When it comes to fleet trucks, what, exactly, defines “productivity”?
Is it the amount of revenue the truck generates for the organization? Is it the number of stops per day? Is it based on the rate of on-time deliveries or service calls? What about fuel economy? Or lifecycle cost? Is it vehicle utilization rate?
The answer depends on the fleet and the truck’s specific application. But, if it were to be boiled down to a general rule of thumb, think of truck productivity like this: How can the utilization of a truck be maximized to get more done, faster, with less strain on the driver and vehicle, for the lowest possible cost of ownership?
Or, as Don Scare, manager, Truck Excellence, CTP at Element Fleet Management, put it: “Do I have the right truck to do the job that’s required — and to do that work more efficiently, while maximizing return on investment (ROI)?”
Whatever the definition, the starting point for any discussion on improving truck productivity is to match the truck specification to its job description.
Defining the Job Requirements
“If you’re spec’ing a box truck to haul 48-inch wide pallets, the box needs to be wider than 96 inches inside the cargo area to fit two pallets side-by-side,” said Bob Neitzel, truck engineer at Wheels Inc. “There’s nothing more frustrating than ordering a truck and realizing your load doesn’t fit in there, leaving a lot of wasted space. That’s not productive.”
Drill down into the details to ensure there are no unpleasant surprises. Neitzel advised fleet managers to ask questions such as:
- Do you need to keep the load clean and dry?
- How do you load and unload the freight?
- Do you need to have a lift gate? If so, what size?
- Will a forklift be driven in the truck?
Neitzel noted that answering these questions fully will help determine the right vehicle for the job.
For instance, one client that had requested a pickup truck for a certain application found that, after the Wheels team evaluated how the cargo needed to be handled, a cargo van was the better fit.
“The client originally wanted a pickup truck with a canopy on it, but what they needed was something more like a Ford Transit van. It’s less money than a comparable pickup truck and offers more space. The cargo needed to be fully protected and couldn’t get wet or very cold. And, the cargo van was a better fit for that job,” Neitzel said.
Also, be careful and avoid under-spec’ing the vehicle. An overloaded truck is prone to liability issues, unexpected downtime, and higher maintenance costs — all of which detract from the vehicle’s productivity.
“Don’t build a truck that’s intended to operate at 100% of its capacity. That’s just not good for the truck. You’re going to find yourself tearing the truck up,” Scare said. “When you see maintenance costs increase, sometimes it’s because you’re overloading the vehicle, grossing it out every day, instead of spec’ing a larger vehicle that would allow you to operate the vehicle under capacity.”
A practical tip to make the truck more productive is to include a buffer when spec’ing a truck’s payload capacity. A general rule of thumb, according to Neitzel, is to build a vehicle designed to do its job while being able to stay within 80-85 % of the truck’s maximum capacity.
Setting the Duty Cycle
Consider the truck’s duty cycle when looking for ways to boost productivity. For example, will the truck be operating primarily in an over-the-road application? Or, is it for urban deliveries?
“If the truck is designed for line-haul applications, traveling from city to city, I’ll likely recommend spec’ing a larger capacity truck, so it can fulfill more deliveries out of a single vehicle. Whereas, with in-city applications, I’ll spec a unit that’s much smaller because I am dealing with the metro marketplace,” said Scare of Element Fleet Management.
And, it’s in those metro areas where drivers must navigate their trucks in tighter spaces.
“If the truck is to be built to operate in New York City, and I know it will have to make tight turns, I’ll make sure the vehicle can get around most street corners easily, so drivers don’t have to waste time by having to perform extra maneuvers such as three-point turns to complete their deliveries,” Neitzel said.
Focusing on Driver Safety
Another question Scare with Element Fleet recommended fleet managers ask when evaluating truck productivity is whether the truck can do its intended job without causing undue risk to the driver and truck.
“I relate ergonomics to both driver and truck productivity,” Scare said. “Can the driver enter and exit a vehicle safely, with minimal strain, multiple times in a given day? This plays a significant role on what model truck you pick.”
Upfitting a truck with safety in mind is also important because, as Neitzel with Wheels noted: “A job injury hurts everything. It hurts productivity — and the company’s financials.”
Per Neitzel, in some applications, crews were getting injured working on flatbed trucks because of the extra strain to take a step up on the bed, which also increased the risk of slip and fall.
“In these instances, we would recommend spec’ing a special step and a pull handle. This way, they can walk up the platform, with greater support and safety,” Neitzel said.
Turning Convenience Into Productivity
To make trucks more productive, protecting drivers from injury is just one part of the equation. Think also about “comfort and convenience” options.
“You want to make the driver’s job easier and safer, and keep the driver happy. If the driver is happy with the truck, he or she will be more inclined to take better care of it — and that directly impacts truck productivity,” said Neitzel of Wheels.
He pointed to a box truck spec: “What we might do there is spec a motion-activated light at the back of the box truck,” Neitzel observed. “This way, if the driver’s arms are full, he or she does not have to look around for a switch to turn on the lights; they turn on automatically. Also, when the driver leaves the truck, lights turn on and off automatically and keep the battery from draining. This seems small, but it makes a big difference in terms of productivity.”
Observing Driver Habits
And, it also matters how drivers operate the vehicle.
It’s one thing to spec a truck for maximum productivity; but, if drivers engage in bad habits — such as hard acceleration and braking, excessive idling, and speeding — that “productive” truck will underperform in terms of fuel economy, maintenance cost, and longevity.
One tool that can be used to hold drivers accountable is telematics, which uses onboard GPS technology to efficiently capture and transmit vehicle location and performance data for reporting purposes.
“For drivers who are operating the vehicle in a harsh manner — telematics will report that. It will report speeding events or if they’re excessively idling,” Neitzel said. “I’m aware of one client who was trying to understand why a truck was driven for 20 minutes but idled for an hour. He was able to find areas to improve productivity by analyzing the driver’s trip reports from the company’s telematics system. You don’t have to be an engineer to figure out that the fuel economy of idle is zero. So, if you can cut that idle time, you’ll clearly reduce wear and tear on the vehicle, improve fuel efficiency, and boost overall productivity.”
Another area where driver habits impact productivity is the daily walk-around. Scare of Element Fleet Management recommended that, even with light-duty trucks, drivers should perform a walk-around inspection each day before operating the vehicle.
“The inspection enables the drivers to spot potential issues before they turn into time-consuming and costly incidents,” Scare said. “If a tire is bad and you didn’t check it before you left, now we have downtime and lost productivity. Then the customer is upset because the product was not delivered on time.”
Determining Vehicle Utilization
When spec’ing the vehicle, think about whether it can be used for multiple functions — so that more work can be performed with one truck, said Scare of Element Fleet Management.
“If I am hauling crated product today and a box product tomorrow, can I do all of that work with the same vehicle?” he said.
Also, could that one truck be used for multiple shifts?
Suppose you have a local fleet completing deliveries throughout the day, and the truck comes home at three or four in the afternoon. That truck may go out with a second driver, either to deliver product or to pick product for the next day’s route.
“Trucks aren’t getting any cheaper,” Scare noted. “So, how can I optimize the use of that truck to get a good return on investment?”
The Bottom Line
Connie Swenson, account manager with Wheels Inc., put productivity in this perspective: “When we talk about the productivity of a truck, it’s really about the vehicle’s purpose. And, when we understand that purpose — that mission — we, in turn, can build a solution around it, designing the right vehicle for the projected annual miles, engine hours, application, number of stops, and all the other nuances involved."