There are a variety of upfitting trends occurring in the commercial fleet market, ranging from the use of more lightweight materials to modular upfits and more flexibility in modifying upfits to meet driver requests.
As the industry’s upfit volume has grown proportional to the increase in fleet truck and van new-order volume, Work Truck sought out industry subject-matter experts to identify the top trends currently influencing chassis and upfit equipment design and specifications.
Below are the top 10 trends influencing truck and van upfitting in today’s market, as identified by industry subject-matter experts:
Increased Focus on Designing Upfits to Enhance Safety and Productivity
Safety and productivity are growing increasingly important in van and truck upfitting.
“Fleet managers are giving increased consideration as to whether an upfit will be ergonomically safe for the driver over the service life of the vehicle,” said Don Scare, manager, truck excellence at Element Fleet Management.
Similarly, fleet managers are increasingly focused on how upfits can be designed to enhance productivity.
“We look at what clients are doing with their trucks. Are they climbing in and out of them numerous times a day? Do they have particular needs for servicing their own clients?” noted Scare. “At the Red Cross, for instance, the people driving the vehicles are not professional drivers — they’re nurses, aid workers, et. al.; these workers have a dual role. As companies push to meet their bottom lines, they’re considering alternatives to get the job done. They want the upfitting to accommodate that and make it safe, comfortable, and productive for the driver.”
Safety considerations when spec’ing upfit equipment is widespread in all fleet segments.
“More fleets are requesting additional safety equipment, such as a rear-view camera system, reverse sensing system, back-up alarm, remote start, grab handles, convex spot mirrors, and drop-down ladder racks, to name a few,” said Joe Birren, truck design consultant for Donlen.
Rather than factory order a rear-view camera system, reverse sensing system, or remote start features, fleets are adding the equipment at the time of upfitting to avoid the added initial vehicle cost, requiring a possible upgrade to a higher trim level or forcing the selection of additional option package content that is not required for the fleet application.
“This equipment, as well as simple spot mirrors, can improve operator vision around the vehicle and reduce the risk of an accident. Adding ergonomic safety equipment, such as grab handles or a drop-down ladder rack in lieu of a fixed ladder rack, can reduce insurance claims and improve operator efficiency,” said Birren.
Other factors influencing the increased focus on safety equipment are risk management considerations and federal Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores.
“With litigation costs soaring, reducing the risk of injuries is becoming imperative. Savvy fleet managers see the overall savings safety equipment offers in today’s world,” said Joe Brightwell, manager, fleet services operations - truck engineering for Wheels Inc.
The ongoing focus on safety-related upfits is having a measurable impact in both the short- and long-term.
“Improving safety for the driver while on the road, as well as when their work truck is working, go hand-in-hand,” said Ken Gillies, truck ordering & engineering manager at GE Capital Fleet Services.
Standardized Upfit Specifications
Over the past few years, more companies have been looking for ways to lower a vehicle’s capitalized cost while maintaining constancy across their fleet vehicles.
“One way to do this is to provide standardized upfit packages, which reduce the number of individual driver and branch equipment variances without sacrificing safety or efficiency,” said Birren of Donlen. “For example, in a typical cargo van application, package ‘A’ could be spec’d for an HVAC service technician, and package ‘B’ could be spec’d for a plumbing technician, but incorporate the same partition, shelving, and safety options from package ‘A,’ with only some slight variations, such as a conduit carrier in lieu of a refrigerant tank rank, etc. Package ‘C’ could be for a general service/delivery application using the same partition, shelving, and safety equipment from packages ‘A’ and ‘B’, but without any specific vocational options.”
In addition to safety, there is also a financial incentive to standardization.
“This approach allows for volume price discounting from the equipment manufacturer, the ability to stock equipment at the installer to shorten upfit lead time, and flexibility if a vehicle needs to be transferred between branch locations. If vehicles are spec’d similarly, adding or removing only a few pieces of equipment and not an entire interior when transferring a vehicle reduces downtime, as well as facilitates quicker new-hire training,” said Birren.
Widespread Move to Lightweight Upfit Equipment
One upfitting trend is being driven by corporate fuel-efficiency initiatives.
“In an effort to increase fuel efficiency and reduce the overall weight of a van, upfitters are transitioning from steel racks and bins to heavy-duty plastic composites and aluminum. The same thing is happening with service bodies, as upfitters are concentrating on reducing the weight of service bodies on cutaway vans,” said Howard Goldman, vehicle purchasing manager for Merchants Fleet Management.
Upfit suppliers are engineering upfit materials that are lighter and stronger.
“The use of lightweight materials in aftermarket body and equipment — and vehicle manufacturers — has become more prevalent, primarily due to the desire for increased fuel economy, payload capacity, and corrosion protection. The amount of lightweighting will vary depending on the particular application of the body and equipment, and typically have a higher cost over traditional materials,” said Birren of Donlen.
Not only does the use of lighter materials lead to greater fuel efficiency, it also contributes to less wear-and-tear on trucks.
“The use of composites and other lightweight materials is on the rise, and the upfits themselves have been re-engineered to trim as much weight as possible without sacrificing function,” said Mike Crumlett, manager, North America truck maintenance operations at Emkay.
The trend toward lightweighting is being driven by several factors: “The first factor is fuel economy. Lighter vehicles use less fuel, which translates into a reduction in operating expenses,” said Crumlett.
There is a direct correlation between the cost of fuel and the trend toward lightweighting.
“Fuel prices drove many companies to look at their current upfit specs to identify other ways to improve fuel economy, such as moving to an aluminum aftermarket body over a traditional steel body, as an example,” said Birren.
The second factor driving lightweighting is to reduce the weight of upfits to increase the payload potential of the vehicle. “Lighter bodies, racks, bins, and shelves mean more cargo can be carried, allowing fleets to accomplish more with the same vehicles. This is especially important with the proliferation of smaller, lighter platforms,” said Crumlett.
Another point is to ensure the vehicle stays below a specific GVW threshold to avoid DOT regulations.
“Some fleets also prefer to stay under a specific vehicle weight rating and/or maximize their payload capacity potential and look to lightweight body and equipment materials to achieve this,” said Birren.
The third factor is that the reduction in fuel consumption improves a fleet’s ability to meet corporate sustainability objectives. “Less fuel burned translates into fewer carbon emissions and less air pollution. The number of fleets adopting environmentally responsible practices is on the rise, and many are finding that eco-friendly policies help their bottom line as well,” said Crumlett.
Changes in Interior Van Packages Due to Debut of New ‘Euro’ Vans
As commercial fleets move to the new Euro-style cargo vans, they have many more interior options to consider.
“This has a downstream effect on other changes, involving other components, such as ladder racks, due to the different roof-height configurations. In many cases options are limited to a drop-down ladder rack, which is much more expensive than the two- or three-bar ladder rack used in previous models,” said Goldman of Merchants Fleet Management.
Another major trend is that more fleets are customizing upfit packages for specific workflow models and driver ergonomics.
“Work trucks are becoming more work-efficient and driver-friendly, and it’s paying dividends in productivity. The days of adding generic shelves and a store-bought ladder rack to a vehicle are coming to an end. Improvements in the packaging and function of mechanical upfits like service bodies and rack systems, as well as mobile connectivity and electronic inventory controls, make drivers more efficient and effective, in addition to making the work day a little easier,” said Crumlett of Emkay.
The days of adding generic shelves and a store-bought ladder rack to a vehicle are coming to an end.
Improvements in the packaging and function of mechanical upfits like service bodies and rack systems, as well as mobile connectivity and electronic inventory controls, make drivers more efficient and effective, in addition to making the work day a little easier,” said Crumlett of Emkay.
More companies are becoming more conscious about what they’re transporting. They want to ensure they’re not hauling unnecessary additional parts.
“Clients turn to us and say, ‘What can we do to redesign?’ We look at what they’re hauling, their requirements for the vehicle itself (how much room for payload, etc.), what hours they operate, whether there’s an option in terms of the body’s material, and make recommendations,” said Scare of Element Fleet Management. “For the Red Cross, for example, we wanted to get out of being classified as a DOT vehicle and into a lighter GVWR, but haul the same product.”
One emerging trend is increased substitution of Euro vans’ interior upfit versus spec’ing pickups with toppers.
“The reasons this is occurring are because newer vans have better fuel economy, greater functionality, and increased upfit options. The ergonomics are enhanced with the Euro vans, which help reduce injuries and fatigue, and improve in-use time for drivers and vehicles,” said Brightwell of Wheels.
The upfitting industry is becoming more complex with trans-border operations. In the case of the Ram ProMaster, it is built in Mexico and the upfit installers are located near the plant.
“For the Ram ProMaster, there is one common upfit center in Saltillo, Mexico. Customers have the advantage of a wider range of upfitters without compromising quality of the installation. A centralized upfit center improves order-to-delivery time by allowing vehicles to be upfitted as soon as they come off of the assembly line,” said Goldman of Merchants Fleet Management.
Growth in Telematics Specifications
One of the biggest trends in upfitting is the use of telematics. “When a vehicle has been carefully engineered and constructed to do a specific job, proper utilization of telematics data can ensure the fleet sees the maximum benefit from their investment,” said Crumlett of Emkay. “While some view telematics as a way to police drivers, there is much more to it than that. A well-administered telematics program can create incredible gains in fleet productivity at the same time it reduces expenses and vehicle downtime.”
Rebound in Construction Industry
One of the largest vocational markets for upfitted work trucks and vans is the construction industry, which is slowly emerging from the economic doldrums that have stalled this fleet segment since 2008. The mild upturn in new construction is helping compensate for the current slowdown in the energy sector resulting from the decline in oil prices.
“Some shift is already being felt by upfitters with increased construction-related business, as the energy sector goes through this adjustment in demand,” said Gillies of GE Capital Fleet Services.
Increased Specification of LED Lighting
There has been a dramatic shift in the use of LED lighting in upfit packages. LED lighting creates a smaller electric current draw on the electrical components and has a longer service life.
“One very specific upfitting trend we’ve noticed is a growing interest in LED lighting. It takes less energy and provides better lumen, more of a maintenance-free operation, and lasts longer,” said Scare of Element Fleet Management.
Move to Smaller Chassis
The upfitting industry has been impacted by the long-term trend by many fleets to downsize to a smaller vehicle chassis.
“GM’s rollout of the Colorado in a cab and chassis configuration is generating high interest as customers seek to go smaller, while still having the functionality of a service body,” said Gillies of GE Capital Fleet Services.
According to Brightwell, there is also a movement from cutaway box trucks to new cargo vans. “A key reason why this is occurring is for DOT purposes, with the objective to remain under 10,001 pounds GVW. New cargo vans provide adequate space from the factory, in turn eliminating heavy upfitting costs,” added Brightwell of Wheels.
“A key reason why this is occurring is for DOT purposes, with the objective to remain under 10,001 pounds GVW. New cargo vans provide adequate space from the factory, in turn eliminating heavy upfitting costs,” added Brightwell of Wheels.
Spot Shortages for Components from OEMs
As the economy improves, upfitters are feeling the pressure from the increase in the number of upfits requiring a ship-thru.
“Upfit demand is very strong and there is some spotty transport delays post-upfit. Thankfully, this is well short of what was experienced in 2014. Certain OEMs have extended lead times due to spot shortages of certain components, added Gillies of GE Capital Fleet Services. “Upfitter material availability has been good; however, production is running behind on certain bodies.”
However, one of the best strategies that fleet managers can employ to mitigate order-to-delivery delays is to order vehicles earlier in the model-year.
“A growing number of fleets seem to have a better understanding of the crucial part they have in timely decisions to avoid hampering production,” said Gillies.
Improved Quality of Graphics
Most upfitters report that the quality of graphics has improved, which is helping to facilitate installations.