Equipment Type

The Coming Evolution in Equipment Service

Equipment complexity could bring changes in how machines are serviced, further straining the supply of competent technicians

September 26, 2013

Considering the technical complexity of today’s equipment—sophisticated electronic controls, Tier 4 engines, evermore precisely designed hydraulics, hybrid drive systems, and alternate-fuel configurations, for instance—we questioned if equipment users, generally, might be transferring more maintenance and repair work from their own shops to those of the dealer and specialty suppliers.

Roadtec's Factory-Service Model

Roadtec, a manufacturer of road-building equipment, is among a number of manufacturers working to cultivate a supply of technicians to support their equipment.

Because Roadtec does not use dealers, however, product support is handled by the factory via a number of avenues: experts at the factory who field customer calls; factory-owned satellite locations; authorized, factory-trained, third-party specialty shops (engine and hydraulic, for example); and a network of technicians, all Roadtec employees, located throughout North America and each with a fully equipped service truck.

“The key to our business model is direct contact with the customer,” says Eric Baker, Roadtec’s marketing manager. “We find that most problems are simple electrical or hydraulic issues, many of which can be resolved quickly over the phone, often without parts. Our new Guardian telematics system allows our factory people to remotely monitor a machine’s engine, hydraulic, electrical, and grade-control systems in detail—and in real time, which is a great advantage in a factory-direct-service model. But if an issue can’t be resolved, then a technician is dispatched.”

To meet the challenge of continually expanding its technician network, Roadtec has developed a two-year apprenticeship program, which requires candidates to spend time in the factory, as well as working with established technicians. A primary source of candidates for the program, says Baker, are ex-military people, who are recruited through veteran-placement services.

“Our approach to product support means that technicians are out in the field, working alone, and need to be self-motivated,” says Baker. “They don’t have a manager checking in with them every day, so you need people who are disciplined—and also willing to travel. We find that ex-military people fit well with those requirements.”

We’re not sure our research hit upon any definitive answers, but a point that kept emerging—and which will eventually have a significant affect on the question posed above—is that competent machine service, whether performed by the dealer, end user, or directly by the manufacturer, will hinge increasingly on astute technicians, and that competition for these skilled people will grow more intense, simply because sources of supply are limited.

“Of course, that’s no longer today’s news, because service shops have been struggling for some time to find and retain qualified career mechanics,” says Andy Agoos, a consultant with more than 40 years’ experience in front-line fleet-management with major contracting and equipment-rental firms.

“But it’s at a critical point now,” says Agoos. “As equipment manufacturers go high-tech, the ability for many general contractors to do any of their own repairs virtually disappears. That might push many, perhaps most, into total-maintenance-and-repair agreements with dealers, and as a consequence, contractors who have typically kept machines for long periods—maybe 10,000 or 12,000 hours—will be forced to rethink their replacement strategies.”

Given this scenario, dealers recognize the heart of the issue:

“I think all equipment dealers today are facing the challenges of recruiting and training technicians,” says Jim Dettore, product support manager for Patten Cat, a Caterpillar dealer based in Elmhurst, Ill. “Machine technology, of course, has been emerging at a rapid pace since the early-’90s, and our continual challenge there is related to training.”

Cliff Anglewicz, CEO and owner of Yes Equipment & Services, a JCB dealership in Menomonee Falls, Wis., is of like opinion:

“Things have changed. The first tool a tech pulls out today is the computer, and training is a way of life. As more machines become computer dependent, and as Tier 4 regulations kick in, dealers will be more involved. We have more and more shop work, because as techs become more difficult to find, users are more dependent on us. We haven’t seen a significant increase in maintenance packages, but we think that’s coming.”

We can’t paint the entire industry with the same brush, however, because a significant number of end users—typically those with large specialized fleets that might use cranes and mining machines—are maintaining the capability to handle much of their own repair. But even in these shops, fleet managers are rethinking maintenance strategies, making studied decisions about what stays in-house and what goes to the dealer, often based on whether in-house technicians have the right training.

According to Thad Pirtle, vice president/equipment manager for Traylor Bros., a large heavy/civil contractor with a fleet numbering between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces, the company continues to perform the majority of its own service work, but machine complexity and environmental issues have prompted change.

“Twenty years ago, we did probably 90 percent of our engine work in-house and sent 10 percent outside,” says Pirtle. “Today, those percentages are reversed, primarily because of the sophistication of engine electronics. We use the dealer to diagnose electronic engines, and also to calibrate engine electronics after we re-power a machine in our shop. Our repower projects are increasing, however—we have more than 25 underway at present—simply to meet the emissions standards being written into more and more contracts.

“For non-engine electronics, if we have a technician with appropriate training, we’ll do the service. If not, we call the dealer. When you have multiple brands of equipment on site, you’re probably not going to have a technician who has been to all the schools.”

Compared to 10 years ago, says Pirtle, technicians must be significantly more “computer literate and electronically savvy.” Traylor Bros. does extensive in-house training for the basics, such as fundamental electrical and hydraulic systems, he says, but relies heavily on the manufacturer for machine-specific training.

Recruiting and training

Patten Cat also relies on its manufacturer, Caterpillar, for much of its technician training, either instructor-led, or more frequently these days, says Dettore, online. But another source of training for Patten is the Operating Engineers’ Local 150 Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program, which trains both operators and technicians.

Brian Roland, Local 150’s technician department team leader, explains that the program for technicians has three facets: a two-year curriculum for high school students (involving students in classroom and shop work for two hours per day during their junior and senior years); continuous education for journeyman (qualified) technicians; and a five-year apprenticeship program. The apprenticeship program, governed through the Department of Labor, involves 864 hours of classroom/laboratory work and 8,000 job hours. Upon completion, students are classified as journeyman mechanics.

Competition is stiff for entry into the apprenticeship program; the typical candidate already has some sort of certification in diesel technology, says Roland, and only 12 new students have been enrolled annually since the program started in 2002. Growing interest, however, has prompted the decision to initiate two apprenticeship classes this year.

“Our goal,” says Roland, “is to train students to be excellent trouble-shooters. These are the people who will become more and more essential in dealer and contractor shops going forward.”

Local 150’s Roland and Patten Cat’s Dettore work together to develop specific courses for Patten’s journeyman technicians, a partnership arrangement that the Local promotes with all the signatory dealers in its jurisdiction.

For its supply of new technicians, however, Patten relies most on Caterpillar’s ThinkBIG Technician Education program, which is a two-year course of study offered through 21 colleges in 10 countries. According to Steve Hitch, manager of the ThinkBIG program, which began in 1998, the program to date has more than 3,300 graduates. Caterpillar developed and owns the curricula, says Hitch, and the partnering colleges add those courses required for an associate degree in applied science.

ThinkBIG students, each sponsored by a Caterpillar dealer, alternate intervals of classroom work with four eight-week internships in the dealer’s shop. The objective, says Hitch, is to develop a “sustainable skill level.”

But again, competition is intense. According to Mark Matthews, assistant professor at Illinois Central College (ICC) in East Peoria, Ill., and coordinator of the school’s ThinkBIG program, some 200 candidates typically apply for the 32 openings available each year at ICC. Acceptance is based on rigorous testing, says Matthews, but the selectivity pays off; within five years, he says, 50 percent of graduates are in dealer field-service trucks.

ThinkBIG graduates who want to continue their formal education and earn a bachelor degree in applied science, says Hitch, can move on to the ThinkBIGGER program, which is offered by Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kan.

John Deere Construction & Forestry’s Dealer Technician Program, “C&F Tech,” also is aimed at developing qualified technicians for its dealer network. The program, started in 2000, has established relationships with seven U.S. colleges, and an eighth will be added soon. In addition, the program has three key-partner schools in Canada.

According to Deven Wilson, C&F Tech manager, many of the programs are accredited through the AED Foundation (an affiliate of Associated Equipment Distributors) and adhere to standards developed through a partnership of dealers, manufacturers and educators. All graduates of the John Deere program, says Wilson, receive a two-year associate degree in diesel technology.

“The program allows students to team up with a dealer sponsor and a participating school for a combination of classroom and hands-on training,” says Wilson, “and the general-education courses that are part of the two-year degree program add significant personal and professional value for both the student and the dealer.”

The long-term service equation

To return full circle, consultant Andy Agoos sees an inevitable shift in the maintenance and repair of high-tech equipment away from the general contractor’s shop and into the dealer’s shop.

“If the auto industry is our model,” says Agoos, “then these changes might take 10 or more years to fully evolve, but the process has definitely already started. The equipment manufacturer’s role in all this is to engineer machines for easier trouble-shooting, which could mean designs that facilitate modular replacement.”

One final observation: Some in the industry who are seriously concerned about the shortage of qualified technicians recognize, on the one hand, that resources for training future technicians are limited. But on the other, they’re concerned that the supply of qualified candidates for the training that is available might be diminishing—candidates who demonstrate the basic aptitudes, discipline and desire to pursue a long-term vocation in machine service. Safely and competently servicing such equipment as 600-volt diesel/electric hybrids calls for intelligent, clear-thinking people.

 

Roadtec, a manufacturer of road-building equipment, is among a number of manufacturers working to cultivate a supply of technicians to support their equipment.

Because Roadtec does not use dealers, however, product support is handled by the factory via a number of avenues: experts at the factory who field customer calls; factory-owned satellite locations; authorized, factory-trained, third-party specialty shops (engine and hydraulic, for example); and a network of technicians, all Roadtec employees, located throughout North America and each with a fully equipped service truck.

“The key to our business model is direct contact with the customer,” says Eric Baker, Roadtec’s marketing manager. “We find that most problems are simple electrical or hydraulic issues, many of which can be resolved quickly over the phone, often without parts. Our new Guardian telematics system allows our factory people to remotely monitor a machine’s engine, hydraulic, electrical, and grade-control systems in detail—and in real time, which is a great advantage in a factory-direct-service model. But if an issue can’t be resolved, then a technician is dispatched.”

To meet the challenge of continually expanding its technician network, Roadtec has developed a two-year apprenticeship program, which requires candidates to spend time in the factory, as well as working with established technicians. A primary source of candidates for the program, says Baker, are ex-military people, who are recruited through veteran-placement services.

“Our approach to product support means that technicians are out in the field, working alone, and need to be self-motivated,” says Baker. “They don’t have a manager checking in with them every day, so you need people who are disciplined—and also willing to travel. We find that ex-military people fit well with those requirements.”

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