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Better than survival mode

South Shore Transportation’s Kevin Tomlinson is getting the most from his resources by paying attention to details

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South Shore Transportation’s Kevin Tomlinson is getting the most from his resources by paying attention to details

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South Shore Transportation Co. commonly hauls building materials such as board lumber, shingles and plasterboard. But with the downturn in the economy, shipments decreased. “The decline of housing has put us in a survival mode, so we’re really watching everything we do very carefully,” says the company’s Director of Maintenance, Kevin Tomlinson. “It’s a challenge,” he admits, “but right now we’re doing pretty well with the bottom line; we’ve saved some money.”

Tomlinson is responsible for about 150 tractors, half of which are Macks, the other half are Freightliners, purchased in 2002 and 2007, respectively. The fleet has 450 trailers, 90% flatbeds (primarily East Manufacturing trailers), a few vans for some customers and pneumatic tanks for bulk products. Outside vendors maintain about 20% are domiciled at Washington Court House, Ohio and Lansing, Mich. However, the majority of vehicles are maintained at two fleet shop locations by eight technicians whom Tomlinson oversees.

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Tomlinson was one of five recipients of the Technology & Maintenance Council (TMC) of American Trucking Associations Silver Spark Plug Award earlier this year. According to the TMC, the award is given to individuals who have, among other things, “contributed new ideas, practices, or innovations in the maintenance of commercial motor vehicles… .” Recently, I asked him what innovations he brought to his fleet to earn that Silver Spark Plug. He laughed, and replied in his characteristic good humor, “Well, who knows? You just pay attention to what’s going on and try to figure out what are quicker, better, safer ways of getting everything accomplished.”

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“One thing we really track is tire wear, we rotate tires to get extra miles on them, rather than changing them too early.” Tomlinson explains that a lot of what he does is trying to make good practices better. Tires are his biggest cost; not only upfront, but also as they affect fuel mileage.

“A tire gauge is pretty innovative,” he says.“I really try to pay attention to tires to get as many miles out of them as possible, so checking air pressures is a big deal. When my technicians or I bring a trailer into the shop, we always check it.” Trailers are serviced every 90 days, but Tomlinson says if technicians are available, or if there are off-duty drivers around, they check all the tires sitting on the lot. That includes checking the tires on tractors and trailers at the remote locations, too.

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South Shore runs a number of flatbeds, often loading the tires heavy in one direction and returning empty, so there can be problems from too much or not enough weight. “It’s a lot of fun trying to figure what we can do to make it better,” Tomlinson says. “We try to get close to the correct air pressure and still keep what we deem is the right amount of air in the tires.” By his reckoning, they’ve done well. “We’ve upped our tire mileage in some cases 70,000 to 80,000 miles.”

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Tomlinson said the fleet is running some Michelin X-Ones, because, “I’m a wide-base kind of a guy. I like ’em.” He sees them as a growing trend and finds that they’re a little bit quicker for technicians to service. “If you have a blowout, that’s a problem because your truck is down,” he admits, “but there’s definitely a fuel savings. I’ve seen what they can do, how easily they roll, so it only makes sense the truck will get better mileage.”

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Tomlinson also runs retreads. South Shore used to run them only on trailers; now they’re retreading drive tires, and those that still have the possibility of being retreaded they plan  to move to trailer positions later. His decision to use retreads is based on what he sees as improvements in the technology. “We watch air pressures a lot more closely now,” he adds, which helps support the decision. Plus, he says, “Buying a retread, I don’t have to worry about throwing the tire in a landfill or using up oil to make new casings––and, at less than half the cost of a new tire, I get a break on the price, too.”

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Other than tires, a focus for cost-savings comes from slowing trucks down for increased fuel efficiency. To accomplish this, Tomlinson educates drivers to help them change their driving habits and he changes some onboard engine computer parameters, as well. “From just paying attention, doing some better research and slowing trucks down a little bit, we gained about 0.8 MPG, which is a big plus, especially when fuel was high,” says Tomlinson. “And now that fuel cost is down, we still reap benefits.”

In the shop, Tomlinson says the fleet brought things up-to-date with the purchase of a maintenance software system, Dossier by Arsenault. He says it lets them keep better track of equipment and keep up with maintenance schedules––of special importance since some tractors and trailers are serviced by outside vendors.

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The fleet used to drain oil at 15,000 miles, but it changed brands and it is taking used oil samples, which allows it to extend to 30,000-mile drain intervals on linehaul tractors. The fleet uses Chevron lubricant and receives sample results e-mailed through its LubeWatch oil analysis program. Tomlinson also had greasing systems installed on the tractors so they’re being greased automatically, except for the driveshafts. “That’s another green scenario,” he says, “in addition to not using as much oil because of doubling our drain interval.”

What advice does Tomlinson have for other fleet maintainers for making the most with the least? He recommends they standardize and simplify, especially with parts on trailers. “If we start seeing recurring broken fender braces, we need to decide what to do to change that or make sure we keep them all the same so we only need to stock just a few types,” he explains. They still have 1988 trailers. “We mainly run East flatbeds—they are pretty bullet-proof, but they have changed brackets and hangers. Most all are the same, so we don’t have to keep inventory really high to meet our needs.” He standardizes on the same types of lights and the same types of wheels for his trailers, too.

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Tomlinson also sees  benefits from maintaining good communication with technicians. “You’ve got to talk to your people. Pay attention to what technicians are doing and ask them questions so they can give you advice,” he says. “Everybody together figures out the best way of taking care of a problem.”

Team building is a tough business these days. “Everybody has their little quirks and you need to play to those a little bit; you need to be able to adjust what you do with how they act.” He credits his team for the cost-saving results. “We’ve tried to minimize our breakdowns and made our fuel mileage go up. We’ve saved some on tires. It’s working and that’s the deal right there—but it takes all of the guys out in the shop to do it.”

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How’s business? He says, “We’re seeing it tend to get a bit busier.” Let’s hope that trend continues. 

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