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How to Spec a Truck for the Application

August 2017, Work Truck - Feature

by Mike Antich - Also by this author

Over-spec’ing a truck increases the capitalized cost of the vehicle, while underspec’ing increases maintenance cost. (Photo: Getty Images)
Over-spec’ing a truck increases the capitalized cost of the vehicle, while underspec’ing increases maintenance cost. (Photo: Getty Images)

Building a truck is a complicated process. Specifying the right truck can require hundreds of decisions and choices — and each choice potentially impacts another. Fleet managers need to view work trucks as earning assets. To maximize the productivity of this working asset, it is necessary to optimize specifications.

Vehicle specifications should be defined by the fleet application and mission requirements. It is important to design a truck that will accommodate your operational requirements rather than trying to make your operation conform to the truck. The best way to optimize truck productivity is to spec the right vehicle for the fleet application. Without fully understanding the fleet application requirements and operating parameters, it is impossible to spec the best chassis, powertrain, and body necessary to optimize productivity.

Fleet managers understand how their trucks are intended to be used in the field; however, intended usage often does not match real-world usage. Consequently, the first step to correctly spec a truck is to meet and talk with the drivers or technicians who will be using the vehicle. By understanding the day-to-day application, you will be able to “build” a truck that meets their needs.

The key objective of your discussions with drivers or technicians is to match the truck with the fleet application. When meeting with end-users, ask questions about their current vehicles. For example, is the powertrain right for their application? Similarly, investigate whether the gross vehicle weight is adequate for the payload carried.

Or, is gross combination weight rating high enough if the vehicle will be towing a trailer?

Look at the existing truck and investigate the maintenance records. What type of problems has this truck had if any? This will help you determine if the current vehicle is under-spec’ed. If it is, then take the necessary steps to correct it. Usually, the majority of trucks that have unscheduled maintenance problems are underpowered and overloaded, which, in addition to increased shop time, results in increased driver downtime. Your maintenance records will reveal that most of the vehicles that experience repeated mechanical failures are under-spec’ed.

The foremost consideration when building a truck is payload. The weight of the payload determines the engine, transmission, size of tire, frame, and just about everything else. It is important to understand how a vehicle will be loaded and unloaded to determine whether a liftgate or pull-out ramp should be chosen for the truck body.

Ask how employees will load the payload. Do they use pallet jacks or forklifts? What are the dimensions of the payload? It is important to know the height requirements of the truck. For instance, if payload will be loaded and off-loaded at a dock, what is the dock height? If a forklift is utilized in loading or unloading payload, it is essential to have the forklift reinforcement option included in the body specifications. Also, know where and how your drivers are securing the load. Take into consideration the height and bulk of your product to ensure the truck has the proper cargo restraint system.

Determining Payload Needs

When consulting with end users, there are three components to determining payload requirement. The first is payload weight. How much weight will the truck need to carry in its daily workload? You need to determine the maximum need, not an average. The vehicle must be able to do the job every day with the maximum load at any given time. Payload weight will also help determine if the cargo can be loaded and unloaded by hand, or whether you will need a power liftgate or some other type of assist to get it up in the body or bed.

Another determinant is in the volume or size of the payload. The truck needs to be large enough to handle the volume. And, you need to know how the payload will be loaded. Is it stackable? Can you stack it right to the ceiling? Or, can only the floor space be used? How do you secure the product? Getting any of these factors wrong can mean the vehicle will be spec’ed incorrectly.

The third component is the type of payload. Are you hauling loose gravel, pallets, or boxes of merchandise? This will determine the type of truck and body combination you need to choose.

The best way to determine actual payload is to take a normally loaded truck and weigh it on a highway scale. Another practical tip is to weigh the front and rear axle. This will tell you if you are overloading the whole truck or just one of the axles.

It is important to find the balance between over-spec’ing and under-spec’ing a vehicle, each with its own unique set of consequences. Over-spec’ing a truck increases the capitalized cost of the vehicle, while under-spec’ing increases maintenance cost.

One consequence to an under-spec’ed truck is that it may require multiple trips due to limited payload capacity. When spec’ing a smaller GVWR truck than required, the tendency is to overload the vehicle. Besides accelerating replacement of wear items, such as brakes, an overloaded vehicle also increases the company’s liability exposure if it is involved in a preventable accident.

Overloaded trucks will cause premature tire wear, decreased fuel economy, and downtime due to engine or transmission repair. In addition, overloading results in fines and possible impoundment of the vehicle by the authorities.

You need to make sure that the truck can carry not only the payload, but also any additional equipment you put on the truck. The fleet manager needs to add the body and equipment weight to that of any tools or other material that could be stored or transported by the chassis.

Discovering Unknown Problems

When talking with employees who are actually using the trucks, you undoubtedly will discover they have problems unknown to you. For example, you may discover problems with loading height, cab access, lack of bins, limited visibility when backing, or insufficient tool storage. This is your opportunity to ask a lot of questions to determine vehicle or upfit deficiencies. For instance, ask employees how the payload is distributed, whether the vehicle will be fully loaded or operating with a diminishing load, how they load and off-load cargo, or whether there are passenger/crew requirements.

Similarly, investigate the maintenance records to determine if the current vehicle is under-spec’ed. Usually, the majority of trucks that have unscheduled maintenance problems or experience repeated mechanical failures are underpowered and overloaded.

In the final analysis, the most insightful way to correctly spec a replacement truck is to meet and talk with the employees who will be using the truck. By understanding actual usage, you can determine all truck specifications. It can’t be stressed enough that vehicle specifications must be defined by the fleet application and the best way to understand this is by talking with the actual users of the asset.

Solicit input from field personnel to ensure that local issues affecting the vehicle’s operation are taken into account. By understanding day-to-day fleet applications, you will be able to build a truck that meets the users’ daily needs. Without fully understanding the fleet application requirements and operating parameters, it is impossible to spec the best chassis, powertrain, and body necessary to optimize productivity.

Although fleet managers may understand how trucks are intended to be used in the field; intended usage often does not match real-world usage. If possible, schedule site visits to see firsthand how a truck is being used in the work environment. This will also give you the opportunity to confirm firsthand what is really needed as opposed to what a user may want.

The ultimate objective of your discussions with asset users is to match the truck with the fleet application. When meeting with end-users, ask questions about their current vehicles. For example, is the powertrain right for their application? Is the gross vehicle weight adequate for the payload carried? If the vehicle will be towing a trailer, is the gross combination weight rating high enough?

After compiling the input gathered from the field, next review budgetary considerations. The type of truck your field personnel would like may not always fit the annual fleet budget. One factor that can sway the decision on which chassis to acquire is a manufacturer’s incentive program. Although the initial cost is a major consideration, it is essential that maintenance and other operating costs, along with projected residual value, be factored into the selection decision, using a total cost of ownership calculation as the ultimate determinant.

Productivity Opportunities

Fleet managers must adopt a multi-pronged approach to increase truck productivity. For instance, how employees drive trucks greatly impacts productivity. Fleet productivity increases when drivers adopt more efficient driving techniques.

Increasing productivity while managing and containing fleet costs is the central part of a fleet manager’s job. By taking a hard look at how trucks are spec’ed, along with modifying driver behavior, a fleet manager can find many additional opportunities to increase productivity and reduce costs.

One way to increase truck productivity is to modify specs to increase mpg, thereby reducing fuel spend. In the final analysis, the drivetrain, tires, engine, and aerodynamics of the vehicle should be properly matched to maximize fuel efficiency.

Selecting trucks with aerodynamic features can prove cost-effective. The rule of thumb is that for each 10% reduction in air resistance, mpg increases by 5%. Examples of aerodynamic modifications include specifying aerodynamic mirrors, moving air filters under the hood, and eliminating fender-mounted mirrors. When spec’ing auxiliary equipment, be cognizant of component weights. Extra weight not only increases fuel consumption but also reduces payload capacity.

When spec’ing a medium-duty truck there are a number of critical factors must be correctly spec’ed; otherwise, you’ll end up making an expensive mistake. Trucks must be equipped to handle very specific fleet applications, which requires correctly specifying a multitude of components, such as the right drivetrain, suspension, and body.

Equipment Considerations

Liftgates: A liftgate reduces the risk of back injury by allowing users to more easily maneuver, load, and unload heavy products in and out of trucks and trailers. A liftgate can quickly pay for itself if you multiply the average workers’ comp costs by the number of reported overexertion incidents.

Hydraulic Drop-Down Ladder Rack: Specify drop-down style ladder racks for vans. This helps minimize possible back problems that could arise from removing a 24-foot extension ladder from the roof of a van.

Slide-Out Bed: Specify bed sliders for pickups equipped with commercial style caps, so the user doesn’t have to bend or twist to remove a heavy object from the vehicle bed.

Rear Step Bumper and Grab Handles: Analyze ease of rear entry and egress from service and van bodies. More fleets are adding a step bumper and a grab-handle to facilitate getting in and out of a service body bed. To minimize slips, fleets are opting for an open strut-style rear bumper to allow snow or rain to fall through the openings and not collect on the bumper.

Side Steps on Pickups: Another important consideration is side steps on pickups to access cross-bed tool boxes.

Safety Tread Step: A driver-side fuel tank with an open safety tread step is preferable to closed running board steps, especially in areas where snow can create slippery conditions for the driver. Other precautions include anti-slip coatings. If there’s any chance a user will walk on a surface or use it as a step, it must not be smooth. Anti-slip coating or surface treatment is needed. Any operating area exposed to snow or ice conditions needs traction areas with large openings to prevent build-up.

Side-Door Access: Walk-ins or dry freight bodies with step van side door access steps enable the user to work inside the body protected from the elements.

Pull-Out Ramps: These ramps expedite the removal of product loaded on a dolly. Consider ventilated-style pull-out ramps that stop snow and rain from collecting on the ramp. 

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