When less is best

Whether the bits and pieces involved are described as low- or reduced-maintenance or extended-life components or vehicle features, today's Class 8 trucks bristle with innovations designed to cut down the amount of time, frequency or even effort that must be expended to keep these assets properly maintained. Given increasing concern about the impact a growing technician shortage (see cover story) is

Whether the bits and pieces involved are described as low- or reduced-maintenance or extended-life components or vehicle features, today's Class 8 trucks bristle with innovations designed to cut down the amount of time, frequency or even effort that must be expended to keep these assets properly maintained.

Given increasing concern about the impact a growing technician shortage (see cover story) is having on trucking, anything that can be done to safely reduce vehicle maintenance will be appreciated by fleet owners.

Well, yes — and no. OEMs tell FLEET OWNER that some low-maintenance improvements make their way into vehicles as part of the product-improvement process for vehicles and components alike, but others remain extra-cost options.

That's because not all fleets are willing to pay more up-front for such enhancements, even if they may lower the total cost of operation over the lifetime of a truck.

OEMs are not all entirely of the same mind on what is low maintenance — after all, it is merely a descriptive term — and a feature that is optional at one may be standard at another.

PREACHING IT

“I think that Peterbilt has had low maintenance in mind for years, even to the point of preaching it,” remarks national fleet sales manager Marty Kleker.

“It's not a trend to us, but what we have always done as a starting point. We have a number of standard components that offer a high degree of low-maintenance effort,” he continues. “These include maintenance-free aluminum hubs with added warranty coverage and synthetic transmission and axle lubes.

“And we have low-maintenance options,” points out Al Zwicky, Peterbilt's senior applications engineer. “For example, buyers can opt for disc brakes. They require a high capital investment but their maintenance requirements are less. There are also extended-life cam brakes that can be spec'd for maintenance savings.”

Kleker says what Pete aims to do is “offer the highest lifetime value at the lowest overall cost. How you package it together is part of the picture; using aluminum to construct the cab makes it less a maintenance concern.

“What we find,” he continues, “is the educated customer now knows purchasing is about more than the price. A fleet that will operate a truck for say seven years can appreciate the advantages of less maintenance and less downtime.”

Zwicky points out that besides working with component suppliers, an OEM can have a big impact on how accessible a truck is for maintenance to be performed. “We want to give the tech the ability to do things more easily, with greater access,” he explains. “For example, running lube lines through the frame rail means no one has to be in a pit.”

NOT FREE

David McKenna, Mack's powertrain product marketing manager, contends that “low maintenance does not mean maintenance-free — and there's no such thing as maintenance-free anyway.”

He suggests fleets not fully up to snuff on preventive maintenance (PM) compliance be especially aware of that distinction. “Put it this way, having a unitized front axle hub does not mean someone should not look at it. Maintenance may not be required but someone should still be looking at it, inspecting it.”

McKenna says it's up to the OEM to design-in serviceability, which saves maintenance time and effort. “Open the hood of a Mack and you see a truck with serviceability engineered into it,” he states.

As for who swings at the low-maintenance pitch, McKenna figures it's mainly fleets that “always look to lowering operating costs as they view the capital [purchase] cost as only a small part of overall life-time cost.”

He says refuse fleets are a good example of such buyers. “They will do whatever they can to keep trucks out of the shop just to avoid having to keep spare vehicles around.”

According to McKenna, government fleets are also keen on low-maintenance specs. “You can protect batteries from vibration by mounting them on optional $7 shock pads but few other than municipal fleets opt for this,”

McKenna adds that Mack makes a point of “constantly looking at customers' operations to see where we can recommend specs that will help them keep trucks running longer and with longer maintenance intervals.”

BLACK OR RED

“For any fleet manager, controlling life-cycle costs can mean the difference between a black or red bottom line,” says Steve Gilligan, Kenworth general marketing manager. “Fleets are definitely interested in exploring ways to further reduce their cost of operation and spec'ing for low maintenance is certainly one option.

“Synthetic lubes, low-maintenance aluminum hubs and a ‘no-lube’ fifth wheel are just several examples of spec'ing decisions that can extend service internals, resulting in reduced maintenance costs,” he continues.

Gilligan notes the OEM has published several white papers that delve into how to spec a truck for low maintenance. The “Kenworth White Paper On Life Cycle Cost” discusses how to spec everything from steer axles, to fifth wheels to help attain low maintenance costs, he states.

Gilligan says the newly released “Kenworth White Paper on Powertrain Spec'ing” provides recommendations on current generation heavy-duty engines, transmissions, cooling systems and related technology “to ensure minimum vehicle life-cycle costs, maximum performance and fuel economy.”

According to Jim Fancher, marketing product manager for Volvo Trucks North America, owner-operators and small fleet operators are the most receptive to low-maintenance specs. “Larger fleets don't see their trucks as frequently as small operators,” he points out, “and may worry more about major failures” if they don't rely on a traditional, conservative approach to maintenance.

On the other hand, Fancher says low-maintenance specs are there for the ordering, such as lube-for-life, sealed-for-life drivetrain components.

Turning to what's under the hood, he notes that Volvo has worked to enable a 30,000-mile oil-drain interval for its own D16 diesel and is now trying to extend that mark even further.

“As an OEM,” says Fancher, “we are looking to extend more than oil-drain intervals. For example, we can make belts last longer by going to a tensioner that eliminates tension measures so there's just a visual check needed for cracked belts.”

FINER POINT

Ken Bultemeier, heavy vehicle product engineer for International Truck and Engine Co., suggests a finer point can be put on the low-maintenance discussion.

“Maintenance is viewed by fleets as a business decision,” he contends. “While some have a low-maintenance focus, others may have [shop] infrastructure in place and may not be willing to pay more for less recommended maintenance.

“And some maintenance managers feel that if mechanics are not working on trucks, then potential problems will be missed,” Bultemeier remarks. “Of course, having less maintenance doesn't have to mean fewer inspections.”

Regardless of customer philosophy, Bultemeier says ultimately an OEM's key contribution to reducing maintenance is to design trucks to be easy to maintain in the first place. “The idea is to make it easy to work on when you have to work on it.”

Some of the examples he cites from International include seemingly small things like integrating splash shields into the hood so they “pull up out of the way” of techs; locating service items that need regular checking n just one side of the vehicle; and using visual checks for fluid levels as much as possible

“When it comes to low maintenance,” Bultemeier adds, “everyone has a different way to evaluate and cost-justify the specs.”

HEADACHE RELIEF

“Customers are constantly challenging us to provide vehicles that eliminate maintenance headaches,” says Jonathan Randall, director of product marketing for Freightliner Trucks.

He says low-maintenance enhancements advance on three interrelated fronts — via customer demand, supplier product changes and the OEM's own engineering.

“But regardless how ‘low maintenance’ a fleet is,” Randall adds, “there's no getting around the need for an effective PM program. For our part, we will do whatever we can to help make it easier for our customers to operate their businesses.

“Freightliner is working with some customers on extreme oil change intervals with certain filters and lubricants at this time,” he reports. “We're to the point now where we're looking at 100,000-mile oil change intervals, which can certainly be considered low-maintenance.”

Working to achieve such “extreme” intervals for a PM service item represents just one end of the technological spectrum of low-maintenance developments in the works.

According to Randall, Freightliner is working on lessening maintenance demands via progress in the field of electronic logic. “Freightliner Trucks provides the ability to configure electronic controls to meet customer needs,” he relates, “using ladder logic programming, which includes diagnostic functionality.”

BODY SMART

Such electronic advances are also evident in efforts by sister OEM Sterling Truck Corp. Last year the company released an interactive web-based program, the “Sterling Body Builder Guide,” that allows users to custom build L-Line trucks by adding or removing individual components on the cab and chassis as well as to “view” the entire truck as it is being built.

According to director of marketing Ann Demitruk, the advanced tool, available to Sterling dealers and body builders, shows the placement and dimensions of each component and produces a detailed printable graphic with all specs needed by body builders.

“The guide provides complete details for each specification and enables users to view the entire truck with each component selected,” says Demitruk.

While low maintenance features and specs will no doubt grow more popular as trucking struggles more and more to find qualified technicians in the years ahead, one idea should be kept paramount.

“Low maintenance is not no maintenance,” cautions Peterbilt's Zwicky. “It's one thing to extend intervals. But to protect the truck, you still must require a tech to get in there and check it.”

Short orders

A baker's dozen of specs, standard or optional, that various OEMs suggest will help reduce maintenance time or effort:

  • Adjustment-free clutches
  • Air disc brakes
  • Aluminum hubs
  • Dura-Bright wheels (Alcoa)
  • Engine access
  • Extended-life coolant
  • Extended-life drivelines
  • Extended-lube axles
  • Extended-service cam brakes
  • Low-lube fifth wheels
  • NoLube fifth wheels (Holland)
  • Synthetic axle & gearbox lubes
  • Visible fluid checks

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