Putting Together the Right Truck

Larry Essen will tell you that today’s Class 8 and medium-duty trucks come with an enormous range of capabilities that fleets never even dreamed were possible ten or even five years ago. However, Essen, the purchasing manager for Truckway Leasing and Rental in Cincinnati, OH, will also tell you that all the high-tech components packed into today’s trucks can make maintaining them more of a challenge

Larry Essen will tell you that today’s Class 8 and medium-duty trucks come with an enormous range of capabilities that fleets never even dreamed were possible ten or even five years ago.

However, Essen, the purchasing manager for Truckway Leasing and Rental in Cincinnati, OH, will also tell you that all the high-tech components packed into today’s trucks can make maintaining them more of a challenge – especially for technicians.

"The trick is to find the components that not only provide these types of driver comforts but can withstand the type of stresses and work load of a commercial vehicle without premature failure – coupled with having technicians familiar with the maintenance required for those components,” he says.

“Today's truck technicians need more than just mechanical knowledge,” adds Essen. “They have to be comfortable working with computers and be familiar with electrical systems. Truckway now uses CD-ROMs in place of mountains of paper service manuals. In the not too distant future we should be able to eliminate the CD-ROMs and get the information through the Internet.”

Essen, a Navy veteran who has been involved with trucking since 1963 and has worked at Truckway for 20 years, adds that keeping up with the rapid pace of technological upgrades to trucks is a challenge in its own right.

“Trucks aren’t the same year to year anymore – they come in with completely re-wired dashboards, next-generation satellite communication systems, even new electronic engine computer controls,” he says. “That makes for a more efficient and effective truck, but one that needs a new review on our part from a maintenance perspective.”

Starting with spec’ing

Truckway, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, believes that with so many options available, how trucks are spec’d from the start is a critical factor in how efficient and cost-effective the vehicles will be.

Truckway is what Mark Hervey, the company’s vp, calls a niche player. Its customers are primarily private fleets involved in food transportation, requiring refrigeration systems for their trailers.

“These fleets are looking to us to provide not only expertise but the biggest value for their dollar,” Hervey says. To do that, Truckway conducts a transportation analysis for each fleet, a process that can take upwards of a month to complete.

“We need to crawl inside their fleet operations and find out how they run the show,” Hervey explains. “Then we look at what they want from their trucks in terms of cost and capabilities and try to come up with a vehicle that meets those needs.”

Belinda Lindsey is in charge of dissecting that transportation analysis at Truckway, taking all of the customer requirements and coming up with a set of truck specs to meet them.

She says fuel economy and driver creature comforts are two areas given the most emphasis. In order to help retain drivers, most of Truckway’s customers request CD players and air-ride seats, as well as air suspensions for the truck’s chassis. Other items include wiring for microwave ovens and other appliances to create a "condo" sleeper environment. Power windows and motorized mirrors are also added to make the driver’s life easier.

The driver’s seat gets extra attention, says Lindsey. Not only is it an air-ride unit, but it also usually comes specified with adjustable lumbar supports and arm rests.

Lindsey also reviews what kinds of components will be involved in the truck as to their durability, warranty, and even failure rates to determine maintenance parameters. When she’s done, a typical analysis will run to four pages. It will tell customers how much their vehicles will weigh, maintenance intervals based on operating mileage, even how many times the customer can expect to open and close their trailer doors and how that will affect reefer maintenance patterns and life cycle.

“Some customers require that the trailer maintain minus 20 degrees Celsius, yet they’ll be keeping their doors open for extended loading and unloading operations,” she says. “From our experience, we know what kinds of components and specs will work in that application, and what won’t.”

That spec’ing knowledge comes from constantly monitoring component failure rates, says Essen. “We keep track of not just when components fail but why: Was it operator abuse? The work environment? That’s how we find out what works in certain applications and what doesn’t,” he says.

Staying a step ahead

Part of knowing what kinds of truck technology will work for a customer, and what won’t, also comes from keeping an eye on the future, says Hervey.

“We are always looking at new technology, such as satellite communication systems from Qualcomm and PeopleNet,” he explains. “Our customers may say they want it, but we need to make sure we develop the combination that will be the right fit for their operation.”

“We are looking at fleet truck specs mostly, not owner operator vehicles,” says Lindsey. “We also try to stick with one or two brands of components that meet or specs and our customers' needs at a cost we both can bear.”

That’s the hardest part, says Lindsey – putting together a truck that everyone can live with. “There are so many options, so much technology to choose from, that you can spend days or weeks developing truck specs,” she says. “The key is finding the right mix and tailor it to the customer’s operating needs.”

That sometimes can entail changing customer expectations a little, adds Essen. “Sometimes a customer will say they want big power, a 600-hp engine, for example,” he says. “But we know they don’t need that much power for their operational needs. We have to sit down and look at that and say, ‘Do you really want that much power? Because your fuel economy will go out the window.’ That changes how they look at things.”

Another issue is the rate of technological change for trucks has accelerated in recent years. For Essen, that translates into a lot of background training for Truckway’s mechanics long before the customer even uses the vehicles.

“When we get a new model of truck, we bring it into our main shop and have our mechanics strip it down,” he says. “We’ll take a week and let all of our personnel go through it. Our parts inventory people will look at it to see what kinds of parts we may need to stock up on. We’ll bring in representatives from the OEMs to teach our people about what’s new and how it works. We’ll even bring in our customer’s drivers for meetings to run them through what’s different on the new trucks. We always have to think ahead.”

Staying ahead of the curve for Truckway also means handling in-house a whole host of concerns, from licensing and permitting and tax reporting to tire and oil analysis.

“We don’t outsource anything because we need to have that knowledge on hand when our customers ask for it,” says Hervey. “Having that knowledge in-house allows us to look ‘outside the box’ as it were, to make sure we are getting the most we can out of these trucks for our customers.”

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