Finding a robust upfitting network that spans all geographies is critical for companies of all types and sizes. - Photo: SAFE FLEET

Finding a robust upfitting network that spans all geographies is critical for companies of all types and sizes.

Photo: SAFE FLEET

Upfitting your work trucks and vans with the proper equipment leads to higher quality customer service, as well as happier and more productive drivers. This usually leads to a better return on investment (ROI) for your organization, the primary goal of every fleet operation.

But this may be easier said than done with “roadblocks” at every turn. Significant challenges during the upfitting process and equipment lifecycle management process include struggling with orders and timing, spec’ing vehicles properly, ensuring ease of access for drivers, guaranteeing cargo security, and effectively monitoring equipment usage, among many other factors.

Work Truck magazine spoke with industry experts to get their advice on how to successfully upfit vehicles and manage equipment. What is most important for companies and fleet managers to know about the upfitting and equipment lifecycle management process? Our experts’ professional advice ranged from forming strong vendor partnerships to purchasing the right service body for the job, to assessing total costs of ownership. 

Find a Trusted, Reliable Upfitting Partner

Forming a trusted partnership between fleet and upfitter is essential to streamlining and maximizing the upfitting process, explained Sean Otterberg, director of strategic account initiatives at Auto Truck Group.

“The upfitter should act in an advisory role, speaking collaboratively with the fleet stakeholders on how drivers are using the vehicles and then help the fleet create efficiency across all vehicles,” Otterberg explained, adding that he works closely with fleet operators, including conducting driver symposiums or ride-and-drives, to ensure each upfit solution is tailored to the specific role of each vehicle’s job.

Good upfitter and modification providers should not compete with the OEMs, according to Paul Kokalis, president of Fontaine Modification. 

“Instead, they should work closely with those OEMs to deliver a custom solution that fits the fleet’s exact needs and expectations,” he said. Also, plan and choose the right upfitter to reduce lost time between the date a truck rolls out of the factory to its first day on the job.

Constant communication and open discussions with upfitters lead to better upfit designs, which helps with cost reductions and vehicle lifecycle planning, according to Chris Rolsen, national business development manager of fleet at Knapheide.

It should be the upfitter’s goal “to help design and install the right content to address the field needs while being mindful of the fleet manager’s constraints,” Rolsen said.

Finding a robust upfitting network that spans all geographies is critical for companies of all types and sizes, according to Todd Hoffman, business development at A.R.E.

“Companies and fleet managers are best served to attach themselves with equipment manufacturers and upfitters that have formal quality certifications and programs that are strong across all of North America,” Hoffman said. “This includes brick-and-mortar spots for service techs and their vehicles, dedicated national fleet and support teams in their business model, and a successful history of supporting the fleet world.”

Employees working out their pickups and vans have the highest rate of injuries compared to other drivers. Proper upfitting can help minimize these injuries, keeping drivers safe and productive.  - Photo: DECKED

Employees working out their pickups and vans have the highest rate of injuries compared to other drivers. Proper upfitting can help minimize these injuries, keeping drivers safe and productive. 

Photo: DECKED

Know Your Timing and Keep Replacement Cycles in Mind

Critical upfitting considerations include knowing order lead times and expediting the vehicle-deployment process.

“First, the critical part for the fleet manager is knowing when you need vehicles in the field. Then, based on your replacement cycles, knowing when you need to begin your planning and ordering process to ensure enough lead time to get new vehicles on the road as current units approach the end of their lifecycle,” said Otterberg of Auto Truck Group.

This strategy helps fleet managers get outdated models off the roads and new upfits to drivers on time, ensuring that old models don’t incur unnecessary maintenance costs.

Focusing on Communication & Lifecycle Management

Scott Cline, fleet manager at Wheeler Machinery Co., manages 285 Class 1 through 8 vehicles that range from F-150s Peterbilt heavy haul units. The company, which sells, rents, and services Caterpillar construction equipment, operates work trucks that transport sales reps and field repair crews.

Light vehicles can have standard beds or service bodies, while the company’s F-550s either have flatbeds for parts delivery or an 11-foot service body and crane.

The company’s Peterbilt 337s, which are service trucks with 14-foot or 15½-foot service bodies, are used for service work and line boring/machining. It also operates some 337s with lube bodies for doing fluid changes at customer sites.

The secret to a successful upfitting plan is communication, according to Cline. 

“The fleet department decides which trucks are being added/replaced, and then working with our upfitter, we plan what is going to need to be produced,” he explained.

Carefully handling lifecycle management of upfitted vehicles is another essential part of the process.

“Lifecycle is a tricky thing. We have our in-house vehicle maintenance technician who does oil sampling on all of our vehicles. So when determining lifecycles, we use miles, hours, condition, repair history, fluid samples, and if it runs an auxiliary power unit (APU) to help us determine the replacement schedule of each vehicle,” he said.

In today’s business climate, the biggest game-changer in the upfitting sphere is coming up with new and innovative ideas to adapt to the increasing changes and demands of the industry, according to Cline.

“Auxiliary power units, new technologies, data, etc., are all keys to help assist in the improvement of the fleet,” he concluded.

Knowing driver habits and driving patterns is essential to managing the lifecycle of the truck and van upfit and equipment. Doing so allows you to understand better when to cycle out vehicles and get the most out of your upfit, noted Rolsen of Knapheide.  

“The key is getting the maximum return on your investment, whether that is rotating upfitted vehicles out every three to six years, reviewing driver patterns will result in higher residual values for less worn equipment,” he said.

Telematics can help fleet managers access data to better understand usage  when maintenance typically occurs. Additionally, it can help define the typical life of a truck and its equipment, according to Adam Oppermann, product manager at Stellar Industries.

“This information helps them make more informed decisions as they have a better understanding of when trucks are getting closer to the end of the lifecycle or when maintenance may be coming,” Oppermann explained.

Always Reassess Upfitting Specifications

When it’s time to think about replacing upfitted vehicles, fleet managers should continually reassess upfitting specs by conducting an official upfitting review.

“At the beginning of each ordering cycle, fleet managers should reassess the needs of their business to ensure their vehicles align with and support their objectives, adjusting specifications as necessary,” stated Otterberg of Auto Truck Group.

Indeed, one of the biggest pitfalls of the upfitting process is specification duplication year to year, according to Craig Bonham, vice president of Commercial Vehicle at Safe Fleet

“Often, the legacy equipment specification will not marry well with current-year vehicle design due to changes in vehicle design and dimensions,” he explained. “Fleets should review equipment specifications every year for proper fit, form, and function to the vehicle — in all vehicle classes.”

Reassessing upfitting specifications means looking at shifting driver needs in the field. Find out if anything has changed for your drivers. Get their feedback. Also, don’t forget about checking in with evolving government standards. 

Matching the right truck with the right equipment for the job remains paramount during this annual, or more often, assessment, according to Jonathan Culp, director of Fleet and Leasing Sales at Dejana Truck and Utility Equipment.

“Regular review of the job requirements and equipment is an important part of rightsizing the field asset,” Culp explained. “So much of this seems like common sense, but with the industry shift to more procurement-based decision making, acquisition cost drives behavior that precludes these analyses.”

Eric McNally, vice president of sales and marketing at Reading Truck Group, agrees, emphasizing that it’s essential to do your homework at the beginning of the process and create a specification that meets the needs of the business. 

“Sometimes the specification is too loose and the truck does not perform as needed. When proper attention is given on the front end of the lifecycle, the subsequent years can be rewarding,” he added.

Because fleet managers have more choices than ever for work vehicles, understanding your end-user is critical, according to Mike Bykowski, director of product management for Weather Guard Truck.

“How will they organize, secure, and transport their tools? What are the external factors that could affect jobsite performance, like low lighting?” he asked.

Using this lens to identify the right equipment for the job must be balanced with operational and lifecycle costs assessment, Bykowski added.

When spec’ing vehicle equipment, start with a thorough job rating of the vehicle and product needs, advised Bonham. Fleet managers must identify how the vehicle/product combination will be utilized in the field, as well as establish performance expectations, including ROI.

“The vehicle upfit must be able to contain, move, and stop the load — safely,” Bonham added.

When it’s time to think about replacing upfitted vehicles, fleet managers should continually reassess upfitting specs by conducting an official upfitting review. - Photo: WHEELER MACHINERY

When it’s time to think about replacing upfitted vehicles, fleet managers should continually reassess upfitting specs by conducting an official upfitting review.

Photo: WHEELER MACHINERY

Keep Safety at the Forefront When Upfitting Your Vehicles

As Bonham of Safe Fleet pointed out, fleet managers must focus heavily on safety when planning upfitting specs. 

Doing so means assessing all current upfit offerings, according to Jeff Haag, vice president of fleet sales at Decked.

“Every fleet, regardless of vehicles used, is trying to provide the safest environment for the drivers,” he said. “Many upfits were designed decades ago when safety wasn’t such a concern. Today, safety is everything.”

Employees working out of their pickups and vans have the highest rate of injuries compared to other drivers, Haag pointed out, adding that “the highest injury rate is employees aged 45–54, which is typically your most productive workers.”

This means it’s vital for a company to work to reduce this stat by selecting upfitting equipment that helps reduce accidents, including slips and falls.

Weather Guard is seeing an increased concern for the safety and comfort of drivers. Some typical customer demands include a quieter ride, better climate control, and improved driver safety by securing any items that may shift throughout the vehicle during the trip, according to Adam Molberger, senior product manager at Weather Guard Van.

“From a product development standpoint, this means designing high-quality attachable bulkheads that protect both the driver and cargo and developing storage units that can be securely fastened to the inside of the vehicle to assure that items won’t go flying in transit,” Molberger explained.

Keeping safety in mind during the spec’ing process also comes into play during the equipment’s lifecycle management, which benefits both the driver and the company’s bottom line, Haag pointed out.

“When it comes to lifecycle management, choosing an upfit that is leading edge in function and safety will garner a higher resale value than just a standard upfit,” he advised.

When purchasing a truck or van service body, the total cost of ownership is one of the most important things to consider. - Photo: BrandFX

When purchasing a truck or van service body, the total cost of ownership is one of the most important things to consider.

Photo: BrandFX

Considerations When Selecting a Truck or Van Service Body

When purchasing a truck or van service body, the total cost of ownership is one of the most important things to consider, Gary Heisterkamp, chief commercial officer of BrandFX Body Company, pointed out.

“Fleet managers should also take into consideration the upkeep and repair costs that come with a heavier body,” Heisterkamp added. “When the body is lighter, this results in less overall internal decrement to the chassis, lowering upfit costs, maintenance costs, and replacement costs.”

Essentially, purchasing a lighter chassis with a lighter body allows for a better payload that a heavy-duty truck can offer while still keeping costs low. 

“This, in turn, will benefit the lifecycle value because there is less wear and tear on the vehicle,” said Kirsten Valle, marketing coordinator at BrandFX Body Company. “It’s important to note that while bodies and chassis can last long, the proper maintenance and care needs to be conducted throughout the life of the body.”

Dejana’s Culp agreed, saying that the “blocking and tackling on the total cost of ownership of the unit, including the productivity of the field technician, is a core activity for truck fleets.”

If the truck is too small, technicians may overload the vehicles, which is a liability from an accident and legal perspective. It also leads to increased maintenance costs and unnecessary downtime, Culp explained. Too large a truck for the application, however, increases the total cost without a corresponding increase in value and capability to the fleet.

Gone are the days when fleet managers simply look for the cheapest upfit, according to McNally of Reading Truck Group. 

“Lightweighting upfits can improve fuel economy, increase payloads, and reduce wear and tear on the chassis,” he said. 

If you are upfitting vans, specifically, Mahendra Srivastava, president of Sortimo, recommends installing van equipment with minimum or no drilling into the vehicle floors or sidewall to extend the lifecycle and raise the residual value. “For higher roof vans, the racking system should allow for not only more storage but also the ability to do prep work inside the van,” he added.

The bottom line, according to Otterberg: “It’s about getting to the field, understanding what the technicians are doing, and then tapping into the engineering resources to make sure they are maximizing their efficiencies with the equipment, tools, and the installation and management of the equipment that will hold those tools.”  

Insights into Work-Truck Game Changers

Work Truck asked our industry experts to share key insights into game-changers for work truck upfitting, as well as the industry overall. Telematics and lighter vehicle weight dominated the conversation. Here’s what they had to say:

  • “We see a shift to lighter weight materials. More aluminum is going into vehicles versus steel as more attention is put on fuel economy and enhanced safety.” — Sean Otterberg, director of strategic account initiatives at Auto Truck Group
  • “There are several good game-changers for the industry; telematics is a good example of this. While it has been around for some time, you see more and more fleets adopt it into their vehicles. This will continue to help fleets evaluate their vehicles, employee driving habits, and several other items that will result in more streamlined and custom upfits to specifically target their drivers’ daily work needs.” — Chris Rolsen, national business development manager of fleet at Knapheide
  • “Telematics has changed the way fleet managers operate their fleets. The data available through telematics can drive safer driving behaviors, better fuel economy, higher productivity, and longer vehicle life.” — Eric McNally, vice president of sales and marketing at Reading Truck Group
  • “Telematics for the chassis has been around for some time, but fleet managers are still lacking data on their truck’s equipment. As telematics continue to provide more information on the complete truck (chassis and its equipment), this will help fleet managers optimize their fleets more than ever.” — Adam Oppermann, product manager at Stellar Industries
  • “No matter what size of commercial vehicle we are discussing today, the game-changer will be improvements in battery technology and recharging. Current battery offerings are good as far as they go. But to change how we use commercial trucks, we need less expensive batteries, are more energy-dense, can charge quickly, and last a long time.” — Paul Kokalis, president of Fontaine Modification
  • “The ability to deliver high-visibility tool storage lighting has greatly improved jobsite efficiency and productivity for professionals who traditionally work in dimly lit spaces or in early or late hours.” — Mike Bykowski, director of product management for Weather Guard Truck
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