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Fleets and upfitters can forge valuable, consistent, efficient relationships if they set expectations and work together

May 5, 2017
Fleets and upfitters: Achieving harmony and profitability by first crafting expectations

NTEA asked Matt Stewart and Tony Gonzalez to join forces for a presentation, “Fleet Expectations for Electrical Wiring on Multi-Stage Work Trucks,” because they represent a fleet and an upfitter that have been able to work well together.

Stewart, a fleet manager for Jefferson County, Washington, and Gonzalez, general manager of Tri-Angle Fabrication & Body Co, figured out how to set expectations for each other when Stewart worked for the city of Chicago and Tri-Angle provided him with most of his passenger vehicles, everything from pickups to cargo vans.

But it’s not always like that.

“Fleets receive inconsistent results from suppliers,” Stewart said. “I see that all the time, especially now that I’m working for a smaller fleet. I don’t have quite the pull that the city of Chicago has to demand things I want done properly—managing what I get in terms of supply of new vehicles and equipment, especially where they’ve been touched by multiple upfitters or multiple techs within one upfitter. My crew spends a lot of time in the shop fixing what comes in from upfitters.

“The flip side is that body companies and upfitters receive inconsistent expectations from fleets. Larger companies and fleets have advantages: They have a whole team of people engineering to create specs and diagrams/drawings. Larger companies and fleets can force the other party into their spec process. That goes both ways. The flip side of that is, try buying an Altec truck without going through Altec’s engineering process. They have their process that works well for them to manage expectations for the fleet to make sure they’re working through the build properly, so you’re forced into that process. How can any fleet and any supplier, big or small, match that?”

Stewart said poor communication of expectations and consistent results leads to later corrections.

Matt Stewart, Jefferson County, Washington

“For fleets, rework and delivery delays cost money in keeping old vehicles running, leading eventually to accepting a poor product,” he said. “For vendors, rework is a loss and prevents moving to the next job. There’s transportation to move vehicles back and forth. Eventually, just speaking realistically, a fleet gives up and just accepts a poor product because they’re tired of messing around. That creates further problems down the road.

“Rework is rarely done to the same quality as the initial work due to splices, different personnel assigned, etc. Every time you do corrections, especially to electrical wiring, you further degrade the integrity of that system. You now have multiple people and multiple shops working on the same set of wiring.”

He said poor communication between fleets and suppliers limits competition and opportunity.

“A fleet doesn’t know what they need or how to build their vehicle,” he said. “All they know is, ‘Company A has been building a dump truck for us for years, so we’re sticking with Company A because we don’t actually know what we need. We just know that when they bring it in, it’s something that we been able to work with for the past decade.’

“A fleet’s customary supplier knows what to do. A fleet sticks with what works or is comfortable. Forming a new relationship becomes difficult and expensive for both parties, especially with smaller fleet operations.”

Tony Gonzalez, Tri-Angle Fabrication

Gonzalez said fleets expect that common-sense good practices will be used, starting with properly trained personnel being assigned to a job from start to finish, and personnel that take very seriously their responsibility for delivering a good product.

“That sounds like it should be a given, but it’s not,” he said. “So we want techs to follow installation guides and what the component manufacturer says. That involves: drilling holes in appropriate places, using grommets and resealing them, and all the other common-sense things that result in no wiring rubbing on sharp metal. It also involves removing metal shavings and bits of wire, which is as simple as taking a vacuum cleaner to it. We should use connectors appropriate for the environment. When the vehicle is done, we should check for parasitic load and fix it if found.”

He showed a photo of a main power supply, saying that the circuit breakers typically are located 12 inches from the power supply and out of the elements. But in another photo, the wiring was not run in an orderly fashion and the equipment was not anchored properly.

What should be done instead:

• Route wiring clear of any sharp edges, moving parts or pinch points.

• Separate into individual component harnesses.

• Anchored wiring.

• Separate data cables (antenna coaxials, Cat 5, etc) from the power distribution.

He showed a photo of properly mounted equipment, then showed another one of improper storage of excess wiring and cables.

What should be done instead:

• Neatly “coil” in a way that the cable will not be crimped or bent.

• Keep out of the way of foot traffic.

He showed a photo of proper wire management and contrasted it with a photo showing improper wiring connections/connectors, wires wound around a set-screw-type terminal, and wires terminated incorrectly, exposing bare copper wire.

What should be done instead:

• Use the correct type of connectors.

• Strip the wire only as long as the collar of the connector.

He showed a photo illustrating undersized wire, with the entire length melted.

What should be done instead:

• Calculate the length of each wire run.

• Calculate the total number of amps a piece of equipment draws.

• Choose the correct gauge wire.

• If borderline, use the larger of the two gauges.

He showed a photo of an improper cable entry point, with no grommet and no sealant.

What should be done instead:

• Prime and paint.

• Use a grommet.

• Seal with butyl-type weather proof tape or a silicone sealant.

He said that a problem that is “too common” is routing a cable improperly within an air bag deployment zone. Instead, follow all safety guidelines pertaining to air bag deployment zones; if necessary to cross an airbag, route the aftermarket harness over the top of the airbag instead of underneath.

Another problem is improper ground distribution by daisy-chaining with butt connectors. Instead, use a panel mounted stud or distribution block (whether distributing a ground, 12V+ constant or a 12V+ ignition feed); and allow future adding/removing of circuits.

Stewart listed fleet expectations:

Consistency and documentation.

“The way to do that is to meet the spec—every part of it. There’s a tendency to agree to a spec and then build the vehicle the way that you always built it or give it to your wiring guy and say, ‘Do it the way you always did it.’ If the fleet spells out wiring practices—either prohibited practices or required practices—we expect it to be followed. A lot of times we don’t see the wiring until it fails and it goes back for warranty work.”

“Furnish a complete, readable wiring diagram before starting to implement it. Especially for a small shop, it doesn’t need to be a perfect CAD diagram. It can even be handwritten. But there needs to be one. Part of building a vehicle consistently from one to the next is writing down what was done on the first one and then that will be extremely important for fleet technicians when they go to diagnose and repair.

“Label your work—fuse panels and junction blocks. The driver out in the field that’s trying to figure out why his amber lights aren’t working in the snowstorm would really like to know which fuse he needs to fix.”


“Use textbook wire protection always, with properly sized wire in continuous lengths, physical protection using loom, grommets, and circuit protection using properly sized fuses and breakers. Mount outside airbag-deployment zones and run wires away from airbags. Don’t damage OEM wiring.”

Warranty and follow-up service.

“Care about the job even when it is complete, delivered and paid for. Give a quick response to fleet’s problems, roll out any necessary correction to the entire fleet and update documentation—wiring diagrams and manuals—to match any necessary correction.”

Gonzalez gave body company expectations:

Supplier needs a complete, clear specification.

“The fleet should define expectations instead of using blanket statements to protect the fleet or to change expectations later.”

Supplier needs to be able to trust the specification.

“The fleet needs to stick to the spec after the contract or purchase order is issued. Changes cost money for both entities. The supplier team bears the cost of most misunderstandings or poorly defined specs. The fleet bears the cost of any true changes to the spec.”

Supplier team is owed reliable pre-build, pre-paint and/or pre-delivery meetings.

“Ideally for the first unit of each order. ‘Reliable’ means the fleet’s word can be relied upon by the supplier when building additional units. Send authoritative staff serious about the task. Once the build starts, only specified corrections and vital, carefully considered changes are ordered by the fleet.”

Guidelines for both sides:

The fleet should draft thorough written specifications, and suppliers should insist on them.

“Protect the fleet and body company or upfitter from unintended costs. Include prohibitions of specific wiring practices and requirements for other practices the fleet insists on following. If a spec is poorly defined, the supplier should include one with quote.”

The fleet and supplier should insist on thorough meetings.

“It should be a pre-build meeting or discussion of spec and expectations, with a thorough review of the wiring diagram and a thorough inspection of the first unit produced from each wiring diagram.”

Specs, discussions and inspections should focus on the unseen.

“The results of clear, shared expectations are important,” he said. “It means reduced order-to-delivery time. For the fleet, faster delivery and fewer problems. For the supplier, fewer hours and better margins. And it will reduce later costs. For the supplier, it will eliminate rework and reduce warranty costs. For the fleet, it will increase reliability, reduce downtime, and reduce maintenance/repair costs.” ♦

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.