Integration, specialization, collaboration — truck body and chassis builders are putting it together for fleets
The most important trend in straight trucks today is not on the bodies or the chassis; it's how they're coming together. Chassis and body manufacturers are teaming up to produce tightly integrated and highly specialized vehicles designed to deliver enhanced efficiency and peak performance to the vocational markets they serve — from construction to beverage delivery, landscaping to livestock hauling.
“One of the big shifts that is definitely taking place is the full integration of the chassis and body,” explains Alex Bernasconi, director of business class and vocational sales for Freightliner LLC. “This tighter integration is driving out cost, reducing installation time and improving performance.
“Chassis are being manufactured for very specific applications, with customized frame drilling and electrical and pneumatic connections,” he says. “Freightliner's new Condor, for example, has been designed to facilitate the installation of any number of refuse or other vehicle bodies. The frame rails and back of cab are clean, and the electrical system and wiring harnesses are easily accessible and feature quick disconnects. Wiring raceways in the cab have removable panels to provide a protected pathway, yet are easy to remove for adding circuits.”
Volvo's new VHD (Very High Demand) product was also designed specifically with body builders in mind, according to Rick Beavan, product manager for the refuse market segment at Volvo Trucks North America Inc.
“The VHD incorporates a number of electrical circuits and pneumatic connectors for the body builder as standard equipment,” he says. “For example, there's a 16-wire electrical harness under the floor mats between the seats in the cab. Body manufacturers can mount the control box there and, for most bodies we know of, if the connectors mate with ours they can just plug the body into the electrical system. What this harness has done for body installers is virtually eliminate the need to go into the dash or the engine to find the signals they need.
“A second pass-through harness with a connector on each end runs through the floor and hangs under the cab where it's easy to access,” Beavan continues. “The body builder just connects the body to that. We call the system ‘Drop & Lock’ because of the hours of installation time it saves.”
The VHD's air system, as well as the electrical system, has been customized to facilitate body installation, according to Beavan. “On the left-hand frame rail we've mounted a small manifold with four auxiliary air connections,” he says. “They each have push-to-connect fittings so that the body suppliers do not have to cut and splice into the chassis air brake system.
“We've also developed a new exhaust system,” Beavan continues. “The vertically mounted pipe runs up the side of the cab in a depression, so that a body can be mounted much closer to the cab. This allows more weight to be transferred to the front axle. Dump truck operators particularly appreciate this feature.”
Construction fleets are not the only ones looking for specialized features. Straight truck operators in virtually every vocational niche are responding to the unique pressures of their markets with demands for greater specialization to help drive out inefficiencies. According to Tim Davis, marketing consultant for Mickey Truck Bodies, market trends dictate the direction this equipment specialization will take.
“Some of our biggest markets are beverage, vending, home improvement and emergency vehicles,” he says, “and there are different trends in each segment. Generally speaking, however, straight trucks are all getting more specialized in response to demands for greater productivity. This is resulting in a proliferation of options, and not just with the major specifications, but in details such as lighting, shelving, security systems, door handles and door locks, bays and bumpers.
“For example, in the beverage industry one big trend is ‘born-on’ or freshness dating,” Davis explains. “Beer producers don't just brew and bottle anymore; they date-stamp their products and require that the beer be kept at a particular temperature — from bottling to delivery. The result is that we see more multi-compartment, multi-temperature beverage bodies equipped with sensors to monitor and record cargo temperature.
“The entire retail delivery business is also going through some major shifts,” Davis adds. “Consolidation, for instance, is a huge driver of change in the retail industry right now. Stores are getting bigger and farther apart. This means trucks are carrying bigger loads and more mixed product loads because those big stores want to take as few deliveries as possible. This is creating a demand for multi-compartment, multi-temperature trucks.
“There is also a demand for trucks that are easier to load and unload. This is increasing the number of orders we see for specialized shelving systems, rear- and side-loading variations and so on,” he notes.
“Changing industry regulations as well as changing market demands are also contributing to this trend toward specialization,” adds Bill Walker, commercial specialty vehicle manager for Blade Chevrolet, a dealership located in Mount Vernon, Wash. “For example, we have one private fleet customer who trucks caviar from Arlington, Wash., to the airport for shipment to Asia. In the past, they just took the frozen caviar to the airport in a dry van because the trip was too short to worry about it thawing.
“New regulations, however, require that they keep the caviar refrigerated at all times,” Walker says. “This meant a switch to reefer units, which cost twice the price of the dry vans. In this case, greater specialization was not a choice, it was the new cost of doing business.”
“The overall trend is definitely toward greater specialization, for a variety of reasons,” agrees Steve Joyce, sales manager for Montana-based Intercontinental Truck Body, a manufacturer of dry van and refrigerated bodies, as well as mobile workshops and other specialty bodies. “Even when they have a choice, truck buyers don't just want big white delivery vans at the lowest possible price. Fleets are looking for value, for efficiencies, for ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.
“Service occupations — like plumbers, electricians and heater/air conditioner companies, for example — are spec'ing wheel-well floors because that lowers the cab access by about four inches and their drivers have to climb in and out of the truck many times a day. Moving companies, on the other hand, want extra cubic capacity more than easy access,” Joyce illustrates. “Today, it is essential for body builders to be very serious students of the vocational markets they serve.”
This need to provide market-specific expertise is changing not only truck bodies and chassis, but the ways in which straight trucks are sold. At General Motors Isuzu Commercial Truck LLC (GMICT), for example, collaboration between the chassis supplier and body builders may even include team customer sales calls, according to Ed Crawford, vocational marketing manager.
“We take a rather unique and different approach to the whole spec'ing and sales process,” he notes. “Trucks with bodies are sold through our franchise dealers. What we've done in the past is partner with body builders to have completed units in pools that are available to our dealers. Over time, this working relationship with the body suppliers has grown to help us better address the needs of our mutual customers.
“Today, we not only cooperate to develop specifications, but we may also approach a particular marketplace together,” Crawford continues. “We may even call on customers together to make sure that we bring as much expertise as possible to address a fleet's particular equipment needs. This approach has been particularly helpful in vocational niche markets with highly specialized and complex requirements.”
Freightliner LLC and Wabash National Corp. are also collaborating, in this case to enhance service and convenience for their dry freight van customers. Last November, the two companies unveiled a program to sell truck chassis already equipped with Wabash's advanced DuraPlate van bodies. The integrated units will be available through Freightliner and Sterling dealerships. According to Wabash president Jerry Ehrlich, the concept represents “a streamlining of the supply chain to benefit our mutual customers.”
A ready-to-work dump truck is the result of collaborative efforts at International Truck and Engine Corp., where the company recently introduced its Integrated Dump Truck. “Since trucking is not a construction customer's business, International developed the Integrated Dump Truck to make it easier for customers to buy and own a truck,” explains Steve Keate, president of International's truck group.
In spite of all its potential benefits for fleets, the current boom in collaborative activity between chassis and body manufacturers is not entirely market-driven, however, notes Freightliner's Bernasconi. “Today's improved manufacturing methods and computer-aided design provide for reduced tolerances between parts, increasing opportunities for integration,” he explains.
“Every month that goes by, it gets easier to work together. And as we work together — chassis builders, body builders, dealers and customers — our trust and confidence in one another grows, business relationships deepen and expand, and the whole industry benefits.”
If you're in the market for straight trucks, particularly equipment for highly specialized applications, the first thing you should do is find salespeople who are knowledgeable about your type of operation. “Truck customers should look for a salesperson who's going to provide them with solutions, not just quote them prices,” says Ed Crawford, vocational marketing manager for General Motors Isuzu Commercial Truck.
“For starters, a good salesperson should be your consultant, ready and willing to analyze your equipment and tell you the good news and the bad about your current vehicles,” he notes. “They should also be eager to involve other experts, as necessary, to help you develop the right specs for your operation. A fleet today needs body builders and chassis suppliers who are prepared to take the time to know your business and then stick with you past the sale to help you plan ahead for future needs.”
“Even in retail delivery operations, expertise is a must because trucks are becoming so specialized,” agrees Tim Davis, long-time marketing consultant to Mickey Truck Bodies Inc. based in North Carolina. “Both you and your salesperson have to know your markets and be attuned to trends, or the trucks that looked good on paper might not work out on the street,” he says. “Your suppliers need to know your routes, your labor market, your customers, and your history with various chassis and body specs. Our sales people actually do what we call ‘ride-alongs’ — going with drivers on their runs.”
If you're not fortunate enough to already have a good working relationship with a salesperson who really understands your business, however, where do you start looking? One good place to find vocation-specific expertise is at your industry's trade organizations says Crawford. “Industry trade organizations are a great place to go for information and contacts,” he says. “The best truck and body sales people, like fleet operators, make it their business to belong to the organizations that focus on the specific vocational niches they serve.”
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