Labor shortages, production shutdowns and transportation delays have disrupted the worldwide supply chain and created shortages of materials and components necessary to manufacture new cars, trucks and buses.
Those shortages — caused by a combination of COVID-19, severe weather and fires at semiconductor manufacturing plants — also have trickled down to include the parts needed to keep existing vehicles on the road.
And while the motorcoach industry has yet to experience the level of parts shortages that have hobbled the automobile and trucking industries, some bus manufacturers and operators are reporting sporadic shortages of various parts — from sensors to tires to alternators — and some price increases.
Interviews with the major North American bus manufacturers and a random sampling of motorcoach operators indicate that they are managing to weather the intermittent shortages, which have left some buses sitting idle while waiting for parts. None said they considered the shortages even close to crisis levels at this point.
“Yeah, we absolutely are seeing shortages. We are having some challenges with certain commodities and suppliers,” said Brian Dewsnup, President of NFI Parts, the parts operation for bus manufacturers New Flyer and Motor Coach Industries (MCI). “There are some issues with microchip shortages and complications with international shippers. But it hasn’t brought the industry to its knees.”
Escot Bus Lines in Largo, Florida, is an example of an operator that has experienced some shortages. “My fleet manager has told me that we have seen delays on electronic parts, but ‘hard’ parts have been OK,” Escot President Brian Scott said. “We are having tire shortage issues also. We made a large bulk buy to try and get us through the end of the year.”
Pacific Coachways in Garden Grove, California, has experienced fewer issues. “We are not really having a problem,” company President Tom Giddens said. “There are some parts that are taking a little longer to get, but it has not created a problem for us yet.”
Bus manufacturers say they anticipated some level of shortages and acted accordingly, working with their suppliers and stocking up on parts they expected to be most in demand. Some made agreements with after-market parts suppliers to fill in any gaps.
Helping to temper the effects of any shortages is the fact that the motorcoach industry, which was virtually shut down for a year by the coronavirus pandemic, has been recovering slowly and is nowhere near pre-COVID-19 business levels. That has kept the demand for parts relatively low as operators continue to be careful with their spending.
“We’re seeing a lot of customers understandably hanging onto cash and having a smaller parts inventory on their shelves,” said Neil Wells, National Parts Manager for Turkish bus maker Temsa’s North American operations. “If the industry starts opening up in the fall, there could be a storm on the horizon. But at this point, we’re doing OK.” Wells said the company has a 90% fill rate on parts, down slightly from 92%-94% prior to the pandemic. “We’re happy with that number,” he said.
Thom Peebles, Vice President of Marketing at ABC Companies, which distributes Van Hool motorcoaches in North America, said the company increased its parts inventory “before this thing happened, optimizing our supply chain. As shortages started hitting, they were very intermittent and hard to predict. But overall, ABC has benefited by speaking to our suppliers and finding after-market alternatives.”
Peebles said the parts shortages can be attributed to three factors. They include raw material shortages caused when sharp declines in demand forced a drop-off in production. Second, labor shortages are making it a challenge for manufacturers to ramp up production fast enough to meet the increasing demand. And third, transportation limitations have slowed deliveries. Labor shortages have delayed the unloading of container ships, creating a shortage of containers and an increase in their price. That has significantly slowed the delivery of parts from overseas. A shortage of truck drivers also has slowed deliveries of parts in the United States.
“All of those three things are important and have been a challenge for everybody,” Peebles said.
Another major factor is the shortage of semiconductors that are necessary components of all modern vehicles. The computer chip shortage has hit the automobile industry the hardest, with major automakers temporarily shutting down plants because they can’t make cars without chips. The trucking industry has also reported thousands of semi-trucks being parked because they lack certain parts that require chips.
The chip shortage resulted in part from a slowdown in car sales during the pandemic, reducing demand by automakers. Chipmakers then shifted to supplying their products to the home electronics industry, which was booming because of high demand from homebound consumers. When auto sales began picking up, chipmakers couldn’t keep up with the demand. The chip shortage was aggravated by fires at two of the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers.
The scarcity of chips also has affected the bus and motorcoach industry, to a lesser extent, with manufacturers saying it appears to have mainly caused a shortage of diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) sensors. DEF devices inject fluid periodically into the exhaust to convert nitrogen oxides into nitrogen and water, reducing emissions. DEF sensors measure the level of fluid remaining in the DEF tank.
When the liquid level is low, the sensor sends a signal that triggers a warning light. If the light is ignored for too long, the vehicle will go into a reduced-power mode, restricting the motorcoach’s speed to 5 mph until fluid is added.
The problem is that if the sensor is faulty, it will warn of a low fluid level and reduce the vehicle’s power even if the DEF tank is full. Faulty sensors, as well as other equipment malfunctions, often result from motorcoaches sitting idle for long periods, which has been common since the industry shut down in March 2020 because of COVID-19.
“We’re trying not to hit the skids on that,” said Wells, of Temsa, adding that he has been working with manufacturers to keep the sensors in stock. “It looks like we’ll be good through the end of the year and into the first quarter,” he said.
Peebles, of ABC, said the company has been working with customers to determine whether the sensors really are faulty or if something else is causing the problem. “Our customer care service team makes sure the part is really bad and if it can be repaired rather than replaced,” he said.
The parts shortage also has affected the manufacture of new buses and motorcoaches to a limited extent. Dewsnup, of NFI Parts, said buses can be made even if some parts are unavailable, but they can’t be shipped until those parts are added.
“It is having an effect on production,” he said. “We can continue to build the buses and then come back later and add the part. That’s not ideal, but it is better than the alternative. It’s not a huge problem at this point.”
Whether the parts shortage gets worse or better in the coming months is hard to predict because there are so many uncertainties surrounding the pandemic.
“I’d like to believe things will get better,” Dewsnup said. “Forecasts indicate it gradually getting better from where we are today. There haven’t been many discussions about it getting worse, but we always have to be prepared.”