Truck fleets have many touchpoints from the chassis, body, auxiliary equipment and individual components. As such, engineering a truck specification takes a great amount of time, and it is critical to driver safety and job performance. The right upfit can reduce operating costs and increase return on investment, while an incorrect upfit can cause significant losses of time and money due to lost productivity and excess equipment.

Taking a hands-on, strategic approach that involves end-users and considers operational requirements and lifecycle costs will save time and money. However, since each fleet is unique, there is no one blueprint to follow, and it can be difficult to know where to start. The cycle of spec’ing, piloting, and executing an upfit can be broken down into the following five stages. When this cycle is viewed as a collaborative and ongoing effort, fleets can realize significant improvements.

  1. Get a Detailed Picture of Vehicle Use with Site Visits

Purchasing trucks based on previous specifications or what the operator feels is best is a recipe for disaster. Specifications and applications change over time, and fleet managers should ensure they are designing trucks using data relative to the need.

Getting an accurate picture of vehicle use begins with examining the current vehicle and equipment specifications. Reviewing the existing use case helps identify outdated specifications and whether the vehicle being used is the most efficient option for the application and job requirements. Questions might include: Are the vehicles towing trailers? What is the operating environment like? Is the vehicle being overloaded, or are their issues with the vehicle being overweight?

The next critical piece is getting feedback from the drivers and technicians through a site visit and driver ride-along with an upfit engineer. Drivers and technicians operate the equipment and know what they require for performing their daily job functions, so they will have honest feedback about everything from cab size and comfort to whether or not they have the proper tools for their job. During site visits, safety and ergonomics take precedence so issues such as driver fatigue or back injuries can be resolved. For companies with multiple locations across the country, regional ride-alongs will identify different needs so that urban delivery trucks are configured to handle tight corners and trucks in winter areas are fitted with a cold-weather package. 

The in-person aspect of a site visit and ride-along is critical. Having an engineer on site to review current upfit configurations, observe how drivers utilize the vehicle in the field, and gather feedback provides insight into what equipment is required and what can be reconfigured. Through this hands-on process, you can expect a more accurate spec.

  1. Standardize Your Fleet

A key consideration is consistency across your fleet. As a spec is determined, look across your fleet and determine what combination of equipment is appropriate for most cases. Standardizing vehicle and upfit specs allows for better order-to-delivery forecasting, material stocking, and consistent equipment production during the upfit process. It also allows fleet managers to leverage their specification for OEM and upfit component volume discounts, and it streamlines the process from order to delivery. For example, duplicating 50 of the same vehicles with identical chassis and upfit specs allows the OEM to provide fixed production dates and the upfitter to order materials at the same time so there are no delays during the installation process.

Standardization also has numerous operational benefits such as consistent vehicle-to-vehicle capitalized cost, reduced new driver training, and flexibility to reassign vehicles between locations if another vehicle unexpectedly goes out of service. One example is designating the street-side forward compartment on service trucks to be the safety equipment storage compartment for items such as a fire extinguisher, first-aid kit, road flares, and safety kits. Drivers will always know where this equipment is located and can gain access quickly, even if their vehicle is down and they are assigned another one for the day. Any standard specifications need to be reviewed annually as OEMs and upfitters launch new product features and updates.

It’s important to note that there are limits to standardization, as it needs to be applied within a fleet’s particular use case. No two fleets are alike. The optimal standard is reached when a fleet management company works with their client to fully understand the fleet and to create specs that make the most sense for their application rather than taking a “one size fits all” approach.

  1. Use Bailment Pools

Bailment pools are a way for fleets to manage both costs and order to delivery times, especially when utilizing standardized upfits across multiple vehicles. They can also help buffer against emergency vehicle needs brought on by new business growth or unexpected vehicle downtime due to accidents. With bailment pools, standard chassis can be ordered at factory pricing and stored until needed. This reduces lead time and lowers costs since vehicles are ordered to customer spec at factory pricing, eliminating the need to order out of stock. In addition, there is clearer visibility into vehicle status since factory orders are tagged and tracked.

Your fleet management company can work with the OEM and upfitter to determine the best bailment pool option. FMCs also can work with upfitters to provide a stocking program for certain pieces that have long lead times, such as liftgates and custom components.

  1. Test Specs in Pilot Before Full Production

Finally, once a new spec is in place, it should go through a pilot process where one or two vehicles are built out for analysis and review before full production. An in-person pilot review involving the upfitter, client, and fleet management company is an important step to ensure specs are delivering the required results before significant dollars are spent on making changes to the whole fleet.

At this point, drivers and technicians should be brought into the process again to determine if the equipment and design function as intended. End users might suggest changes such as additional lighting or discover a piece of equipment is not functioning as originally envisioned. Also, new equipment or vehicle options may have been released, and a pilot review is an ideal time to incorporate any new features that may be helpful.

Pilot reviews are also a critical time to ensure the quote was executed as agreed upon and that any substitutes made during the upfit process do not impact performance. Finally, the pilot build can help verify if the originally quoted production time was accurate or if timeline changes need to be made.

  1. Set a Time for Post-Delivery Follow Up

Once final changes have been made and the full fleet has been built, the process still isn’t over. Prior to the next order cycle, or at another interval that makes sense, fleets should stop to evaluate how has the new spec performed. Was there a significant improvement in driver safety and productivity, or lifecycle performance? Just as important, has the company’s business changed in a way that would impact the upfit process? For example, a small plumbing business that started with 20 vans and used a local upfitter to install custom shelving may have been acquired by a larger company and rapidly expanded. In this situation, it is unlikely that the same upfit and order process for those original 20 vans will suit an expanded fleet of 300 across multiple locations. If changes are needed, fleets can begin at the start of the upfit cycle by evaluating current specifications and holding a site visit with their fleet management company.

The Right Spec Depends on the Right Partners

Going through the steps above to arrive at an optimized spec requires close collaboration with all stakeholders – the fleet management company, the client, the upfitter, and most importantly, the drivers and technicians. In-person communication is critical to determine which vehicle and which equipment suits the application, and whether those needs have changed over time.

Investing time in a collaborative effort to develop an accurate spec is well worth the effort as it produces time and cost savings across the lifecycle: reduced weight, increased fuel economy and payload capacity, better interchangeability, better driver safety and satisfaction, faster OTD, and even increased residuals when it’s time to sell.