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Shifting shops into overdrive

NO COMPANY sets out to offer ho-hum quality or slow-motion service. Every distributor we know strives to assemble solid commercial trucks in a reasonable amount of time.

But in the months and years to come, that quality level may not be good enough — and today's service might not be fast enough.

Chassis manufacturers appear to be ready to say, “Guys, customers don't want to wait this long for their trucks anymore. We need to speed things up — and so do you.”

A panel of executives from Ford, General Motors, and International said as much during a special session on future trends in commercial trucks, held as part of The Work Truck Show in early March.

The tone that each of the presenters took was cordial, cooperative, and respectful. But for those in the truck equipment business, their words were also challenging.

If the thoughts of these chassis manufacturers are any indication, the truck body and truck equipment industry should brace itself for future truck customers who will be more demanding and less forgiving. Customer expectations regarding quality will be higher, and they will expect delivery a lot sooner than what they are getting now.

Customers today sometimes wait months for commercial trucks. They have been conditioned to do so. But in the 1950s and 1960s, American automobile buyers were conditioned to accept less than the best, too. That was before Japanese and European manufacturers introduced products into the North American market that gave consumers new choices — and higher expectations.

Success of foreign manufacturers continues to cost our fellow Americans sales and market share. In mid-March, for example, GM announced a loss of about $10.6 billion for 2005.

Chassis manufacturers are doing a lot of soul searching these days. They know it is better to be the company that raises customer expectations than to be the one forcing customers to settle for the mediocre and the mundane. Probably not bad advice for the rest of us, either.

So which customer expectations are being targeted? The focus seems to be on speed and quality. How fast is fast? How good is good? The manufacturers at this Work Truck Show session raised the bar pretty high. Try these goals on for size:

  • Zero to 30-day deliveries

    The customer places an order for a commercial vehicle. The chassis manufacturer, body manufacturer, and truck equipment distributor all complete their respective roles no more than one month later.

  • No complaints

    The completed truck has no flaws when it is delivered to the customer.

  • Non-stop service

    The truck performs with zero downtime during the first 120 days it is in use. Research shows that if a truck can perform flawlessly in its first four months of service, it tends to perform well throughout its life.

How can the team of chassis manufacturer, truck body manufacturer, and truck equipment distributor work together to deliver trucks more quickly? The answer is not in faster manufacturing. Most truck chassis are only in the plant for less than 24 hours, and truck body manufacturers crank out dozens of truck bodies in a day. As one chassis manufacturer pointed out, the real opportunities to produce commercial trucks faster are in activities other than manufacturing: Areas such as order placement. Purchasing. Engineering. Logistics. Building a commercial truck is a relay race, and there are a lot of points along the way where the baton being passed can be dropped or delayed.

As technology advances, though, some of these points can be transitioned more smoothly. Distributors now can plan more effectively by going on the chassis manufacturer's web site to find out exactly the status of a particular truck in the manufacturing process, and software provides an array of management and communication tools.

Closer communication can take huge amounts of time out of the production process. Chassis manufacturers, for example, can punch holes in truck frames much faster than distributors can drill them. Taking a little extra time early in the ordering process almost always saves a lot of time later.

“Plug and play” electrical systems are another time-saving solution that chassis manufacturers are touting. But beyond saving labor, they help in another major area: improving quality.

Quality can be measured in endless ways. But a simple rule of thumb seems to be emerging for how the workmanship of commercial trucks can be evaluated: Do the additions to the chassis appear to be tacked on, or does the completed truck seem to be an integrated solution from the factory?

As trucks become increasingly sophisticated, aftermarket splices and patches simply will not work. Esthetically, they are growing increasingly unacceptable to the customer. Functionally, they may affect the truck's ability to perform.

Today's chassis are not the same as the ones our fathers equipped, and they aren't being bought by the same people our fathers served. Our challenge today is to raise our customers' expectations — before someone else does.

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