Government fleets deal with a wide variety of vehicles and equipment, between passenger cars and medium-duty trucks, heavy-duty trucks, and off-road equipment. Add in different makes and models for each type of asset, and keeping track of assets and their parts can seem impossible.
One way fleets are combatting this problem is through standardization. By narrowing their fleet operations to a few standard vehicles or critical components, fleets can increase efficiency and save money on inventory, training, and repairs.
What It Means to Standardize Vehicles
The concept of standardizing isn’t new. Before he was fleet manager for Osceola County, Fla., Hector Sierra Morales became familiar with standardization while in the U.S. Army, where he said all vehicles were standardized. When his supervisor and the local fire chief approached him about standardizing the county fleet, he knew all about the benefits.
“If you maintain the same equipment, your parts inventory will be smaller, and you will be able to have an idea of how many maintenance parts and specialty tools you need for your fleet. The maintenance of your equipment will be similar, and you will not need to have 20 different codes in your software for preventive maintenance,” he said. “The readiness of your equipment is important; you need to have your trucks in service, and having your technicians well-trained with the right parts in stock will reduce your downtime.”
Osceola County is standardizing its medium- and heavy-duty vehicles so they use the same engine, transmission, and tires. Sierra Morales began the process this year and expects to reduce his parts inventory by 25%, saving about $75,000 the first year.
For the Bonneville Power Administration in Oregon, building a standard work truck seemed like a no-brainer. The federal agency is a utility that maintains 2,300 assets. It also runs 17 transmission line crews that generally perform the same work and should require similarly upfitted trucks. However, each crew decided on its own specs, which made it difficult to move vehicles around between crews.
“We had significantly overweight work trucks and we were spending significantly more to upfit them than if we standardized. I was able to get those costs down by about 55-60%,” Sean Joyce, fleet manager, said.
This process isn’t a simple one. Changing the way a fleet purchases its vehicles will require support from management, technicians, and end users.
“The more non-standardization is entrenched in your organization, the harder it is to break it,” Joyce said. “You’ve got to have executive-level buy-in or senior management buy-in to drive and enforce that.”
Setting the Standards
This buy-in is especially important when deciding how to standardize. The City of Charlotte, N.C., is working to cut down its Class 7 and 8 trucks from four or five different makes and models to one standard cab, chassis, engine, and transmission. When deciding on the standards, Fleet Manager Chris Trull worked with the city’s fleet management advisory team, which is composed of the fleet coordinators from 10 user departments. Consulting with the advisory team and taking advantage of the knowledge within the shop, Trull said the technicians agreed on an engine they had the most experience with.
“We got their thoughts and considered that in our decision-making from an operational standpoint,” Trull said.
Joyce also consulted with stakeholders to find what fits best. Keeping the conversation open made users more willing to buy in.
“We bring in our technicians and the managers in that area and identify where the best bang for our buck is,” Joyce said. “With the operational functionality, we bring those end-user groups in and steer them toward a common solution versus 16 different solutions. We get buy-in by engaging them and making them part of the process.”
Sierra Morales noted that his fleet’s standardization process has been easier than most, since management and a user group actually approached him about making the change. When choosing the standards for Osceola County, he researched his fleet’s maintenance records and industry data to determine the most reliable vehicles.
Osceola County is also in the process of transitioning to new fleet and fuel management systems, which will ease the standardization process.
“I will be able to identify which equipment is underperforming and take the equipment to the shop before a major failure happens. For example, I have four dump trucks of the same model, weight, motor, and transmission. All of them are working on the same job site, but one of the trucks is using more fuel than the others. I will be able to identify the unit, do a mechanical inspection, and repair the truck if necessary,” Sierra Morales said.
Saving Time, Space, and Money
A major reason why fleets choose to standardize is the time savings that come along with it.
“We maintain parts stocking levels of around $1 million on-hand availability across all our shops,” Trull said. “Instead of having to train technicians on four or five different manufacturers of Class 7 and 8 trucks, we can focus on standardizing that training to help everybody across the board.”
The City of Moline, Ill., started the standardization process about 15 years ago. Rather than choosing specific models, the city decided to standardize manufacturers: 120 of its 176 on-road vehicles are Ford units, and 55 off-road units are John Deere.
“It’s much easier to become familiar with one manufacturer and to be able to work on the same units all the time,” Dave Mallum, fleet manager, said. “If you have a standardized fleet, your parts are not nearly as hard to manage because a lot of the vehicles share the same components.”
An added benefit of standardizing to a manufacturer is the relationship with the company. The City of Moline receives additional training through Ford and has received approval to handle warranty work on its vehicles.
Sierra Morales has seen similar benefits in standardizing with Pierce for its fire apparatus.
“Becoming a Pierce fleet, we have access to the Pierce website and can order parts specifically made for our fire apparatus using the job number and VIN of our apparatus. We can see every component of our apparatus in Pierce’s parts catalog,” he said. “Another benefit that we have is that we received free manufacturer training. This year my technicians are receiving $3,000 in training from Pierce at no cost to the county. [Pierce gives us] access to $5,300 of free training.”
The county’s Public Works Department, with dump trucks that are standardized with the fire apparatus, has seen similar benefits: free manufacturer training and priority in ordering and receiving parts.
Sierra Morales added that the Osceola County Fire Department is the first government fleet in the state authorized to do warranty work for Pierce fire apparatus, which he anticipates will save time when that work comes up.
“The authorization to do warranty is a pilot program that I have to say is great and will help us to reduce downtime in any of our fire apparatus under warranty,” Sierra Morales said.
Choosing Value, Not Price
For some fleets, a barrier to standardization is purchasing requirements. In some cases, like the City of Moline’s, fleets can find the lowest price for their standard models through state or cooperative contracts.
“It’s worked out well that these [vehicles] have been the most competitive price. A lot of these Ford items are ordered on the local state bids,” Mallum said.
However, value should also be considered in purchases. Standardization can bring along savings in parts and training. When purchasing new vehicles, it’s important to consider these savings when comparing the price of a standard model with any new bids.
“If I know I have to train these guys at $1,000 per technician and I’ve got 10 of them… that’s $10,000 I have to come up with to train them on this other machine,” Joyce said. “Do I get $10,000 of benefit out of that vehicle, whether it is out of the price or functionality?”
Value should include more than the vehicles as well. The Bonneville Power Administration manages assets at multiple sites, so emphasizing the savings from a universal part can help a fleet justify its purchases.
“We standardized on Cummins motors and the reason was because we had a bunch of engine generators at our remote substations and repeater sites up in the mountains that are all Cummins motors. I’m able to use the same diagnostic system to manage both of those,” Joyce said.
A Continuous Effort
Not all fleets are created equal, and standardization is not possible for all fleet operations. Whether standardization works depends on the variety of the jobs to be done, the vehicles and equipment needed, and the support of management and users.
It also requires patience, as replacing a whole fleet with standard models can take years. After about a year and a half, Trull said the City of Charlotte is about 25% done with standardizing, due to the limited budget of heavy-duty replacements.
This can be especially difficult for larger vehicles and equipment, which often come with longer life cycles.
“I don’t think we will ever fully be there because of the competition requirements and changing technologies. When you keep a man lift for 15-20 years, it’s hard to maintain a standard of any one manufacturer for any one period of time,” Joyce said.
Cutting down on variation within the fleet may also increase its vulnerability in the case of a recall. In some cases, a standardized fleet’s relationship with its manufacturer may give it access to replacement parts quickly. In other cases, this can lead to major downtime.
Although all of the fleet managers had some concerns about how a recall would affect their operation, none have faced serious downtime in past recalls and none considered the risk large enough to worry over.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Trull said.