Some of the things that keep fleet managers up at night are how to electrify their fleet, what they’re going to do when their OEM stops making their favorite small cargo van, and how they can help operators stay safe and productive.
Truck and van upfitters care about these things, too. Their job is to find ways to help fleets accomplish their missions, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the latest upfitting trends align closely with the challenges fleets are facing.
Four experienced upfitters share the trends they’re seeing and how they’re stepping up to help their fleet customers succeed.
Upfitting in the Post-Small-Van Era
As the industry lays to rest small cargo vans like the Ford Transit Connect, the Metris minivan, and the Ram ProMaster City, users of the small cargo van have two choices: size up or size down. And that means upfits need to evolve to meet the same user needs while working with different vehicles.
Other fleets may be facing a similar situation as they opt for different makes or models due to vehicle shortages.
“There are fleets out there who are still trying to make the decision about what to do instead of a small van. So, I believe as far as trends go, over the next 12 months we are going to see a number of different solutions come to market to address the small vans leaving in the market,” said Michael Diaz, Director of Fleet Upfit Solutions for Ranger Design. “Truly assessing the customer’s needs and using a diagnostic approach is going to be so incredibly important for any partner in the fleet ecosystem to provide that to fleet managers because this is a new curveball being thrown from their way.”
Erik Nelson, General Manager, North American Sales & Operations, Sortimo of North America, says Sortimo’s approach is to make the upfit work for the footprint of the vehicle, rather than making the vehicle fit the upfit.
“We often say we're ‘vehicle outfitters’ or ‘vehicle modifiers’ because it doesn't matter what you come to us with. Is it a box truck? Is it a van, is it a pickup, is it a crossover SUV? How do we make that work for you? Commercializing often not-commercial vehicles is in our repertoire,” he said.
Diaz said that although Ranger Design customers typically seek solutions for commercial cargo vehicles like cargo vans, box trucks, even trailers, the exit of the small cargo van has some stepping down to a smaller vehicle.
“Customers who are used to having small cargo vans like a Metris or ProMaster City or Transit Connect are starting to look for options from different manufacturers for solutions,” Diaz said. “We’re starting to see a trend where you have someone who was in a small van, and now maybe the solution is a small pickup truck. Maybe the solution is a crossover, like a Chevy Equinox. So more traditional passenger vehicles, not really considered commercial vehicles, having to fit the need of the void that's being masked by the small cargo vans.”
Diaz said upfitting what is traditionally a passenger vehicle, like an SUV, has brought new upfitting solutions to the market. For instance, SUVs need a solid partition installed to protect the driver and the passenger from shifting cargo. Upfitters also have to be mindful of designing around side and curtain airbag deployment areas, which isn’t the case for a cargo van.
“When sizing down to a smaller vehicle, we also ask if the customer is using everything in their current model on a daily basis. Or is it just there because the space was there? It could turn out that half of the stuff in the van today isn’t being used on a daily basis, so you can make the cargo hold in your SUV work. This is why we send our engineers into the field to take a diagnostic approach to the upfit.” Diaz said. “As the upfitter, we want to understand, what are they really using their cargo van for today? How can we ensure that they make the transition without compromising safety, efficiency or the quality of the upfit.”
Nelson is seeing a similar trend taking shape with Sortimo customers.
“Going to a more expensive, larger, less efficient vehicle isn't always the solution,” he said. “We've seen a number of requests for specialty upfitting within the SUV crossover market, so we’ve designed solutions for pharma companies, auto parts delivery, and a couple other segments that allow us to put a very small amount of shelving or a pullout tray or just a floor that allows somebody to strap down their own product boxes or things like that. We’re also putting a partition in a lot of crossovers and SUVs right now like Nissan Kicks and Rogues to Chevy Equinox and Ford Escape and even a Subaru Outback.”
Upfitters are also helping fleets size up. Nelson said sometimes fleets are right on the cusp of sizing up from a small van anyway.
“There are plenty of companies that have vans right at the maximum payload anyway. So they’re moving from a Transit or ProMaster City to a bigger van that gives them essentially 50% more space. That means they can stock them with more product and make more calls per week, so they're combining routes or extending territories,” Nelson explained. “If you're already heavy in the small van anyway, let's make the larger vehicle that much more of an efficient upfit. Let's use all the space possible and then we're talking about low impact to the fleet because you may actually be able to cover two routes in one trip.”
Trends in Upfitting EVs
As the balance between ICE vehicles and electric vehicles slowly shifts in favor of EVs, upfitting them has become a growing trend.
“EV is something that is coming head-on into the industry but currently there are only a handful of viable solutions for medium duty application,” said Chris Rolsen, Director of Fleet and Sector Sales, Knapheide Manufacturing Company. “There are several for light duty, but some of the stuff we see at Knapheide has customers asking us continually who we are working within the medium-duty EV space as well as what our solutions are.”
One challenge with upfitting EVs is that upfitters can’t drill into the floor to install their solutions because shavings could migrate to a wiring harness and pose a safety hazard. This means upfitters have to find ways around this challenge.
“We asked, ‘how do we design our product, our shelves, our cabinets, our drawers, so that they can be secured fast, secured properly, and fastened to the vehicle, even though you can no longer drill into the floor?’” Diaz said.
To answer this question, Ranger Design developed the E-Floor, which doesn’t require drilling into or fastening into the OE floor. Instead, it uses factory-standard D rings and adds supports to the pillars so a customer can have a load floor without drilling into the van. Ranger Design also designed inserts that can be drilled into to fasten drawers, cabinets, or shelves without drilling deeper than the floor.
“One of the surprising things we found is we actually created a stronger solution because the pull force with these inserts was almost quadruple the pull force if you were fastening a cabinet or drawer or shelf into the van floor. So not only were we developing a solution that helped customers move their outfit from an ICE van to BEV, but we're also making it stronger,” Diaz explained.
Nelson said Sortimo has developed new standards for upfitting EVs to protect technicians and the vehicle.
“There is a whole new level of considerations for EV upfitting. Our electric vehicle manufacturing partners don't want drilling anywhere in the van because any shavings could migrate into a wiring harness. And now guess what? There are 25 to 30 times more wiring harnesses in the floor of an EV van than there used to be. So it's not always about not drilling into a battery. It can be that shavings from drilling anywhere into the van could migrate into someplace they shouldn't be,” Nelson explained.
In terms of the upfit itself, Sortimo leverages floor-mounted upfits to avoid drilling, although that solution isn’t new to the company.
“Although we did not brand it an EV mounted floor, Sortimo pioneered this space over 30 years ago. We have only ever been floor mounted, but mostly back then it was to preserve the integrity of the inside of the vehicle for residual value,” he said. “Sortimo has an advantage here where we have already upfit a couple of the largest EV fleets that exist, and we have a whole toolkit developed that outlines the right way to upfit a vehicle when it's an EV.”
Power Solutions for EVs
In addition to drilling considerations, another EV upfitting challenge is finding a way to power other systems like lift gates and power tools. In an ICE truck, these systems can draw power from the battery in between jobs. But for an EV, it’s different: Drawing power from the battery will affect range.
“You have to have completely standalone systems that aren't wired into the vehicle — completely separate batteries inside the vehicle that have to be cared for and charged outside of the normal charging of the van,” Nelson explained. “We’ve looked at installing solar panels on top of a van and that helps a little bit. But this isn't just range. It's not just ‘can I make it to the next charging facility?’ It’s, ‘what are the tools I need to run to do this job? And can I do it out of an EV?’”
Growth of Mobile Service
“Mobile service is becoming a bigger part of what we are seeing on the upfit level,” Rolsen said. “Customers are requesting onsite maintenance or preventative maintenance more and more and that has pushed companies to offer these on-demand services. I think mobile upfitting will be a more frequent request going forward.”
Mobile maintenance trucks and vans can be upfitted with anything from lube systems for fluid changes, tire balancing equipment, and power generation. “One customer even has an espresso machine for their customers to enjoy while they wait for work to be done,” Rolsen said.
Improving the Operator Experience
Beyond finding a safe way to to store equipment efficiently, upfit designs now also take the operator’s experience into consideration.
“We’re seeing a greater focus on driver safety and making sure the driver doesn’t have to get in and out of the vehicle on a continual basis,” Rolsen said.
As technicians climb into and out of a van, reach and back injuries can be common. To mitigate this concern, upfitters are creating designs where the cargo comes to the technician rather than the technician going to the cargo.
“We had a fleet engaged with us last week that said they didn’t want techs getting in and out of the van if we can help it. So, can we make everything come to them? Can we have everything be accessible with just an appropriate level of reach inside so they never get in,” Nelson said. “Our whole edict is ‘the only time the technician should be in the van is when they're driving.’”
Katie Groves, National Fleet Sales Manager for Adrian Steel Company, said the company’s upfits focus on both safety and comfort.
“We design ladder racks that are simple and easy to use – that bring the ladders down to the operator,” she said. We also have a composite partition for climate control and noise control. Our upfits are designed to support the job that needs to get done while also improving the operator experience.”
Diaz said composite partitions also aid in noise reduction. This is especially useful for EVs, which operate so quietly that minor noises like rattles or squeaks become very noticeable.
“We already have one of the quietest, most vibration free shelving units on the market, but composite partitions help to make it even quieter because they do a great job of dampening the sound and reducing the sound that comes in from the cargo hold,” Diaz said. “It’s even more prominent when you're driving an EV, so that's an added benefit for driver comfort.”
Diaz said using upfits to improve the driver experience pays off beyond comfort.
“The battle for finding qualified tradespeople and technicians is fierce, so as much as our customers are looking at functionality and efficiency and safety, they're also really spending time looking at the quality of the drive or the experience for the driver and how that affects employee and driver satisfaction,” he said.