How WiFi keeps Penske trucks on the road

A global transportation company found that wireless connectivity was the key to efficient truck maintenance.

At Penske Corp., the global transportation company built by former race car driver Roger Penske, time has always been of the essence - both on the track and off. That credo extends to Penske Truck Leasing (PTL), a full-service truck leasing and rental business that supplies, operates, and maintains more than 240,000 vehicles for corporate customers at nearly 700 locations in North America. Those trucks deliver the goods that make the economy hum, and they don't make money when they're not on the road.

Seventy percent of the freight transported annually in the U.S. is moved by truck. Nobody likes it when a $150,000 tractor-trailer is sitting in a repair shop instead of running down the highway with a load of fresh food or running shoes. That's why both PTL and its customers want trucks that have come in for repairs to be serviced thoroughly and quickly. And, it's also why PTL embarked on a company-wide project to reenvision its approach to fleet maintenance technology for the future.

PTL drew upon inspiration from its colleagues at Team Penske, the storied racing organization. When a Team Penske race car pulls into a pit-stop for a fuel fill-up and a tire change, seconds count. The pit crew knows exactly what to do; each step has been carefully studied, timed, choreographed, and practiced. When a Penske truck pulls into a PTL location for repairs, similarly, maintenance technicians need to apply the same methodical approach to get that truck back on the road quickly.  

Penske Truck Leasing
Penske Truck Leasing

Easier movements

Industrial engineers observed PTL technicians at work and performed an atypical time and motion study. They focused on the movements the technician had to make to enter and extract information from the computer. The results were revealing. Nearly two-thirds of the tech’s movements on the shop floor were towards a PC.

For the most part, they had the physical implements they needed to fix the trucks. Their toolboxes were on wheels and could easily be rolled right up to the vehicles. The problem wasn't getting access to the right wrench at the right time; it was getting access to the right digital information at the right time. The issue for the technicians was an outdated approach to managing information flows.

Trucks these days are complicated, complex pieces of machinery, highly dependent on software and circuitry. Technicians often need to consult manufacturer websites for guidance on how to fix a fuel pump or repair an exhaust system. And older wireless technology wasn't making it easy for them to do that.

"The technicians were going back and forth to a PC that was tethered to the wall by an Ethernet cable, because that's the port we put in 15 years ago," says Gregg Mangione, PTL's senior vice president for maintenance. "They were also going to a printer to print off a wiring diagram and the printer was way across the shop."

Cutting the cord

Mangione and his team quickly realized they needed to make information as readily accessible to the technicians as the tools in those rolling toolboxes. They decided to equip each technician with a tablet loaded with customized maintenance software. But before they could even think about executing their vision, they needed to upgrade their wireless network.

"We knew we were going to have a multitude of new devices on the shop floor that needed to work flawlessly in real time," says Mangione. "We had a 12-year-old infrastructure out there when it came to our access points, so we couldn't move forward with the vision and the projects until we upgraded those access points."

PTL calls its workers technicians for a reason. The term "mechanic" doesn't begin to capture the data-intensive nature of fixing a truck. Big trucks may look the same on the outside as they did a decade ago, but inside they have become highly sophisticated rolling computers. When something on the truck isn't working right, technicians need to interpret diagnostic fault codes generated by the vehicle's controllers.

In many cases chunky recalibration files must be downloaded and transferred to update the truck. "If the recalibrated software doesn't load perfectly onto the truck, the truck doesn't start," says Mangione. "Then you've got a big problem."

If the technician did not use the wired connection, the slower wireless access points caused confusion. 

"We were sending trucks out to dealers because we thought the diagnostic computer wasn't working," says Mangione. "The system used to time out. The technicians would become frustrated. They wouldn't know why it had timed out. They didn't know if it was the PC or the software. They basically said, 'I can't get this fixed, I've messed around with it for an hour.' So, we'd quit, and send it to the dealer."

But the problem wasn't the PC or the software. "We had a wireless infrastructure that needed upgrading," says Mike Krut, PTL's senior vice president for information technology. 

Penske Truck Leasing
Penske Truck Leasing
 

Network nirvana

Once PTL managers realized that upgrading the wireless system was the key to everything else they wanted to do to improve efficiency in their maintenance facilities, they installed new wireless infrastructure that expanded the capacity and reach of the network. Before there were two access points per location; now there is an average of seven. That's more than enough bandwidth to give every maintenance technician and supervisor a tablet. Like those toolboxes on wheels, PTL maintenance technology has become truly mobile.

Now, when a truck comes in for repair, technicians can use their tablets to access whatever information they need from a searchable knowledge base that includes a vast array of information from vehicle and component manufacturers.

Each tablet is equipped with a barcode reader and camera. Technicians no longer need to walk across the shop to the PC and the printer.  If they need to see a wiring diagram, it pops up on the screen. If they want to download and install a software recalibration, that can be done on the tablet as well, with no more worries about the download failing because the network has timed out. 

For complicated repairs, PTL has produced brief training videos that technicians can call up on their tablets. PTL has also rolled out a voice-activated system, so technicians can use their hands for fixing trucks instead of pointing at computer screens.

The wider reach of the new network means technicians can take care of trucks not just in the service bays but also in the area in front of the garage, known as the apron. That's important, says Mangione, because half of each location’s daily business comes from drivers who drop in without an appointment. Many repairs are relatively simple. PTL aims to get those jobs done right away, sometimes by pulling a technician temporarily off a more involved, scheduled maintenance job.

Now a tablet-enabled technician can work right on the apron, saving time for everyone. "We wouldn't be able to do that without the wireless coverage in the yard," says Mangione.

PTL expects to see significant increases in productivity from the new system. "This improves our efficiency and lets us handle more trucks at each location," says Krut. "If we can do a repair job in 15 minutes less, theoretically, think how that extrapolates across the organization."

Mangione says the biggest savings may come from the reduction in the number of trucks technicians have to send to dealers because they couldn't diagnose fault codes and install software recalibrations – issues that were directly attributable to the old wireless network. PTL aims to reduce expenditures on those repair referrals by 10-15% in 2017 compared to 2016. Trucks will get repaired quicker and back on the road quicker. And that's a concept to which race car drivers, pit crews, long-haul truckers and maintenance technicians can all relate.

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