It’s your ‘O’ licence 07 November 2013
Whether you opt for new vehicles on R&M packages or prefer in-house or independent workshops for new and used trucks and vans, you better make sure they're up to the job. Steve Banner reports
Having invested heavily in workshop equipment, technician training and parts stocks, franchised truck dealers are now determined to increase their share of the aftermarket. R&M (repair and maintenance) contracts represent a key weapon in their armoury and they are marketing them energetically.
"Over 50% of the trucks we supply are supported by R&M agreements that run for up to five years," says David Joyce, director of customer services for commercial vehicles at Mercedes-Benz. And: "Approximately 50—60% of the trucks we sell are sold with an R&M package," states John Davies, head of service and support at MAN.
Yet, while manufacturers undoubtedly offer comprehensive nationwide coverage (MAN's network alone boasts 69 workshops; Iveco's has 96; and DAF's 134) the presence of a truck maker's logo above the workshop door is not an automatic guarantee of competence.
Some dealers are exceptional. Some, alas, are not. That is why an independent yardstick of a workshop's capabilities, no matter whether it is franchised or non-franchised, is so vitally important, insists Ian Chisholm, head of operations and communications at the SOE – Society of Operations Engineers, the umbrella organisation for the IRTE (Institute of Road Transport Engineers).
He points to the IRTE's Workshop Accreditation scheme as a prime example of what he means. Accredited workshops, he says, have passed a comprehensive and demanding audit, carried out by engineers from the FTA (Freight Transport Association), covering everything from equipment, and the competence and experience of their staff, to the quality of the documentation the business generates.
It gives operators the ability to buy maintenance provision with confidence, he reasons, stating that accreditation lasts for three years. "Around 80% of operators use third party repairers to a greater or lesser extent and we introduced the programme in response to worries they expressed about the quality of the work being done on their vehicles," explains Chisholm.
"They wanted an independent standard they could refer to... Around 75 workshops have been accredited so far and there are another 20 or so in the pipeline," he adds. Back in June, Pullman Fleet Services, for example, announced that three more of its sites – Lea Green in St Helens, Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire and West Thurrock in Essex – all reached the standard as part of an ongoing accreditation programme. All three locations service the Co-operative Group.
Chisholm goes on to stress that, just as important as accreditation of the workshop itself, is irtec certification for the technicians employed there. He would like to see everybody required to work on a truck meeting the standard, which is valid for five years. "The road transport industry needs to wake up to the fact that the latest generation of trucks is highly sophisticated and needs a new breed of technician to look after them," he observes.
Re-launched three years ago, irtec – which is delivered by a partnership that includes the Institute of the Motor Industry and IMI Awards as well as the IRTE – has some way to go, however, before it embraces everybody who ought to meet its standard. "Around 3,500 people ae irtec licensed so far, but there could be as many as 30,000 truck technicians in the country," Chisholm remarks. "Nobody really knows."
Chisholm's view of irtec's importance is endorsed by John Parry, chairman of the irtec steering group. Now an industry consultant, he can look back on many years of senior engineering posts at some of the biggest truck fleets in the country, including stints with BRS and Exel Logistics.
Parry points to the strict requirement laid down by other industries – aviation for example – that technicians must hold independently-verified qualifications. He would like to see irtec licensing made a legal obligation for anybody who lays a spanner on a truck – or plugs a laptop into it. "Members of the public would be aghast if they were told that you don't need any qualifications whatsoever to be allowed to, say, maintain a spirit tanker," he remarks.
The Workshop Accreditation and irtec programmes do have their critics though. While applauding what they are trying to achieve, Volvo commercial aftersales director Tony Davis believes that the bar has not been set high enough. "The standard that has to be met is not as demanding as the standard Volvo requires," he observes.
MAN's Davies comments: "Around 50—60% of technicians working in the MAN network meet irtec. The figure is almost 100% at some sites and the aim is to have all of them assessed by the end of next year," he says. And he adds: "A number of MAN dealers also have Workshop Accreditation and the aim is to reach 100% there, too. However, I have to say that, it my opinion, the irtec standard set is too low."
"The trouble with manufacturers' own standards, though, is that they all tend to be a little bit different," counters Parry. What operators require is something independent and uniform so they can make a better-informed choice, he argues.
"Manufacturers are starting to come around to the importance of both Workshop Accreditation and irtec," says Chisholm. Partly, that may be due to traffic commissioners asking operators whether the people and facilities they use meet them.
"Workshops are also increasingly being told that, if they are not involved in, or working towards, accreditation and their technicians have not been irtec-assessed, then they will not be allowed to tender for truck maintenance work," Parry asserts. "By adopting this stance, fleets are setting the standard before looking to see who meets it, and then considering the cost. That has to be the right approach."
If more non-franchised workshops achieve Workshop Accreditation and employ irtec-assessed technicians, then that may result in some franchised dealers losing business. However, their ability to supply new trucks with R&M packages may prevent this from happening.
Davies thinks so: "At MAN, we've just done a deal with a major DIY chain that involves a seven-year R&M contract and we're offering two years' R&M and three years' warranty on all Euro 6 tractor units," he observes. That's attractive. Meanwhile, all DAF tractors come with a two-year R&M package as standard, and product marketing manager Phil Moon points to the fact that 1,100 of the 1,500 technicians in its network are already irtec-accredited.
In fact, DAF technicians undergo intense training and its network's workshops have all the equipment needed to diagnose faults and handle warranty work. Indeed, 40 are ATFs (Authorised Testing Facilities). Also, an account in good standing with a DAF dealer is covered by DAFaid, the manufacturer's 24/7 roadside rescue service. Operators also have access to DAF OE parts as well as to the successful TRP all-makes parts programme. "It is also worth noting that the network is achieving a 93—94% first-time MoT pass rate," says Moon.
That said, Parry briskly scotches any notion that the growing sophistication of trucks and the need for diagnostics means they always need to go back to franchised dealers for faults to be rectified, regardless of workshop standards. "Generic diagnostic equipment is available that enables independent and in-house workshops to deal with 90% of the problems they're likely to encounter," he insists. And EU competition legislation means that manufacturers are obliged to make diagnostics information freely available.
And it works. TNT Express, for example, has 24 main and six satellite workshops, and reports a 95.56% first-time MOT pass rate on its vehicles – rising to 99.21% for trailers. This operator points to cost control, legal responsibility (it is TNT's 'O' licence, not a dealer's) and response times (you can deal with a problem more quickly, if you have a workshop at your depot) as among main reasons why it favours in-house maintenance.
Incidentally, for the many operators that use a mix of franchised, non-franchised and in-house service and repair facilities, there is a need to monitor what is going on. Web-based platforms, available from companies such as R2C Online, make this much easier than it used to be – enabling fleets to keep track of everything from statutory inspections to defects notified by drivers from their daily walk-around checks.
The bottom line: it is the operator's 'O' licence, so while there's an element of horses for courses, all workshops need to be checked.
DAF Trucks Ltd
Freight Transport Association Ltd
MAN Truck & Bus UK Ltd
Mercedes-Benz UK Ltd
Pullman Fleet Services
Society of Operations Engineers
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