Since electronics began changing the nature of drivetrain integration, a surprising number of other things are changing as well
Change in today's trucking environment is like a game of crack the whip. An innovation in one area can snap down the entire length of the industry, throwing the status quo left and right. Electronic drivetrain integration is one such whip-handle phenomena. It is transforming business processes for truck buyers, component suppliers, and vehicle manufacturers and creating a host of new truck performance capabilities.
Less hardware, more choices At one time, there was only one kind of drivetrain integration, the vertical kind, where one manufacturer supplied all the drivetrain components. "Our view is that we will see a substantial increase in integration, but it won't be all vertical," observes Steve Homcha, executive vp-engineering and product planning for Mack Trucks. "It will depend on the market needs in various segments. There will be a combination of vertically integrated drivetrains and what we call 'collaboratively integrated' drivetrains, where components from various suppliers will be combined into electronically integrated systems."
If virtually all systems will be integrated either vertically or via electronics, will this result in fewer choices for fleets? "Any way you look at it, there is consolidation going on," says Dan Farmer, assistant chief engineer for advanced technology at Kenworth Truck Co. "However, with each major component manufacturer there are so many ratings that there's enormous flexibility and choice. Think about the variety of engine-rpm ratings, the variety of transmissions and transmission-engine pairings, plus the variety of engine accessories, for example. The same 'basic' hardware package can now be configured in hundreds of different ways."
"Electronics enable manufacturers to cut down on the number of slight mechanical variations offered without necessarily sacrificing performance choices for customers," adds Tony Cook, manager of powertrain systems for Navistar International Transportation Corp. "However, that doesn't mean there won't still be quite a variety of hardware to choose from, and perhaps even more performance options."
"Electronics actually give you more choices than before," agrees Craig Brewster, assistant chief engineer for Peterbilt Motors Co. "There are more operating parameters to choose from on any given engine, for instance, and they can be customized without necessarily having to change out any actual hardware. In this case, less really is more."
Who does the spec'ing? The trend toward integrated drivetrain systems is changing not only trucks, but the process of vehicle specification, as well. "In the late 1970s and early 1980s, we were very strong about making our own spec recommendations," recalls Homcha. "Then in the late 1980s and 1990s, fleets began doing much of their own spec'ing, in the belief that they knew the most about their applications and about what worked based on experience. Now we're getting more involved in the spec'ing process again as fleets are focusing less on hardware and more on the operating characteristics they expect from their equipment.
"We see fewer and fewer customers coming in and saying, 'I want these specs,'" he explains. "Instead they say, 'I want this cost, this residual value, and these operating characteristics.' How to configure the truck to actually deliver that is largely up to us."
"We have initiated some component and spec packages, matched and integrated for particular applications, to offer to our dealers and end users," says Brewster. "This is not to limit choices, but to help optimize performance and reliability. These are combinations we have experience with, specs we know work very well. Optimizing performance is what integration is all about, and the truck OEM is uniquely positioned to contribute to the process."
"The vehicle manufacturer can do some things in the area of integration that component suppliers can't," offers Cook. "Many components have their own sensors, for example, but truck manufacturers can add other sensors to create additional capabilities. Driveline vibration sensors could work with the engine and the transmission, for instance, to take a vehicle out of vibration-producing operating conditions, even if the vibration is so slight that the driver would never detect it. Sensors in the trailer braking system could tell if there's a freeze in the trailer brake lines and instantly reduce engine torque so the tractor isn't pulling against a trailer with its brakes locked."
"Electronics make it possible for the truck manufacturer to orchestrate 'smart' components or assemblies into larger integrated systems to bring new capabilities to the customer," adds Farmer. "Now that we have anti-skid sensors on each wheel, for instance, we can also tell if a tire is low and provide the driver with a tire-specific warning. We can weigh the vehicle en route. We can have it shift differently depending upon the load. All this is thanks to integration, to end-to-end sensors on the truck."
In his remarks at the Truckload Carriers Assn. conference last March, James Hebe, president and CEO of Freightliner Corp., also addressed the subject of component integration and its impact on the vehicle spec'ing process. "The world of component sourcing, supplier alliances, vertical component integration and resultant vehicle efficiency is for sure going to change. If we do our job right and our suppliers do also, the end result should be transparent to you, the customer. ... Successful integration of all components into a seamless support network is more important than the seemingly important initial basis for choice of purchased or sourced components."
New levels of collaboration Successful integration of all components, regardless of source, is requiring new levels of collaboration among component suppliers, as well as between component suppliers and truck manufacturers. "Integration is definitely changing working relationships," notes Farmer. "Today, our suppliers have to be involved right up front because any single component change or problem has the potential to impact everything."
"Collaboration with suppliers begins sooner than it did in the past," agrees Navistar's Tony Cook. "You can't work in isolation. Suppliers are more in sync with one another's product plans than they've been in the past. They have to be."
"We actually have a number of full-time and some part-time component people who work with us here at Peterbilt every day," offers Brewster. "We began doing this about a year and a half ago and the program is growing. We're doing it to make sure our end product is fully integrated."
"Integration not only means we have to bring suppliers into product development projects sooner, it also means we have to do more sharing of proprietary information," adds Homcha. "This can mean working with fewer component manufacturers because we can't integrate all available components. It's not practical from a work standpoint, and there's some understandable reluctance to share proprietary information with everyone. At the end of the day, however, we all need to stay very customer-focused, to do what it takes to meet our customers' needs."
One of the things some customers worry about when it comes to drivetrain integration is maintenance. Will integrated systems be tougher and more expensive to service? Will processing warranty claims become problematical because integration will make it difficult to tell where the trouble actually began?
"At least theoretically, I appreciate why people might be concerned about maintenance, but I don't believe drivetrain integration actually has a negative impact on maintenance," says Cook. "The iron is still basically the same. And new diagnostic and even prognostic capabilities are actually making it easier to pinpoint problems.
"Certainly electronics will require new skills on the part of technicians, but they are not necessarily more difficult to master, they're just different than they were in the past," he notes. "We expect that integrated drivetrains will actually reduce so-called 'normal' warranty occurrences."
"In the past, it was common to trade-out the engine or other major components," adds Farmer. "So the ability to replace a component with a newer version of the same thing or with an entirely different model was a critical issue. Now people don't replace major components very often. Engines and other drivetrain components are designed to last the life of the vehicle and to work better."
Good news for used-truck buyers The lifetime of the vehicle includes its second life and perhaps a third and fourth as well. So what do integrated drivetrains mean for used truck buyers?
"Electronic integration of smart components allows us to repackage and reconfigure things much better than we could do with all-mechanical systems," offers Farmer. "This not only helps maintain residual values, it makes it easier for used-equipment buyers to also get a truck well-suited to their particular application. There's much less need to 'make do' with suboptimal specs just because you're not buying new."
The integrated future On-board systems integration, especially of drivetrain components, is not only changing equipment, it is changing the ways in which customers, manufacturers, and component suppliers all work together.
In other words, the collective functioning of smart components is mirrored in the growing trend toward collaborative initiatives among fleets and their equipment and component suppliers. And like the game of crack the whip, the effects of integration are still rippling through the industry.