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‘Disruptive’ Manufacturing Drives Heavy-Duty Truck Makers

By Frank Burke Contributing Editor, SME Media

Future challenges in the heavy-duty truck industry require continual evolution of materials and methods to give greater versatility in their manufacturing processes. This is due to advances in technology, the impact of regulations, demand fluctuation and competition, and customer expectations.

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A truck motor at Navistar’s Hunstville, Ala., manufacturing facility. (Provided by Navistar)

According to IBISWorld research, the entire truck and bus manufacturing industry is considered a “mature industry,” and it is expected to grow at an annualized rate of 1.4 percent in the coming five years. Most of this growth will take place in the Class 8 truck sector, which accounts for 60.5 percent of the market as of 2019 and is projected to grow in sales. A further impetus for demand in this area is the continuing expansion of e-commerce. Large shipments to single retailers are being supplanted by numerous individually packaged single orders, requiring more surface transportation from trucks.

Beyond the statistics, it is clear that the heavy-duty truck industry is a market in the throes of “disruption,” with the major players and suppliers seeking to incorporate technology and features that will radically alter both end products and manufacturing processes.

A Logical Next Step

The success and increasing acceptance of hybrid and electric automobiles such as the Toyota Prius and the Tesla have caused both the public at large and the industry to view new technologies in semi-trucks as a logical next step. Navistar International Corp. (International, Maxx Force), Daimler AG (Freightliner, Western Star, Sterling), PACCAR Inc. (Kenilworth, Peterbilt, Daf), and the Volvo Group (Volvo trucks, Mack) have committed to the development of alternative-energy vehicles in the near- to mid-term future. Whether the expense involved in the development and manufacturing of the proposed vehicles, as well as the major cultural change involved in manufacturing theory and process, will be the catalysts to encourage joint ventures or even further consolidation remains to be seen.

An all-important consideration in the market acceptance of non-traditional fuel sources has to do with the infrastructure required. The availability and efficiency of fuel sources, repair facilities, spare parts, supplies, and other considerations will weigh heavily on the minds of fleet operators considering the switch, as will fuel and repair costs.

Jack Roberts, senior editor at Heavy-Duty Trucking magazine, Torrance, Calif., a leading information source for the heavy-duty trucking industry and fleet operators, commented, “It’s logical that the first generation of infrastructure will be located along the main routes. Less traveled areas, as well as such special-purpose vehicles as fire engines and other emergency equipment, cement trucks, large tow trucks and others that largely function off the main line, will require the systems and sources currently in place.”

The difference in spatial requirements between current diesel engines and the new power sources has provided opportunities for a complete redesign of both the interior and exterior of the cab unit. Including these new features is meant to address one of the industry’s current problem areas: attracting new drivers.

“Driver shortage is a real problem,” said Roberts. “Truck driving is the leading blue-collar job, and, in spite of the talk about robotic and autonomous vehicles, there is and will be a real need for people—both men and women.” To achieve this, trucking companies are adjusting their business models to create a more attractive package for drivers. This would include the ability to get home sooner, which can be made possible by defining regional and local routes and by drop-off and pick-up points at stated distances on long-haul runs, according to Roberts. “There’s also a much more intense focus on safety and comfort with tools like predictive cruise control to handle traffic jams,” he said.

New Platform Adds Extra Room

The “skateboard” platform employed by Nikola Motor Co., Phoenix, for its vehicles provides close to 4’ (1.2 m) of extra room by eliminating the hood/engine compartment. The company is a pioneer manufacturer of trucks powered by hydrogen fuel cells and electricity. The extra space accommodates amenities that include a pull-down table and chairs, audio/visual entertainment systems, and bunk beds. Further features include leather seats, padded dash, and dual information screens with digital readouts showing fuel consumption, GPS data, and climate and audio controls. To create a more user-friendly and secure environment for female drivers, a camera system can detect individuals coming within 50’ (15 m) of the truck.

The importance of such evolutionary design concepts to truck manufacturers cannot be overstated. It is seen as essential to maintaining existing brand identities while, at the same time, displaying an embrace of the newest and latest technologies.

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A worker at Navistar’s Hunstville, Ala., manufacturing facility. (Provided by Navistar)

In a recent opinion piece on “Designing the Semi-Truck of the Future,” Motorized Vehicle Manufacturing Yearbook-2019, published by SME Media, Chris Ito, Director, industrial design at Navistar, commented on the challenges posed by new technologies: “Truck designers are seeking to incorporate technology advances while also maintaining a distinct visual identity—sometimes called ‘styling’—that supports the truck maker’s brand. Truck designers believe that a vehicle’s shape should convey a consistent message about the brand, while being appropriate for a given market segment. For example, a long-haul truck may be shaped like a bullet or aircraft in order to convey the impression of technology leadership and aerodynamics. A school bus, on the other hand, may express a more ‘neighborhood friendly’ feel.”

Another major factor driven both by regulations and customer demand is safety. With regard to safety, Trevor Milton, founder and chief executive of Nikola Motor Co., noted, “Among other advances, Nikola will be introducing the first generation of trucks equipped with airbags.”

Safety Features Proliferate

Volvo Trucks USA, Greensboro, N.C., recently announced the Volvo Active Driver Assist (VADA) 2.0 in the “comprehensive collision mitigation system” that will be standard in the company’s new VNR and VNL models and later on the VNX model.

VADA uses camera and radar sensors to detect motorized vehicles within the vehicle’s proximity. Technology enables a series of features to activate driver alerts and foundation braking according to information detected.

System features include:

  • Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) alerts the driver to traffic situations. If the driver does not respond, AEB engages to mitigate potential collisions.
  • Lane Departure Warning (LDW) alerts the driver when an unintentional lane departure occurs.
  • Highway Departure Warning and Braking (HDB) automatically activates if the driver does not react to lane departure. When LDW detects that the vehicle may be leaving the roadway, the system then slows the vehicle by a predetermined mph.
  • Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) with Cruise Auto Resume enables the truck to revert back to cruising speed with Cruise Auto Resume (also known as “Slow & Go”) at speeds above 10 mph.
  • Driver Awareness Support utilizes an in-cab, windshield-mounted camera and data capture to enhance driver coaching and data recording.

Closely related to safety requirements are connectivity innovations allowing for real-time reporting in areas including remote diagnostic and repair planning. Nikola Motor’s Milton stated, “Connectivity is essential. Our 4G update incorporating powerful computer diagnostics is literally redesigned on a monthly basis to provide the most advanced performance data.”

Roberts of Heavy-Duty Trucking commented, “Connectivity is absolutely vital. Drivers tend to be extremely individualistic and don’t like to be told what to do, so connectivity is a crucial management tool.” This is not without a cost. “When it comes to more comprehensive connectivity features, the entry by smaller players is harder and only the larger fleets can afford to play,” he said.

The development and production of vehicles in which the electronic/mechanical interface is extensively used requires significant changes, not only in manufacturing but in the selection of suppliers. While the electronic features have increased in both automobiles and trucks over the past two decades, the switch to non-traditional energy sources creates an exponential degree of complexity.

For instance, the Nikola hydrogen fuel cell concept features electrically driven axles—eAxles—from Bosch. There are two liquid-cooled motors on each axle, one for each wheel. Electronic air brakes use friction from the motors to slow the drive axle and generate energy back to the battery pack. The preponderance of such sensitive components mandates a much more “sanitary” environment than the traditional assembly line, a demand that affects suppliers as well.

The number of sub-contractors and parts sources is likewise increased with the vastly expanded international supply chain. Electronic-based enhancements are also a major factor in the development of the next generation of the more traditional diesel-powered trucks.

Diesel Powers On

Although at present public and media attention has been focused on the newer motor power technologies, the diesel engine remains the standard power source for the Class 8 heavy-duty truck. Since 1923, when it was first used by the trucking industry, the diesel engine has consistently evolved in response to demands for greater power, better fuel economy and, more recently, cleaner performance. Its popularity in the foreseeable future is underscored by a vast infrastructure in terms of fuel supply, maintenance and repair capabilities, and knowledgeable mechanics.

“Diesel will be with us for a long time. Even in the face of new technological developments, many fleet owners are solidly behind the use of diesel power,” said Roberts. They cite anticipated maintenance costs and an extended learning curve for the newer technologies, as well as the ready supply of parts and the fact that fuel economy has improved, according to Roberts. “A decade ago, diesel power in long-haul applications achieved around six mpg. Today, that has increased to eight to 10,” he said.

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Interior of new Nikola Motor Co. headquarters in Phoenix. (Provided by Nikola Motor)

Tony Satterthwaite, president, Cummins Distribution Business, a unit of engine builder Cummins, Columbus, Ind., in testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, stated, “As we look to the future of the heavy-duty transportation sector, we see a sector that is highly complex and one in which we don’t believe there will be one technological solution that will meet all needs.

Cummins is committed to investing in an energy diverse future where our customers have a broad portfolio of power options—including clean diesel, natural gas, electrified power and even fuel cell technology—so they can choose what works best for them,” he continued. “Our customers buy heavy-duty vehicles for commercial return. … We think clean diesel will remain an important technology for many of our customers for a long time. We will continue to work with regulators to make diesel even cleaner and more efficient than it is today. At the same time, in some applications natural gas or electrified power will make the most sense based on the job to be done or the location where the vehicle is operating.”

Clean diesel is the combination of today’s ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, advanced engines and effective emission controls. Together, these elements result in a highly efficient engine, which can achieve extremely low emissions and reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs), according to Satterthwaite.

Industry sources also cite diesel as retaining its popularity due to smaller trucking operations and individual operators that will not be able to afford the higher entry and support costs for newer technologies.

Advances in New Components

In addition to motor power and fuel sources, other mechanical and electronic components in the powertrain and systems of both traditional and alternative energy vehicles have been undergoing significant advancements in areas affecting fuel economy, operational efficiency, safety, and comfort. Satterthwaite commented, “Combining clean diesel and hybrid technology provides additional fuel efficiency, further improving air quality and reducing carbon footprints, and even enabling a zero-emissions operating mode within city limits.”

International now offers Bendix Wingman Fusion, an integration of advanced safety technologies, as standard equipment. The automatic/manual transmission, a combination of the traditional manual and automatic transmission, is enhanced with electronic components to provide increased fuel efficiency in a more user-friendly package.

The redesign of the semi-truck has resulted in improvements of even the most basic components. Mills Products Inc., Athens, Tenn., is a supplier of grab handles to manufacturers. Said Chad Dodson, director of sales & marketing, “Our business has grown because we incorporate an advanced hydroform capability that brings unique benefits to our customers. For instance, we can easily change the shape of the handle, we can add details including finger grooves, and we can deliver a much stronger and more versatile product than the traditional bent tube handles.”

He believes the company’s versatility is extremely important to truck manufacturers that are demanding much greater design freedom. “We see great benefit in the early design involvements with our customers,” he said. By engaging with them in the early stages of design, the company can develop the specific product that they need. “Our experiences with grab handles have led us into other areas, including exhaust and heating and cooling systems,” he said.

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Nikola Motor’s “skateboard” platform puts the axle-mounted motors, transmission, hydrogen tanks and most of the power electronics underneath the cab.
(Provided by Nikola Motor)

At present, Mills Products uses 3D printing for prototyping only, as high-volume requirements define the production process. Chad Dodson explained, “We are always evaluating new materials, but typically we use carbon steel and stainless, as they allow the most flexibility in forming. In working with customers, we’re finding other areas where hydroforming can result in greater strength and less weight.” He cited as an example seat frames that are made using bent and welded tubing, with Mills Products’ process giving greater design freedom and ultimately a higher quality unit.

The scope of these collective changes is impacting both current conventional manufacturing and the manufacturing that will derive from newer technologies. Given that the initial impetus for many of the advances derived from government mandated environmental regulations, both evolutionary and revolutionary means are in play. Roberts recalled, “A number of the environmental improvements were in response to initiatives mandated in the Bush ‘41/Clinton era. The federal rules have always been augmented by even stricter demands originating in California.” A new round of regulations will be coming in the near future from California as well as Oregon and Washington.

Changes in Catalytic Converters

Responses in the traditional diesel area have included the catalytic converter and, more recently, Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR), which converts nitrogen oxide into diatomic nitrogen and water. Originally applied to larger boiler installations and municipal solid waste facilities, SCR is now a common automotive/trucking application. Diesel exhaust fluid (Def) is a mandated fuel additive that lowers nitrogen oxide in exhaust emissions, and is usually required with SCR. Enhanced Exhaust Gas Recirculation (EGR) represents a refinement of the original method of recombining exhaust and air to reduce carbon through further combustion.

The continued demand for even greater mileage has led manufacturers across the board to embrace reducing weight, with increasing use of composites and the popularity of 3D printing of parts. According to Tim Millwood, vice president of global manufacturing at Cummins, “By investing in 3D metal additive technologies from GE Additive, we are investing in Cummins and our customers. This technology has the potential to provide our customers with a quicker, lower-cost production method that ultimately uses less energy, which means we can better serve our customers and reduce our environmental impact.”

Cummins recently sold its first additively manufactured metal part—a low-volume bracket without a current supplier—printed on a GE Additive Concept Laser M2, moving it a significant step closer to fulfilling the potential of additive manufacturing in production. “With the addition of binder jet technology, Cummins will be able to additively manufacture medium- to large-sized complex parts, reliably, at high throughput and at a comparatively lower cost,” said Millwood.

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Artist’s rendering of a proposed hydrogen storage and refueling facility designed to serve both Nikola vehicles and similarly powered vehicles from other manufacturers. The company plans to develop an infrastructure of 700 of these storage/fueling stations throughout North America. (Provided by Nikola Motor)

New Materials, Technologies

Even among highly traditional suppliers, the trend toward new materials and technologies is being felt. Steve Moroney, vice president of Sales for HN Precision, Lake Bluff, Illinois, stated, “We supply valve guides to the builders of large diesel engines, among other parts. As a supplier, our customers lead us in terms of design and material requirements.” He noted that the valve guides HN Precision builds are made of a specially formulated porous cast iron and due to the volume demand “our quality control system has to be uncompromising.”

Moroney observed the tendencies to install lighter parts in multiple areas. “Parts that were traditionally either stamped or cast iron are now aluminum to save weight. We’re also seeing an interest in phenolic materials where possible.”

With regard to 3D printing, he commented, “Right now, it’s used primarily for prototype parts. There is a move toward using it in production, and it will be a factor in the future.”
In viewing the present state of the heavy-duty truck manufacturing industry, a historical perspective might be in order. In the early days of the automobile, manufacturers used a variety of platforms and technology, including steam, electric, and internal combustion. From a design perspective, many followed then-existing methods of transportation, giving rise to the term “horseless carriage.” Refinements were borrowed from other builders or invented as needed. Ultimately, the automobile evolved toward a similar shape and features among the entire manufacturing community.

With Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line in 1914, a paradigm shift occurred that affected much more than manufacturing. Whether all the present technologies in heavy-duty trucks will ultimately co-exist or whether one will take precedence remains to be seen, but the ultimate result for OEMs and their suppliers alike will be what some have called “the 4th industrial revolution.”

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