Most fleet-management trends have two sides — the pro and the con. But occasionally there's something afoot that is best examined from multiple perspectives.
Such is the case with integrated drivetrains. Conceptually and actually, these are not new. FLEET OWNER, for one, has been tracking the melding of drivetrain components into functionally integrated systems since the late 1980s.
But since then a lot of gears have spun. One thing that couldn't have been imagined when electronic advances began driving the integration of drivetrain components were archrival suppliers Dana and Eaton forging a unique marketing alliance that has essentially integrated their drivetrain product lines under the Roadranger aegis.
Not to be outdone, the industry's other major drivetrain supplier, ArvinMeritor, over roughly the same timeframe has grown its offerings to lay claim to market the broadest integrated drivetrain line from a single provider.
The short and long answer to what drove these developments is fleet owners who became ever hungrier to buy vehicles promising greater innovation and efficiency in the face of the harsh business climate that challenged truckers in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Those same market forces eventually split truck OEMs into essentially two distinct if un tk? camps — those that sell the truck builder's role as custom assembler and those that promote it as integrator.
Either way, fleets want trucks that cost less to buy and to run. But while hearing the claims of one company or another, fleet owners should also listen for some key undertones. Because the choices made today when spec'ing drivetrains will not only have a big impact on how vehicles perform. They may also, over time, influence how the industry's OEM and supplier base continues to be configured.
Back in the ‘80s, the big issue concerning drivetrain integration was the dearth of electronic standards to tie the big pieces together. That was resolved by the joint efforts of SAE and TMC that created recommended practices J1708 and J1587, which established a data link and communication standards for the electronic integration of components on heavy-duty vehicles.
Fast forward to now and consider what would happen if drivetrain integration were taken to the nth degree industrywide. If system engineering were greatly enhanced, components could conform exactly to individual vehicle model requirements, as has long been the case with cars.
But the downside of all that progress could be a vastly curtailed freedom of choice for fleets. In other words, could too much integration be a bad thing, eventually winnowing down the number of suppliers written into OEM spec data books?
With that in mind, consider how the two leading component supplier operations — the Dana-Eaton Roadranger and ArvinMeritor — as well as two OEMs with distinct operating philosophies see the accelerating trend of drivetrain integration impacting the trucking industry.
According to Rick Muth, general service manager for Roadranger field marketing, and Jim Rawsky, manager of support services, the Eaton- and Dana-branded components, as well as those of other suppliers, marketed under the Roadranger umbrella gives fleets the advantage of one point of contact.
“From our viewpoint,” says Muth, “an integrated drivetrain includes the major components from the flywheel to the wheel ends.”
Rawsky notes that “we have been working at integrating drivetrains since well before Eaton and Dana inked the marketing agreement. And fleets tell us they like working with one expert. They know they can have different nameplates and still use the same drivetrain.”
Muth says fleets benefit from spec'ing an integrated drivetrain in terms of benefiting from products that are jointly engineered but also because “there is no one to point fingers at” if there is a problem.
“And even though we offer integrated drivetrains,” says Muth, “there is a lot of spec'ing flexibility within the Eaton and Dana product families. The customer also of course still has the choice of OEM.”
Muth says the benefits of the two firms teaming up for drivetrain integration are many, including “access to individual sales and service reps who are assigned to customers; driver and technician training; 24-hr. call center; real-time warranty support, and genuine Roadranger parts.”
Further down the road, Muth and Rawsky say to expect vehicle systems to become even more integrated thanks to “smart” electronics.
“We are trying to get our arms around what fleets need regarding automated components such as EBS,” says Muth. “Smart systems could allow even more integration on board, which would further improve vehicle performance. We expect to eventually see the drive toward integration to result in not just smart but even predictive systems.”
According to Garrick Hu, vp-advanced engineering for ArvinMeritor commercial vehicle systems, the basic issue for OEMs is whether engineers can better design a system by working “with all the interfaces vs. picking items off a shelf.”
He says there is a clear difference between a pre-assembled or packaged subsystem that provides an OEM with supply-chain management benefits (such as ordering simplicity) and a truly integrated system that is expressly designed to optimize performance for the end user.
“Through component integration,” he explains, “an OEM can offer a system that is engineered to be maintenance-free or lighter in weight. So the choice for the buyer becomes what type of performance they want from the finished product instead of simply picking brand names.”
Hu jokingly makes the point that it's “easier for a customer to pick the right winning lottery number than the right specs from the 50,000 or so published options in OEM data books.”
In other words, he says bet on the experts getting the engineering right. “To deliver drivetrain performance to the OEM's customer,” says Hu, “a supplier has to be able to control all the interfaces through a broad portfolio of products.”
According to Hu, ArvinMeritor is working on integrated drivetrains that would be optimized to provide maintenance-free service for 500,000 miles or to take from 500 to 600 lb. out of the system.
He concedes this could be done “piecemeal” by combining components from different suppliers, but says an integrated approach can accomplish the gains without the complexities in purchasing and warranty administration that come from working with more than one drivetrain supplier. “Integration really takes you to a higher level of engineering that can accomplish more than what is achieved by simply packaging components,” Hu notes.
Despite single-sourcing offering such advantages to end users, Hu says some OEM databooks include a “punitive cost to discourage spec'ing our products.” But, he says “we believe we can sell on performance.”
Besides, as Hu sees it, a supplier can not just meet the needs of the OEM. “We really have two customers. Each supplier must work with the individual OEM to meet the fleet customer's needs. That's why we need to understand the complete customer base as well as an OEM.”
Hu says in the future integration may move beyond the drivetrain. “The suspension and the axle may be jointly engineered as a single system that is designed for performance by working closely with an OEM to determine the functionality they want built in.”
Of course, integration is also a factor after sale. “As you move to system engineering,” Hu points out, “integrated field support becomes more important. That's why we've established a new customer call center and taken some warranty responsibility away from our field staff to let them focus more on working with customers on product applications and improved service.”
According to Kenworth's Dan Farmer, asst. chief engineer-new product development, and Mike Gilbert, asst. chief engineer-new product development, the truck builder considers drivetrain integration an advantage to both OEMs and truck customers.
“The OEM gets to deal with fewer parts and gets better matching of components,” reasons Gilbert. “Not a lot of drivetrain integration was needed in the past but with today's electronics there is a much greater degree of communication between components and that's more development work, which impacts OEMs.
“Also driving integration is our desire to provide end users with the widest range of functionality,” Gilbert continues, “which is not the same as offering everything available on the market. The real question is do you offer every spec or decide which is the most functional combination for a specific application?”
“We've always had preferred specs listed in data books,” Farmer points out. “That may be because a component offers better performance. And if we feel a component's reliability is unproven, we will not want to encourage customers to spec it, so it will be assigned a less-preferred place in the data book.”
Farmer says he can understand how customers can be concerned about OEMs becoming too selective and thus too vertically integrated. “We are even seeing a swing in Europe, where our DAF subsidiary operates, away from the total vertical integration common in that market. At one time a DAF truck could only be fixed in a DAF dealership.
“That [business] model has disadvantages for customers,” he continues. “In fact, DAF has made good inroads in Europe by focusing more on customer value.”
As Farmer and Gilbert see it, fleets would be justly concerned if the European OEM model took root here. “Because of the complexity of equipment,” says Farmer, “the industry must move toward more integrated engineering to improve functionality and performance. As vehicle systems become more complex, fleets may not have the ability to spec components with the same expertise they once did.
“However,” he continues, “that does not mean vertical integration should be carried to the point that it limits information for spec'ing and maintenance or service points in the field, which could kill part sales to second and third owners. European OEMs have had a lock on parts and service and that won't fly here.”
“One size does not fit all in this market,” Gilbert concurs. “We may like to find the ‘best’ component but the reality is we find there are components that have superior performance in specific application.”
According to Susan Alt, vp-marketing for Volvo Trucks North America, fleets benefit from component integration “because the OEM has more fully tested the reliability and durability of the combination. Today's units have a lot more software; the more you have to get different pieces of software to talk to each other, the more difficult it is.”
Alt describes the question of integration in terms of the OEM and its customers being a two-way street. “Customers ask us, the OEM,” she remarks, “to give them a product that is reliable, that lowers their operating costs. To do that, the customer has to trust we know what we are doing. If you design the truck with a component manufacturer close to you (at time of design), the end product is more efficient. Isn't that worth something to the customer?”
On the other hand, Alt says that designing a truck that “works” with lots of different components can result in “sub-optimizing the whole package of efficiency. At the end of the day,” she states, “it is our brand that is plopped on the side of the truck. So if there is a problem, regardless if it is purely due to the component, the black eye goes to Volvo for not producing a quality truck.”
Alt points out that as an OEM, Volvo must also contend with “suppliers who go directly to the customer and offer a ‘spiff’ if they spec his component. This may help the customer's acquisition price but if we put that component into a sub-optimal design, and the trucks breaks down with an expensive time-critical load, then where is the savings?”
Overall, Alt says the trend toward component integration will reinforce the role of OEMs as truck manufacturers, not just assemblers. “I truly believe this will benefit the customer when you look at overall operating costs,” she sums up.
“I see the relationship of the OEM, the dealer and the end customer being much tighter — and a bigger reliance on old-fashioned trust will be part of that equation.”