Engineering specialized solutions is an integral part of the upfit process at Auto Truck as new technologies, increased regulations and the demand for greater performance continue to expand in unison.
Auto Truck has been in the automotive engineering business for decades and brings that knowledge and experience to the table on an ever-increasing number of projects. Guy Chollet, Auto Truck’s Engineering Manager estimates that nearly 30% of fleet vehicles now require some aspect of engineering involvement – be it spec review, concept development, component design, testing/analysis, supporting manufacturing/repair or providing end-user training.
Understanding the broad spectrum of Auto Truck’s engineering services and how the process works will enable customers to realize the full benefit of this in-house resource. Fleet managers can work one-on-one with a member of our engineering department to design, build and properly operate the increasingly complex vehicles that enable our nation’s railroads, oil/energy, telecom and construction industries to remain in service.
Auto Truck’s engineering department functions in four primary modes; Concept Development; Manufacturing Support; Design, Testing and Documentation; and Field Support. Most often, involvement of the engineering department is initiated by an Auto Truck sales representative or account manager working with a particular customer on a new project. The sales representative facilitates a meeting of the minds between the customer and the engineering department while remaining as the main point of contact throughout the project.
In the Concept Development mode, Auto Truck’s engineering department undertakes the task of creating a truck that meets a specific set of specs or operates in a particular manner. A customer such as a government entity may provide a fully developed set of specs, whereas a small fleet owner may come with a more general goal, such as how it might be possible to downsize to a lower truck class. In the first example, the engineering department reviews the specs to determine if the concept complies with all conditions, or if modifications are recommended. “Certain applications have innate complexities, and some features are mutually exclusive. We look for these things and determine if further discussions are needed, or if creating a prototype is warranted”, adds Chollet. Depending on the project and the team members, Auto Truck can bring in suppliers and other engineers as well as vehicle representatives to advise and answer questions. “Astute fleet managers have an idea of the potential liabilities that exist and look to use these available resources to reduce their exposure.” After the concept phase, engineering then pre-selects equipment to match the specs, which the sales representative prices and presents to the customer. If the customer approves the quote then engineering re-enters the process to finalize the design at a manufacturing level – including fabrication drawings and manufacturing support.
Auto Truck has the capability to do in-house vehicle prototyping – which is usually reserved for very complex or costly vehicles, or where design changes will affect a great number of vehicles. “We can do rapid prototyping – fabricating a finished vehicle in just 3-6 months. More often though, we do prototypes of subsets –PTO driven hydraulic systems, electrical circuits or engine and transmission control software,” Chollet explains.
If the fleet manager does not have a complete set of specs, or a clear idea of the end product, the Concept Development process takes a different tack. Some customers ask us to replicate something they’ve seen on another fleet, but with some tweaks. The engineer assigned to the project will initiate the discovery phase by asking the customer process questions – how the truck is used, where it travels, qualifications of the driver, and cost parameters, in order to start defining the product. The customer may say something like, I want to take 20% of the weight out of the body, or I need to carry a larger crew. If the fleet manager or procurement manager is non-technical, field personnel or a vehicle operator may participate in the discussions. Even something as simple as adding another seat may require engineering analysis – there are so many regulations involved,” Chollet points out. As the manager of the engineering department, Chollet emphasizes the importance of excellent communication, “We are in the service business. Our engineers have to be good communicators, ask leading questions and understand the customer’s priorities.”
Computer software with realistic 3-D modeling and internet connectivity has changed the way Auto Truck’s engineers communicate with customers, especially in the last 2-3 years. The capability for everyone to look-in on the engineer’s screen whether they’re at one of our facilities or via an internet connection, makes it much easier for the customer to understand the ideas and issues at hand, and therefore make informed choices. “We did a fully animated demo from our office in Bartlett, IL for a customer located in northern Alaska. The 3-D modeling showed exactly why one option was better than another. We didn’t have to fly to Alaska and they didn’t have to wait for a solution,” adds Chollet. Customers can download the dynamic 3-D viewer to their computers, or if that’s not possible, they can view the 3-D stills as jpeg images or pdf documents.
When an approved concept goes to the Manufacturing phase technicians doing the actual installation or fabrication contribute their expertise to the project, such as suggesting less costly ways of doing something or verifying equipment availability. The engineer is on-hand to go over drawings and QB any changes. Chollet cites a recent example of a manufacturing change-of-course when just a few years ago GM abruptly left the large truck market just as a project using those bodies was slated for production. “We had to redirect our energies to find a suitable replacement for those bodies that still worked with the weight constraints and the equipment the customer wanted.”
Particular parts and structures like trailer hitches, crane assemblies and overhead storage racks are stressed-tested in what is called a Finite Element Analysis or FEA. Engineers perform the FEA using sophisticated computer software to calculate the amount of stress on a given surface or structure, then generate a 3-D model of the object. Areas of low stress are shaded in blue and areas of high stress are shaded in red. The stress levels in between are shaded in green, yellow or orange accordingly. This graphic representation makes it easy for everyone to see and understand the forces present per a given configuration. The design engineer and the technicians can then determine the best course of action, such as to use a particular weld or heavier gauge material to reduce the stress level. “However, with every solution there are trade-offs”, Chollet points out. “If added weight causes an issue, then we would explore other options; a different piece of equipment or even a different body”.
In the Design, Testing and Documentation mode, the engineer gets into the details of how to accommodate each piece of equipment on the vehicle as well as accommodate the field personnel who use and maintain it. Recently, a construction company operating across a large region of the U.S. needed to order a number of trucks with overhead storage racks. At the same time, the customer wanted to utilize Auto Truck’s ship-through service to take advantage of lower delivery costs. However, the size of the attached storage racks prevented shipment via rail car, so the engineers at Auto Truck came up with a solution of creating racks that would ship disassembled and could later be re-assembled and installed by the various dealerships upon arrival. Engineers had to make the rack simple for the dealer to assemble properly given the tools they typically have on hand. Chollet remarks, “There’s a lot of effort involved in making something simple at the end.”
Auto Truck’s engineering department does other testing and analysis in order to verify and document particular design and manufacturing choices. Calculating the proposed weight of a truck with each of its components is important to customers that operate in states that strictly regulate axle loads. Having this data, the engineers can design the vehicles’ systems accordingly for that customer. For trucks with cranes or booms, Auto Truck engineers can analyze the vehicle’s center of gravity, which is of the utmost importance for operational stability and user safety. “We can also do a forward- or reverse-analysis on what could cause or what has caused something to break, advising customers of where issues reside,” adds Chollet.
The fourth aspect of Auto Truck’s engineering services is providing ongoing Field Support to its customers, including writing vehicle-specific operating manuals and providing equipment training for the end user. Even years down the road, Auto Truck can retrieve and share vital information to help keep customers’ vehicles in operation. “The engineering department takes calls all day from repair people, they want to make sure they are using the right parts and understand why something was done a certain way,” says Chollet. After a repair is made, Auto Truck engineers can test each system and re-set the operating parameters – a process called re-flashing. “We can flash his truck for him over the internet. He just needs to have a phone card and a laptop computer that can talk to our computer.”