Construction Fleets Building Blocks For Success

With the construction business booming, fleets throughout the country are scrambling to keep pace with demand. Finding enough equipment and - more importantly - enough drivers to slip behind the wheel continues to be the toughest challenge.The dynamics are pretty simple. Take a strong economy and add money. That, teamed with low interest rates, has pumped capital into commercial and residential spending.

With the construction business booming, fleets throughout the country are scrambling to keep pace with demand. Finding enough equipment and - more importantly - enough drivers to slip behind the wheel continues to be the toughest challenge.

The dynamics are pretty simple. Take a strong economy and add money. That, teamed with low interest rates, has pumped capital into commercial and residential spending. In addition, last year's highway bill ensures that the money spigot for road construction will stay wide open.

Weight, or rather saving it, is the key to Midwest Transit's operation, says Randy Rubenzer, president of the Bloomer, Wis.-based dump fleet. "It always comes back to who's got the lightest truck." Rubenzer's 50-unit fleet is divided almost evenly between the Peterbilt 378 and the 377A/E.

Most of Midwest's work focuses on delivering asphalt for road construction within a 100-mile radius of the company's base in western Wisconsin. Also keeping Rubenzer busy, especially at this time of year, is hauling salt for road clearing. In addition, he hauls lime to local farmers and trash to area landfills. Regardless of what he hauls in his dumps, the formula for success remains the same - a lighter truck means a greater payload and more revenue.

Rubenzer worked closely with his dealer to determine his equipment specifications. He shifted to aluminum wheels and hubs for a 1,000-lb. weight savings on his quad-axle dumps. Aluminum crossmembers shaved off another 300 lb. Spec'ing the Caterpillar C-12 engine instead of the 14-liter engine he had been running saved yet another 1,000 lb.

"You save a few pounds with 110-gal. aluminum fuel tanks, a few with a different style of pusher axle, a few more here, and few there - and soon you're at a 5,000-lb. difference," Rubenzer points out. "That's huge."

Sure, he pays more up-front for such lightweight options. "But our trucks are able to gross an additional $5 an hour." With a 50-hour week, that translates into roughly $1,000 a month. "I figure we get back everything we paid to make the truck light and maximize our payload during the first year. And since we keep the trucks four to five years, those spec'ing decisions are rewarding us long after we've paid for them."

Attracting drivers is the number-one challenge for Weldon Koy, vice president of a 40-year-old family business, Koy Concrete, a concrete manufacturer and fleet with three locations sprinkled around Houston.

Koy operates 35 cement mixers and six dumps; the fleet is evenly divided between Freightliners and Navistars. His buying decision is simple. "Whoever can supply me with the truck when I need it," he says. The brisk business demand does not afford him the luxury of waiting to take delivery of a new truck months down the road.

Under the cab, the guts of the unit remain consistent. "We're big on standardization," says Koy. "That allows us to interchange parts and keep a minimum amount of spare parts."

Plus, the common spec provides a more reliable barometer of performance. "The same problems tend to pop up at the same time," says Koy. Power is supplied by a Cummins M-11 with electronic throttle at the rear to protect units from over-revving during loading. The powerplant provides "plenty of power" for the 10-yard loads, as well as for getting into and out of construction sites. All units are single-frame construction, with Meritor RT40-160 rears and front- and rear-locking differentials to provide greater traction.

The cabs ride on Chalmers 46,000-lb. air suspensions, providing a smoother ride when the truck is empty. Just a couple of years back, Koy switched from spoke wheels to hub-piloted, which provide better mileage and simply look better, he says.

Koy turns his equipment in the 7- to 10-year range, although he notes that he still has some units dating back to the early 1980s. He looks to get 9,000 engine hours out of his power. In addition to the engine, Koy pays close attention to the transmission, the rear axle, and the drum. If three out of the four are shot, the truck will be traded. Otherwise, he cannibalizes the unit.

Like Koy, Allied Readymix, Decatur, Ga., relies on a dual sourcing strategy. The manufacturer of concrete and concrete block runs 300 Class 8 vehicles - 270 rear-discharge ready-mix units and 60 tractor flatbed trailers for hauling the block. Operations are conducted within a 60-mile radius of Decatur.

Nearly 80% of the units are Mack, but Paul Heller, vp-fleet operations, has also purchased vehicles from Navistar.

The spec, which has remained unchanged for a decade, features a 210-222-in. wheelbase with double-frame construction and 20,000-lb. front axles teamed with 46,000-lb. rears. Macks are powered by a 275-hp. Mack

EM-275 multispeed engine. Units are turned every 10-12 years and Heller depends on one of five shops and 25 technicians to keep the fleet up and running.

The only major change in that spec has come as a result of regulatory mandates (antilock brakes and electronic engines) or the need to increase driver retention (air conditioning and air-ride seats).

Although not much has changed in his equipment order, Heller is pleased to note that durability and performance have continued to improve. Today, he has one mechanic taking care of 20 trucks. That compares to one mechanic for 10 trucks at the beginning of the decade.

Despite the better work ratio, attracting and retaining good shop people remains a high priority. Although he has considered outsourcing, he says independent shops face the same staffing quandary he does. Plus, the service is not what you really want. "You have to go behind them and check," he says, citing the time one of his rigs came back without an oil filter.

With unemployment in the Atlanta area hovering at 3%, Heller has struggled to seat his trucks. "There is no bigger issue," says Heller, who has seen his driver turnover rate increase from 25% a couple of years back to its current level of 35%.

So important is attracting and retaining the right drivers that Lee Cooper, exec. vp for Barnhill Contracting Co., Tarboro, N.C., has incorporated the driver into his spec'ing decision. Barnhill operates a fleet of 600 licensed vehicles running from pickups to tractor-trailers and Class 8 dump trucks, in addition to bulldozers, scrapers, asphalt plants, and paving equipment.

"The equipment is getting better and everybody has made vast improvements, but with less experienced people we run into a lot of abuse that causes maintenance and repair headaches," says Cooper.

Buying decisions are made with the operator in mind. "We always want to buy the most economical unit once it meets certain operator comfort and productivity thresholds," he explains. "We've always valued the operator's input in equipment decisions. Today we won't buy a machine that isn't air conditioned and equipped with an AM/FM radio, where 10 years ago we would have."

Cooper also shifted to Allison automatic transmissions in his dump trucks as a means to attract less skilled drivers. "We found that we could train unskilled drivers faster. Besides, our skilled drivers didn't like changing gears either."

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