchises serving a particular customer and let them view and manipulate that data via a secure web site. They can arrange maintenance expenses in terms of cost per mile, cost per gallon, or cost per truck.

TALKING TO THE TRUCK

Part of that effort will eventually include being able to upload mileage data and diagnostic information from a customer's truck automatically for better maintenance scheduling. “We'll no longer have to call people to figure out what the mileage is on a particular truck,” Grainger says. “We'll no longer have to wait until the truck comes in for service to see if anything's wrong. That would create a huge savings in terms of maintenance dollars.”

Integrating the truck directly into contract maintenance programs isn't far-fetched by any means. “The technology is already there to agglomerate the data and bring it to a website,” says Mark Joyce, vp-finance for NationaLease. “We're talking months, not years, in terms of having this capability.”

The key to linking trucks directly into contract maintenance IT systems hinges on the concept of “mobile prognostics,” or the ability of a truck to diagnose a potential problem and automatically alert the driver and owner, says Jeff Bannister, director of truck electronics for International Truck & Engine Corp.

“What we're doing is coupling the diagnostic capability of our truck electronic package, called DiamondLogic, to a wireless communication platform so we can not only look at truck fault codes remotely when there's a problem, but actually predict when a truck needs to be serviced,” he says.

“The truck itself will send a message to both the fleet and the dealer handling the maintenance, letting the dealer prepare for the service in advance — get a bay ready, line up necessary parts and tools — and thus reduce vehicle downtime,” explains Bannister. “In the case of emergency service, the onboard system links up to the dealer network via telematics, fixes the truck's location via GPS, and then finds the closest dealership to the truck — all without the driver having to do anything.”

Bannister thinks small- to mid-size fleets will be most likely to take advantage of this, since many large fleets already have significant investment in nationwide maintenance networks of their own.

If mobile prognostics makes contract maintenance operations more efficient and less costly, dealers will reap the benefits.

“Service and parts are a major revenue stream for dealers,” says Bannister. “What the integration of the truck and contract maintenance systems gives them is a far more efficient and responsive level of service.

“The truck itself can tell the dealership where it is located, along with the nature of the problem — even if the driver can't,” he continues. “That helps the dealership determine if this is a problem that can be solved by running a technician out to the truck to replace a part, or one that requires them to tow the truck in. In the long run, that information can reduce the cost of maintenance for both the dealer and the truck owner.”

CUSTOMIZING SERVICE

IT resources are enabling providers to offer more contract maintenance options. As Terry Dubowick, director of leasing for Volvo Truck Leasing System and sister company Mack Leasing System, points out, “Our maintenance contracts can be as simple as engine-only preventive maintenance or as comprehensive as full service. The latter can include such responsibilities as tire replacement, road service, tax and licensing and replacement vehicles, in addition to complete chassis preventive maintenance,” he says. “All or some of these services can be bundled into one agreement in any number of ways.”

Even owners of used trucks are turning to contract maintenance. Under its Red Oval TruckCare program, Peterbilt Motors Co. offers contract maintenance for pre-owned vehicles equipped with Caterpillar C-10 and C-12 engines, as well as Cummins ISX and ISM engines. “The new options will help bring the benefits of managed maintenance to a wider range of used truck owners,” says Craig Kendall, sales manager for the Red Oval program. “TruckCare programs are a proven way to help customers anticipate and budget their service requirements, while helping ensure their vehicles deliver maximum performance, efficiency and uptime.”

Available through Peterbilt's national dealer network, he adds that the program offers four or six scheduled services in a 12-month period, and can be custom tailored to meet individual needs.

“Time and again at the moment of truth, IT systems helps us be more efficient and more responsive to meeting customer needs,” says Steve Scully, president of Scully NationaLease. “There's no question in my opinion that IT is a valuable tool in contract maintenance. It's helps us provide a tremendous amount of data to the customer, gives us more information and more speed, and allows us to keep everyone in the loop as to what's going on. It's a tool that's here to stay.”

Synchronizing data

Putting more contract maintenance management online can be beneficial. But according to Scott Luckett, vp-technology standards for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Assn. (AAIA), providers and customers will have to synchronize the data they want to share.

“Unless everyone's data is the same, you are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to managing parts and maintenance services online, to the point where the horse will run over the cart,” he warns.

“You have to work to get your data in synch and keep it in synch. That requires everyone to use the same data standards,” says Luckett.

“Data is spread all over the place in this industry, so you have to make sure it agrees. When you order a box of oil filters online, both you and the supplier agree that a box contains 10 oil filters,” Luckett says. “That's why we developed the IPO standard.”