IRTE Skills Challenge 2011 06 July 2011

For the bus and coach technician finalists, last month's two-day contest was testament to their engineering prowess. Brian Tinham reviews the IRTE's inaugural event

If there is one point upon which all sponsors of last month's finals of the IRTE Skills Challenge – the competition to find the best technicians and operators from the bus and coach sector – are agreed, it is that the entrants' standards were exemplary. As Richard Belton, deputy chief executive of hosting organisation S&B Automotive Academy, who was instrumental in developing the tests with the sponsoring organisations, put it: "The standard overall was simply excellent. There was some outstanding work, which also proves that our tests were set at right level."

Staged at S&B Automotive Academy's impressive Bristol engineering headquarters, the two-day event saw five teams and individual technicians competing for the top honours in trials that stretched their abilities across mechanical, electrical and bodywork maintenance and repair.

The test stations were provided and run by S&B staff and the sponsors (Allison Transmissions, Bridgestone, Cummins, Knorr-Bremse and Shell), with support in the form of chassis, equipment and components from Arriva, Optare, MAN, Scania and S&B itself. Meanwhile, the assessors were seconded from the sponsors' technical departments, while S&B examiners co-ordinated marking, ensuring that standards remained consistent and competence criteria were met.

Looking at the main workshop challenges, they were extremely wide-ranging. Fault finding tests on the mechanical and electrical sides covered: brakes (mechanical and electrical), tyres, wheels, transmission systems and engines. And there were additional vehicle electrical faults, door problems, electrical non-start issues, and measurement and inspection tasks to complete, all within 20—30 minutes. Then on the bodywork side, technicians were faced with difficult fibreglass repairs, MAG welding, panel fabrication and structural bonding jobs over a period of several hours, culminating in a series of questions.

Allison Transmissions, for example, hosted the driveline test station, with faults set up on a Scania bus, provided by Arriva for the trials. According to Ricardo Sardelli, UK area manager for Allison Transmissions, this was less about the firm's diagnostics equipment – Allison DOC (Diagnostic Optimised Connection) – and more about challenging the technicians to find and diagnose mechanical faults, such as chaffed pipes and damaged unions, that they are likely to see in service.

"Our tests were drawn form the field – for example, diagnosing the cause of a vehicle failing to deliver the gear range properly," explains Sardelli. "It might not be the electronics; it could be caused by incorrect cable adjustment on the shift selector, due to cable stretch or poor installation, which wouldn't then allow the transmission to attain proper drive."

As for the tyres and wheels testing station, Bridgestone was in charge, with nine tyres provided, each having different faults for the technicians to find and describe probable causes and remedial actions. Stuart Attfield, commercial marketing analyst with Bridgestone, states that faults ranged from sloped wear across the tyre tread, due to a mechanical defect – most likely alignment or tracking on the bus – to a bulge on an inner liner and shoulder, which was the result of impact damage. Other faults for the finalists included: irregular wear, accelerated wear to tyre shoulders, cracking between the blocks, severe damage to side walls, damage to a tyre inner and damage to the rubber in the bead area – in that case due to excessive removal and fitting.

Meanwhile, Cummins provided the engines for the power plant test station. Tests included examining the technicians' skills in adjusting valve clearances. That might sound basic but as Mark Dunk, Cummins European marketing and communications manager, points out, is increasingly important, with bus and coach operators required to keep within the emissions targets of Euro 5 engines. Throughout, the tests' emphasis was on accuracy and a methodical approach.

Elsewhere, Knorr-Bremse's test station centred on diagnosing braking faults likely to be found in service, with mechanics and electricians required to work together on an Arriva Optare bus and S&B's newly refurbished air brake testing board. John Simmons, Knorr-Bremse's bus and coach account manger, says the tests centred on an ABS modulator fault and a wiring issue. He describes the tasks as challenging the technicians' understanding of everything from wiring and piping diagrams to the ABS diagnostic equipment, while demonstrating logical procedures – and doing so against the clock.

Tremendous achievements
These were not trivial tasks, and the SOE (IRTE's umbrella organisation) says that it is delighted with the technicians' performance, and grateful in particular to S&B Automotive Academy for its herculean effort in making this major event possible. "The IRTE Skills Challenge represents precisely the IRTE's key aims – to support, recognise and reward competence," comments Nick Jones, SOE chief executive. "Engineering professionals are an essential part of society and none more so than those technicians working on buses and coaches. So we wish all those who took part well, and our congratulations go to the winners."

He and others also point to the wider implications of the Skills challenge for the transport industry. As Richard Harrington, chief engineer at Go-Ahead London, one of the participating operators, puts it: "The Skills Challenge shows the industry that the public are travelling on vehicles that are maintained by a highly skilled and motivated workforce."

For S&B's Belton the inaugural Skills Challenge was "a cutting edge event", for the first time bringing all the disciplines under one roof. "We now hope this event will become an annual mainstay, and that we'll see next year's contestants back here at the academy next year. For us, it's about supporting the transport industry, the operators and manufacturers themselves, their technicians, as well as the accreting bodies, which we see as extremely important. But it's also about showcasing our facilities for technician training and continuous improvement in the transport industry."

Knorr-Bremse's Simmons agrees: "The Skills Challenge was a very positive experience for everyone involved. For us, it's all about working with the bus operators and helping them to improve maintenance procedures and their technicians' diagnostic skills. That's important, given the sophistication of modern electronic braking systems. Getting this right reduces maintenance costs and downtime, and makes bus and coach operators more profitable."

"It was an excellent event," comments Bridgestone's Attfield. "Not only could you see the passion, enthusiasm and capabilities of these bus companies' technicians, but also they got to discover their strengths and some of their weaknesses in a great working environment. It was an incredible opportunity for the operators and we were delighted to promote and support it."

Bring it on
Attfield is one among many who feel the next job is to build on the success of the Skills Challenge. "There's so much scope with this event," he says. "We're committed to growing in this industry, and that includes improving skills though major events like this. Now, we're keen to get even more bus and coach companies fired-up and involved for next year."

"Well done to the SOE and IRTE for taking this original idea from Arriva, and making it available to the whole bus and coach industry," comments Allison Transmissions' Sardelli. "Proper maintenance is the route to getting the best out of any equipment and we see the IRTE Skills Challenge as important in our role of helping to bring on best practice."

Winners of the IRTE Skills Challenge 2011
Top Scoring Mechanical Technician Award, presented by Allison Transmission: William Scott of Translink,
Top Scoring Electrical Technician Award,
Top Scoring Body Technician Award, presented by Shell FuelSave for Diesel: Gary Jones of Arriva
Electrical, Mechanical and Body Team Award, presented by Knorr-Bremse: Go Ahead
Mechanical and Electrical Combined Award, presented by Bridgestone: Go Ahead
Best Collaboration on Teamwork Challenge Award, presented by IRTE: Translink

Brian Tinham

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