PHOTO: Auto Truck Group  -

PHOTO: Auto Truck Group

The quicker a truck is built and delivered, the sooner a fleet can put it to work. But, that’s often easier said than done, especially with commercial trucks that require body and equipment upfits.

That’s because you not only have the chassis manufacturer build times to consider, you also have to account for logistics and coordination with one or more upfitters to complete the truck and deliver it to the end user.

A slight hiccup in the process can cause substantial delays downstream, leading to lost revenue or exorbitant truck rental costs to fill the gaps until new vehicles arrive.

Truck equipment manufacturers and upfitters have become acutely aware of this “need for speed” and are implementing new processes and technologies to improve responsiveness and accelerate overall order-to-delivery cycles.

Improving Anticipation

If upfitters can more effectively anticipate where their customers are going to be in the next year, they can secure the parts, components, and production capacity they need ahead of time to expedite build times.

This requires tighter communication with the end customer and/or fleet management company (FMC), said Craig Bonham, vice president of sales at Reading Truck Body LLC, a manufacturer of vocational truck bodies.

“At Reading, we’ve realigned our sales staff so that our account managers are focused exclusively on serving specific customer segments, such as FMCs, large fleet customers, franchised dealers, and so forth,” he explained. “This enables our sales teams to develop deeper insights into the unique needs of their target markets and customers so we can do a better job of anticipating and preparing for their orders earlier in the sales process.”

Close relationships with customers lead to smarter forecasting, said Eric Paul, regional sales manager for ETI, a manufacturer of aerial lifts, mobile service cranes, and custom bodies.

“The sales guys spend time with customers and find out what equipment they’re going to be budgeting for that year, so the body manufacturer can put a forecast together. This way, the purchasing department can order the materials for as many customers as possible — all at one time — to qualify for purchasing discounts and have the inventory in place to speed the build process when they get the order,” Paul said. 

Delivering Quicker Quotes

Without a quote, there’s no purchase order to start the build process. The amount of time it takes to put an upfit quote together is critical to the overall build and delivery times.

“We’re very diligent on what our quote turn times are,” said Pete Dondlinger, vice president of operations at Auto Truck Group, which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of truck equipment for a wide range of fleet applications.

“Some quotes we can turn around in 10 minutes. Others, in a bid-type situation, can take a week or so. It all depends on the complexity. But, it’s a company-wide focus of submitting the quote to the customer as quickly as possible.”

How has the quoting process become more efficient in recent years?

“Auto Truck Group has an internal program we developed called Web Quote, which gives us a way to quote very common-type builds in a timely manner,” Dondlinger said. “Our sales people are able to use this tool while sitting in front of a customer and put together a quote for them on-the-spot. They are also able to include information about available pool chassis and other services that we offer to present to the customer on a smart phone or on a tablet. From an efficiency standpoint, the time savings from Web Quote is substantial.”

This digital approach also helps ensure accuracy of specs and pricing for customer approval, with fewer steps required.

“There isn’t a second or third call that has to be made to an inside sales rep to translate what you thought you heard in that initial specification meeting with the customer. This takes away the issue of misinterpretation, which often leads to costly delays,” Dondlinger said.

For FMCs, receiving price quotes quickly from upfitters can be the difference of winning or losing the end customer, said Bonham of Reading.

“Quote turnaround time is key for competitive advantage for FMCs. They are relying on the upfitter to provide faster response to quotes, so they can get back to their customers sooner,” he said. 

Standardizing Specs & Stock

Truck equipment manufacturers are educating fleet managers on the time value of selecting standardized bodies for specific applications, whenever it’s possible.

“We can build anything you want, but there is a cost to that in terms of money and time,” said Paul of ETI. “If you want this special size box, it has to go up to an engineering department. So, you have to go through two lead times — an engineering lead time and then a production lead time. So, when the application allows, customers can eliminate some of those steps and expedite the build process with standardized bodies.”

Standardized specs also enable body manufacturers to build more units for inventory, so they can fill in gaps in their production, boosting economies of scale, and reducing production times for customers.

“From a manufacturer’s perspective, what you want to do is keep your production plants at full capacity for 12 months out of the year,” Paul said. “Manufacturers try to plan building demos and ‘ready-to-go’ units during typical down times to keep their people working at full capacity. And, this means more ‘ready-to-roll’ units available for fleets, slashing the typical order to delivery times.”

Utilizing New Technologies

Reading Truck Body has the ability to provide web-based access to FMCs and fleet customers so they have visibility to their own specific updates on build status, according to Bonham.

“We are going to be implementing a new, more robust ERP (enterprise resource planning) system that will replace our current multi-system platform. We also utilize a barcode scanning program to manage our chassis pools, and will be looking at ways to expand this into other areas of our production. These technology enhancements will increase efficiencies and drive down costs so we can stabilize pricing structures in an industry that typically sees many peaks and valleys,” he said. 

Reading Truck Body also recently made a $1 million investment in new fiber optic laser cutting technology to improve manufacturing efficiencies and product quality, as part of the companies “lean manufacturing” initiatives.

Lean manufacturing is a business framework, originally developed by Toyota and adopted by leading companies in a wide range of industries that focuses on identifying and eliminating waste (unnecessary steps and costs) in the manufacturing process. The result is quicker turnaround on build times, at more competitive cost.

In light of lean manufacturing principles, Reading has developed parts-kitting areas where the company can inventory both fabricated and purchase parts and then consolidate those parts into a single kit for each specific body — to reduce steps in parts handling, improve inventory control, and accelerate turnaround times.

Enabling Transparency

Even with best intentions and processes, delays can happen. Perhaps the chassis arrived late or parts shipments are still in transit, holding up production. What are upfitters doing to minimize the impact of these issues to build times?

One approach is to be alerted to problems early in the process and address them quickly.

“The key is to communicate early and often, whether it’s internal communication or with customers,” Bonham said. “We’ve taken down all the barriers so our people should not feel bad when speaking about issues we may have. When they should feel bad is when they don’t bring those issues to the surface. That openness has allowed us to become more agile as a manufacturing company. And, our customers appreciate the heads up that we give them, if there is a snag.”

Bonham said Reading’s account managers provide real-time build status, either on a weekly or daily basis, depending on the project. This way customers are aware of any issues early in the process and both the company and customers can take actions to help minimize the impact of those issues to the overall build schedule. 

It’s all about transparency, said Dondlinger of Auto Truck Group. “The more transparent we can be with our customers, suppliers and with each other during the manufacturing and upfitting process, the better chance of all of us being successful on getting that truck delivered on time to customers,” he said.