Trucks at Your Service
No matter the size of fleet, contractors of every sort need at least one service truck to care for the fleet.
Whether it’s a half-ton pickup or a larger vehicle, grading and excavation contractors have learned that the right service truck makes a difference in project profitability. The right vehicle, equipped with the tools and parts inventory needed for onsite service and repairs, makes a big difference in time and cost for hauling an ailing machine back to the shop.
But another factor is fleet appearance. After all, potential customers are attracted or repelled by the looks of the service truck. Or, as the wife of one technician who can use his pickup-size service on weekends commented, “I don’t mind him taking me to dinner in his service truck—as long as there are no tools or parts rolling around in the back.”
The Big Push
But what’s happening to service-truck designs in this volatile industry? Speaking from his office in Noblesville, IN, Mark Boice, president of Warner Truck Bodies and Accessories, replies, “The biggest push industrywide is for standardization. We’re customer builders, with open-box bodies the most popular of our line of service-truck equipment.” Boice comments that while his company deals with custom bodies, turnaround time for an order is a scant three to four weeks.
Based just north of Indianapolis, Warner Bodies began in 1939, building specialized van bodies for the sales and service industries. Then one big company push came in 1997, when the firm began offering a line of standardized bodies. Standardization has lowered the cost of service bodies—which has helped the company broaden its market base. Heavier-gauge bodies are one element that attracts end users through a nationwide network of retailers. Today, the company has 100 employees and 16,000 square feet of manufacturing space.
What also helps this family firm compete with larger companies is Boice’s own work experience in building bodies. “Dad bought the business in 1985, and I began working in all aspects of the factory, starting with welding.” He became owner and president nearly four years ago.
|More and more truck fleets are including vehicles specially prepared to deal with the recurring exigencies of lubrication and maintenance.|
It seems that no matter how much a heavy piece of equipment tips the scale, lubrication and maintenance still are two factors that make a difference in the life of the machine. One answer has been to include a lube and mechanic’s equipment vehicle in the fleet, no matter where the vehicles have to go to get the job done. “We’ve been in business since 1973 and offer both standard and custom bodies,” explains Charley Schimmels of Carco Industries in Tualatin, OR. “Our lube bodies are designed for the tough work and severe conditions typically found in off-road environments. This includes the construction, aggregate, and mining industries.”
Up in Olympia, WA, Roger Smith, owner of R.L. Smith Logging, knows the vital role of a service truck for his fleet of seven. About 80% of his work involves repeat customers, while the other 20% are won on a bid basis. Being principally in the logging business, his machines have different challenges to meet, and a service truck helps to keep the work going. “We cut, yard, and load logs for mills within a 100-mile radius. We take care of all our heavy equipment ourselves, whether in the field or in the shop. Our field mechanic has been with us just four years, but he’s been doing service work for 35 years.”
Smith adds that the company’s principle customer is a major softwood supplier. “We do mostly clear-cutting of hemlock and fir,” he says. “Weyerhauser harvests timber stands they’ve planted. Typically, at harvest those trees are 40 years old and 100 feet tall.” He adds that road care is a relatively minor portion of the work, but there are times when roads have been eaten away by heavy rains.
Yet, when it comes to field repairs, he comments his service truck has helped keep costs down. “We keep our processors—which actually pick up 18-foot sections of logs—for 18,000 hours. Now and then, they get damaged. For example, we had one that got so badly dented it had to be repaired as soon as possible. Since our service truck includes a boom, it replaced the damaged vehicle while the mechanic welded together the torn metal.”
But the truck does more than sub for damaged processors. It also carries the equipment needed for making fairly sophisticated repairs right on the spot. “In this case we were 50 miles from the shop. By subbing for the processor, we saved $1,500 in production loss and a full day of downtime, which would have been the equivalent of another $1,000 loss. By having our own mechanics on the site with the equipment needed if something breaks down, we don’t have to wait for another day to get someone to fix it. Instead, they made the repair in less than three hours.” He agrees that instances such as that help quicken the return on investment for the service truck.
After pointing out that some repairs take just an hour or so, Smith told of what is first on his mind when looking for in a truck to carry the service body needed, “When I’m shopping, the first thing I look at is to make sure there is good ground clearance. I want something at least 15 inches high, because our roads can be muddy. We work year round, so we want something with good traction, especially when roads have an 18% grade.” To meet that challenge, he also specs a nine-gear transmission to handle rough off-road conditions yet maintain highway speed.
He comments that being on the coast, the actual rainfall in town is a scant 6–9 inches. But, when an hour or so away, there’s a big difference in rainfall and geography. “We’re on graded roads around the site. Sometimes we have to do the roadwork to get to the trees, but the companies we work for usually maintain the roads.” The company can take on minor road repairs because there is little rock in its neck of the woods.
“There’s been a lot of erosion in the timberline because of so much rain. During our last storm we got 9 inches in 24 hours. Sometimes, if it rains too much we can’t work. That tends to get mud into the stream. When we work in the winter, we do what we can to avoid any stream. That keeps my equipment from getting stuck in the mud, and the downstream guy appreciates the care we take so he’s not having to deal with muddy water.”
A Host of Add-Ons
At first glance, a line of six service bodies may seem a limited inventory. But a wide range of accessories aid in making the right service truck for the right job. This versatility is a major reason Monroe Custom Bodies in Greenfield, IN, makes it easy for potential customers to spec out their needs. Plus, cooperating with other component manufacturers aids in delivering a complete package.
National Sales Manager Jim Rowland explains, “Monroe Custom Utility Bodies has been building galvanneal steel, aluminum, and stainless-steel service utility bodies, specialty bodies, and a variety of truck accessories since 1969. We work directly with our distributors and end users. We listen to their needs because we feel the customer should have the final say in the design.” And, as with other successful body builders, the company makes sure its custom bodies meet all necessary codes. Also, when customers don't have engineering personnel to spec the products, Monroe Custom Bodies provides the engineering assistance, spec writing, and CAD drawings, all of which help ensure that the customer gets a service truck tailored to the company’s needs.
“Continuous communication and onsite interviews with the equipment users and their ideas help those customers deal with even the worst conditions,” Rowland says. “For example, our distributor partner [Hydratech/Lift-All of Fort Wayne, IN] received an order for several aerial trucks from PAR Electric in Kansas City, MO, with custom bodies that would include Lift-All’s aerial bucket. After discussions and meetings with PAR and Lift-All personnel, we manufactured the truck bodies to Par Electric’s specs based on the needs PAR originally provided to our OE [original equipment] customer. Lift-All attached their hydraulic boom and bucket and performed the final assembly. This type of custom body is the result of cooperation and coordination between several manufacturers and the end users.”
He adds, “Dave Swett, PAR’s equipment manager, takes a personal interest in providing his company’s people with working solutions. He has extensive knowledge of what the ‘guy in the field’ needs and was very helpful in making time to take me out to talk one on one with their field supervisors and the guys on the front line. As the result of an onsite visit, we are now involved in building more units for PAR’s fleet based on those interviews and some design enhancements Dave Swett requested that will further contribute to the ‘friendliness’ of service trucks.”
Rowland points out that PAR Electric and its associated companies have about 3,500 units nationally. Naturally, with a fleet that size and different conditions involved, diversity is essential. But having a large number of elements to customize the unit helps Monroe compete with other manufacturers.
Sophisticated Field Repair Levels
Dennis Heaton, whose father was a lineman, is general foreman for Par Electric. He says his mechanics can service wide range of equipment. “We cover a 40-mile radius here in Kansas City. We have three field mechanics, each with a service vehicle. The bigger the body the more chores our mechanics can handle. They work on trenchers, diggers, trucks, caterpillars, backhoes, excavators, trailers, pickup pole trailers, and other equipment.” In all, the field mechanics take care of 100 vehicles for Par’s local fleet supervised by Heaton.
|A service truck helps minimize downtime and boosts productivity.|
On any given day, there will be 70 units handling the various jobs. The work is divided so each portion is handled by a three-man crew.
“Our field mechanics travel from site to site for repairs and maintenance. We do send some equipment to the shop, but we try not to. But at times it’s kinda hard to keep ahead of repair needs,” he says. In one instance, a trencher suddenly had a broken trencher chain and a busted hydraulic hose. Fortunately, cell phones keep field mechanics aware of new problems, which decreases downtime.
“They carry the parts to do the job so they can get it done fast,” Heaton says. “If it’s a special need, they stop by the shop to get the part. This means we don’t have to haul it back to the shop.”
In one instance, a digger derrick was tamping around a pole when its hydraulic hose suddenly ended its life. Heaton first contacted the service truck to make sure the right hose was in the truck. “The mechanic was 20 miles away, but the job site was 40 miles from the shop. It took just an hour to replace the hose and get the digger derrick back on the job. Without the service truck, it would have taken at least half a day.”
Heaton reports that when it comes to service truck bodies, Par Electric looks for space, easy access, and room enough to take on heavy jobs in the field. “There has to be room enough for the inventory needed, such as working on dozers used for transmission-line installation. If we don’t have a particular part on hand, then we get it overnight and have the machine running early the next day.”
Service-truck response time is particularly crucial for a company with 1,500 to 2,000 employees. “If we didn’t have a service truck, we’d have to have more people on the site. This leads to crowding, which can slow down the work.”
With a company that size, although service trucks average 300,000 service miles, demand for a new vehicle is particularly high. “This year we got two new service trucks. One body went on a 550 Ford chassis and the other on a 2-ton Peterbilt. Both came with drawers with locking devices. We also went from electric to hydraulic because that gives the mechanics better performance with less wear and tear.”
Heaton then sums up another advantage service trucks provide: “We win repeat business because of service trucks.”
When It Gets Cold
Up in Canada, Wilcox Bodies of Mississauga, ON, is a popular choice for service bodies. Albert Ribeiro, sales manager, speaks from 32 years’ experience, “Many years of hands-on experience got me where I am today. Over the decades, the trend is for a lighter body. We’ve designed aluminum bodies, which give clients greater payload capacities and non-rusting bodies.” He notes the savings in weight averages about 30%, with only 10% increase in the purchase.
“More and more users are looking for turnkey packages,” Ribeiro says. “They want to get a truck ready for the road, ready to go to work. Cranes and compressors are most in demand in Canada. The trend is for a service truck with the weight capacity to utilize a crane for lift as well as reach. They’re looking for something that gives them enough air supply for their tools. Having enough air on demand, they can use several tools simultaneously rather than having to wait in line.” But even more critical is the need for bodies that can handle severe cold conditions.
Upgraded accessories help Wilcox ensure it keeps up with changes in the industry. That’s one reason this manufacturer that employs 60 built a new warehouse 15 minutes away in Milton. The company also expects to add 20 more employees this year. “We’re a family-owned business,” Ribeiro says. “Our goal this year is to reduce our turnaround time to eight to 10 weeks. Currently, a week’s experience is sufficient for even new hires to become comfortable with one of our trucks.”
In Office or Onsite
“Extreme cold and remoteness are two reasons there’s a growing demand for propane for heating offices as well as powering forklifts for those in the excavation field,” says Steve Lawn, national coordinator for Superior Propane. Speaking from his office in Guelph, ON, he comments that backup service, regardless of the industry involved, is essential.
“Whether it’s delivering cylinders or components for propane systems, service trucks play a role in our services. We do the majority of installation of propane systems ourselves. One problem is the extreme cold in northern Canada. In the Northwest Territories, for instance, temperatures can go as low as -40°C. The roads may be paved 10 to15 kilometers outside the city limits; then there are no paved roads. In Alberta, difficult terrains also add to the challenge to get on the sites with service trucks.”
Lawn adds that service trucks enable Superior Propane to take everything needed for installation at a site and do a complete job. “Some branches have to travel long distances, but most deal with a service radius up to 200 kilometers [120 miles]. So it’s much more cost- and time-effective to have everything we need to get the customer’s unit ready.” The strategy is to have enough fuel to get field equipment started and still have room for the parts needed for a complete installation on a single visit. After that, regular delivery intervals ensure contractors can keep their focus on their grading and excavation work, especially where vehicles are powered by propane.”
Other Manufacturers Talk
Speaking for Omaha Standard Inc. in Nebraska, Shane McDermott, western regional manager, offers a national view on changes in the service truck industry. “Trucks are becoming more standardized, more cookie-cutter configurations. Customers want lower cost and more storage. For us, bodies that fit three-quarter and one-ton vehicles are the most popular. The growth for service trucks is chiefly in metro areas, particularly in construction and utility work.”
Speaking from 21 years in the industry, Gary Hibna, western regional sales manager for Maintainer, Sheldon, IA, notes, “When it comes to lube trucks we’ve found 2-ton, heavy-duty units are particularly popular. The trend is for larger trucks, while some want larger bins to handle extra tools and
extra parts.” He notes that lead time for a custom order is 60–75 days, with standard unit deliveries taking the 150 line workers 4-6 weeks.
Distributor Speaks Out
In Phoenix, AZ, Fleetwest Transferable Truck Bodies has developed a body in either fiberglass or metal that can be transferred from truck to truck, in a matter of minutes. Says Rick Johnson, manager, “When an individual service truck operation takes on a transferable body, the need is to be able to switch the long-lasting body to successive vehicles, whether it’s a Ford, Chevy, or Dodge. Because the body is held in place with clamps instead of bolts inserted into the bed of the vehicle, the resale value of an older truck tends to be higher than normal. Furthermore, the body inserts into the bed of the carrier.”
Another advantage is that buyers can have the purchase shifted from the dealer’s delivery vehicle to the client’s own vehicle in 10 minutes. Delivery can be imaginative. Johnson recalls, “We delivered one to a guy in California at a Home Depot parking lot. It was just a matter of removing the body, jacking it up, and dropping it in the customer’s truck before he drove off the lot.”
Johnson points out they’ve been in business just three years, starting with Phoenix and now at four distribution points throughout the nation.
“Our line includes three steel bodies, with 60 cubic feet the most popular size,” he says. “They’re typically placed on three-quarter and one-ton trucks, while our fiberglass model fits half-ton pickups. The models are designed principally for smaller operations, including companies that provide lube and oil service to relatively small construction companies that find it less expensive to source out such field services.”
Last fall, Fleetwest Transferable Bodies added a compressor, a generator, and a welder as part of the package for one of their units. He notes the steel units are 16-gauge and designed to last a long time, while fiberglass units can provide 25 years of service because there is no plywood. “We have a plastic honeycomb floor. When you have wood, water will get in there no matter what is the structural body design and will begin to degrade.”
Among future changes Johnson sees in service trucks is that of greater work efficiency for mechanics using the vehicle. “Companies want to work as efficiently and productive as possible. Contracting is competitive, so one has to be very efficient and productive, especially when working on a low-bid process.”
He concludes, “Another trend is to go green, to conserve energy and waste.”
All in all, as grading and excavating equipment become even more sophisticated and jobs more technical, the service truck helps minimize downtime, boost productivity and win more and more customers who look to reputation and versatility rather than price as their prime consideration when buying a service vehicle.
Author's Bio: Journalist Joseph Lynn Tilton specializes in land and building issues.