Truck body building: custom or standard?

Truck body building: custom or standard?

Think of what you want a work truck to do, then ask if you can use an off-the-shelf body or if it needs to be custom designed and built.

Custom made! A custom made suit. A custom built house. A custom designed truck body. Just the idea the words generate leads you to believe that, whatever you’re considering, custom has to be better than any alternative. It might well be, but definitely not always.

Do you need a custom body?
A custom truck body may be required for your operation and only you can make such a decision. There are, however, times when fleets commit to the premium price that comes with the choice to have a body for a work truck custom designed when a standard body or a standard body with some off-line modifications could do the job for a lot less money.

Commercial truck bodies can pretty much be divided into one of three categories: something completely off-the-shelf, something that might be called semi-custom since it starts with an off-the-shelf body design that becomes acceptable to the fleet by using some of the many options available from body manufacturers, and finally a body that truly is a unique design.

With the second option, the customer can start with a basic stock body and add pre-engineered options for use in a specific application. Only when a fleet has special ongoing needs or potential business opportunities that cannot be addressed by using a standard body, or one with pre-engineered options, does it have to sit down with a body manufacturer to design a true custom body.

Bob Johnson is the director of fleet relations for the National Truck Equipment Association. The services offered by the NTEA often overlap the needs of truck users and its body manufacturer members since it provides information of interest to both groups—for example, weight distribution analysis and regulatory compliance to include the operation of safe and legal vehicles. He said, “To reduce costs, the closer you can stay to a standardized body, the better. A lot of fleets have customized bodies simply because they’ve done so in the past. It may go back to a situation decades ago when they couldn’t get the body that they needed, and they just continued to customize. Many fleets are beginning to look at whether they can get by with a standard body to save money compared to a custom body. My recommendation is to avoid customization unless you really need some specific features that are not available to you. Even if you need some customization, see if you can start with a standard body and have some custom engineering added to it.”

Opportunities can demand customization
Changes in the market, however, can offer fleets opportunities that cannot be met with existing body designs. An excellent example of such a situation is presented by Altom Transport, a petroleum and chemical carrier based in Summit, Ill. The fleet got its start in 1970 as the dedicated carrier for the Al Warren Oil Co., a family-owned distributor of gasoline, diesel and heating oil in the Chicago area. Al Warren ran the fuel business and his son, Tom, handled the trucks. Over the years, the fleet expanded, diversified and became a standalone business unit specializing in bulk chemical and petroleum transportation. Today, the Altom operation is one of the nation’s leading fuel and chemical carriers, with 250 power units and 450 tank trailers. “We provide on-site fueling, on-site tanks, 24-hour automated fuel sites, bulk fuel delivery—just about anything a trucking company or municipality will need,” said Warren.

Those needs have been changing as fleets started operating vehicles that use urea-based diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to reduce engine emissions. Because the on-road distribution network for DEF is still developing, fleets value the convenience and certainty of filling their vehicles’ tanks on-site. But the 275-gal. and 330-gal. totes DEF comes in are unwieldy. The empties either need to be disposed of or stored until they can be collected. Bulk storage or on-site refilling offer better options, but that would involve a separate delivery, in addition to the fuel and chemical the fleet gets from the distributor.

Warren Oil fuel trucks make 10 to 15 stops a day, and two or three of those customers require DEF in additional to fuel. To satisfy his customers’ needs, Warren worked with Polar Tank Trailer to develop a customized straight truck capable of delivering bulk DEF and fuel at the same time. The result is a tank wagon with a 1,000-gal. stainless steel 406 tank for DEF and a 3,500-gal. three-compartment aluminum 406 tank for refined fuel on the same Peterbilt Model 348 chassis. Polar worked with application engineers at Peterbilt to ensure that the truck would handle well and provide the highest allowable payload. “We needed to make sure the vehicle would be legal and handle properly throughout its delivery cycle,” Warren said. “Now we can give customers not only what they want, but service that exceeds their expectations.”

Without the custom designing capabilities offered by Polar Tank Trailer, Warren Transport would not have been able to serve its customers as efficiently as it now can.

Standardization
While few fleets are able to completely standardize their equipment, which would go a long way in reducing future operating costs, NTEA’s Johnson offers a couple of suggestions that can help.

When purchasing trucks, specify as many common components as possible—air compressors, slack adjusters, alternators and bypass oil filters. Standardize on a single manufacturer for each type of component, even if you are purchasing multiple models. In addition, you may be able to standardize on foundation component manufacturers, such as engines, transmissions and axles.

When specifying truck bodies, standardize on a single manufacturer for all of your lighting components, and try to minimize the number of different part numbers required. Even if the selected supplier changes its components, the company will likely keep the same mounting systems and wiring connectors so that you can upgrade your lighting and still maintain standardization.

Most fleet mangers understand how standardization can help minimize parts inventory costs, but Johnson points out several other areas in which money can be saved:

• Reduced technician training expense
• Lower overall cost for shop test equipment
• Faster problem diagnoses followed by quicker and more accurate repairs
• Lower component and part acquisition costs as a result of larger quantity buys

Swapping bodies
When you’ve spent a small fortune on a custom or even a semi-custom designed body and the chassis on which it’s mounted is about to breathe its last breath, it might be a good idea to put that expensive body on a new chassis. Of course, such a decision would depend on just how difficult or expensive a swap would be. And don’t forget that you’ll have the truck out of service for as long as it will take to remove and reinstall the body. Add into the deliberations that some other fleet might be able to use that truck with the body installed in its present condition and would be happy to pay you for the equipment as it is. As Johnson said, “There is no one rule for the best thing to do. It depends on the relative costs of the body and chassis, as well as the life-cycle of the chassis and a vehicle.”

You also need to know that there are legal aspects involved with swapping bodies onto a new chassis. According to Johnson, the chassis is technically not a complete vehicle and cannot be licensed until it is completed. The company that installs the body, the body’s lighting system and the equipment that brings it to a point where it can be legally registered as a vehicle is considered a final manufacturer. That manufacturer needs to be registered with the federal government as a manufacturer and must follow certain reporting procedures.

Johnson said, “There are definitely some legal aspects involved with body transfers. This is especially true if you try to do it yourself instead of through a properly registered body company.”


Worthy of an Award
Energy Xtreme recently won The Work Truck Show 2011 Green Award for its U36 Crossover mild-hybrid plug-in system. The product is designed to provide emission-free energy to power hydraulic lifts and equipment on bucket trucks. It can be factory-integrated into new vehicles or retrofitted to existing utility vehicles. The system can run the truck’s auxiliary electrical equipment, tools, motors, pumps, hydraulic booms, lights, radio and laptop without the need to engage the engine or use a generator. The system includes a power management system, electric motor, pump and control module. It weighs less than 750 lbs. and plugs into a 30-amp wall outlet to recharge.

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