Customers are a lot smarter today, says Joe Halpin, customer service and marketing specialist at Stahl Commercial Truck Equipment in Wooster, Ohio, and they are calling the shots.
"It used to be that the customer called us asking for a body and let us put one together for them," he says. "Today, they are calling us and telling us what they want."
And it's not just the number of drawers or tool cabinets they're thinking about.
They are concerned about efficiency in terms of operating costs and of workflow and productivity on the job. They are thinking about longevity and serviceability of the body, the weight of the body, and of course they are concerned about cost. But cost often isn't the highest priority, Halpin notes.
"The educated consumer wants a specific body built a specific way," he says.
Municipalities can be some of the most demanding consumers, says James Hatcher of Douglass Truck Bodies in Bakersfield, Calif.
"As governments get leaner and budgets get tighter, municipal fleets are becoming more exacting in their spec," Hatcher says. "They want certain tools on certain trucks to do certain jobs. They don't want to send two trucks and crews out where one properly equipped truck would do. The push toward leaner operations has provided some interesting challenges for our designers."
In the private sector, industries and trades of all stripes are being forced to reevaluate the size of the truck they use because of both acquisition and operating costs. Where diesel-powered fleets once dominated, gasoline power is making a comeback. That's due to the higher purchase price of post-EPA 2010 diesel engines and higher fuel costs.
With diesel fuel running 20, 30 or more cents per gallon higher than gasoline, the cost spread has become a factor in spec'ing decisions.
"In the past, when fuel was more reasonably priced, there was a tendency to over-spec the truck because they'd rather be safe than sorry," Halpin says. "Today, if they're running a one-ton, they're asking themselves if a three-quarter-ton truck would do, or even a half-ton. In the end, they may stay with the beefier spec, but these are things that are now being discussed and reviewed by companies all over. That wasn't always part of the discussion."
Doing more with less
With a push toward smaller, lighter chassis comes the need to address the size and weight of the body. The challenge there, says Jim Lenford, sales manager at Highway Products Inc. of White City, Ore., is that customers still want to put all the same tools and equipment onto a truck that may have a lower gross vehicle weight rating. If they put too heavy a body on the truck, they might have to leave some of their tools behind. That cranks up the pressure on the body builders.
Body builders primarily use three materials: aluminum, fiberglass and steel. Each has advantages and disadvantages ranging from cost to durability to ease of repair, and of course weight. Customers on a budget will be necessarily limited to steel or perhaps fiberglass, whereas really weight-conscious customers would be forced into fiberglass or aluminum.
Lenford, whose company produces mostly aluminum bodies, says aluminum costs about twice what steel does, but weight reduction is a very important consideration with his customers.
"Our customers are very much aware of the savings accrued by reducing the weight of the body, from increased payload to reduced fuel consumption because of the lighter weight, and possibly being able to downsize their chassis spec," he says. "Then you've got potential total cost of ownership savings in the form of longer life of the body because corrosion is not an issue."
Lenford says Highway Products did a weight comparison with a competitor's 8-foot steel service body. At 645 pounds, his aluminum bodies were less than half the steel body's weight of between 1,100 and 1,600 pounds.
Fiberglass or composite bodies are between aluminum and steel on cost and weight, at least at the commodity level. Actual pricing of the finished body depends on production and finishing costs, tooling, options and a number of other structural and cosmetic factors. Pricing also varies by region, market, etc. so it's difficult to put an exact price tag on the differences.
In general, there could be a difference of a few hundred dollars up to $600 between two similar bodies made of aluminum and steel, and up to a $1,000 or more depending on the size of the body, the amount of material used, and the tooling and production costs involved in more sophisticated body designs.
Brian Richards, marketing communications manager at Knapheide in Quincy, Ill., says the weight savings is there in aluminum and fiberglass compared to steel, but steel has some real advantages in terms of cost, strength and repairability.
"Steel is very easy to repair out in the field. You don't need specialized shops and highly skilled technicians to repair a steel body," Richards says. "Durability comes back into play when you talk about serviceability. When you get into a collision with a steel body, it'll bend before it breaks, and you can straighten it, or replace the damaged part. With the other materials, you could be into more extensive damage and specialty repairs. I think steel is the easiest to fix out in the field."
Structurally, Richards says, steel gives body builders the option of mounting some pretty heavy drawers or tools on the body without a lot of metal reinforcement.
With fiberglass, corrosion is absolutely not an issue, though some of the metallic substructure, if used, would be subject to the same problems as steel or aluminum. When it comes to weight, fiberglass body makers claim their products are 30% to 40% lighter than steel. In a standard service body, fiberglass might come in 400 to 500 pounds lighter than steel.
Fiberglass can be molded, which provides some production efficiencies, and it's relatively easy to maintain and keep looking good. Because fiberglass doesn't have the same capacity to flex as steel or aluminum, fiberglass bodies usually come with a suspension system of sorts to provide a little give between the chassis and the body. This reduces stresses that can cause cracking in the structural body panels, says the Astoria Industries website.
"Astoria bodies are designed 'stiff' to enhance service life and increase payload capacity. The mounting springs on Astoria's Spring Mount, isolate the body from the twisting, and cushion it from any 'slam down' effect," it says.
Most body builders, large and small, offer a mind-boggling array of installation and fit-up options over and above the cookie-cutter truck body, making each body installed as close to unique as one might hope for without drawing the plans yourself.
If you've got a specific tool that needs to go on the truck and it requires a specific door opening size, chances are you'll get it just for the asking. The stock boxes are just the starting point.
Highway Products, for example, offers a choice of modular designs where sections of different sizes can be bolted together for a custom setup without the custom design cost - more like fitting together pieces of a puzzle.
"If you're a welder and want a taller front section to your box, we don't have to redesign it," Lenford says. "We can bolt together what the customer wants without redesigning it."
So as market constraints are forcing contractors, utility fleets, and others to do more with less, the box manufacturers are ready with options and design choices to fit those new demands. Whether you're big on keeping the chassis yo