Many fleets of a certain size have to think long and hard about their workshop options. Is it cost effective to run your own comprehensive workshop for 25 trucks? Tim Giles talks to Ricky Leeson about the dilemma.
Leeson’s Logging and Cartage has been around for a long time, celebrating 40 years in the business in 2015. Based in Rosedale in East Gippsland, the company was founded by Garry Leeson, but is now managed by his children – including his son, Ricky, whose task is to consider the options and manage growth in a sustainable way for the business.
One of the issues at the forefront of Ricky’s mind is the provision of workshops to keep the fleet on the road. The current facilities are struggling to cope, but upgrading represents a massive capital outlay. The need to get it right brings in discussions about the relative costs of building and equipping a new workshop when compared to entering into contract maintenance deals with truck suppliers.
Leeson’s predominantly works for HVP, carting wood from Gippsland out to the local mills, as well as Melbourne and Geelong. The company also handles a contract hauling blue gum timber from plantations in Stockdale to Geelong. This amounts to around 500,000 tonnes of timber haulage for HVP and a further 60,000 tonnes of blue gum. The company is also involved in timber harvesting, cutting 350,000 tonnes a year for HVP.
The company employs 75 personnel and runs 25 trucks. Not so long ago, the fleet ran no more than 12 trucks at any one time, but a couple of contracts, like one involving hauling timber from Western Victoria into Gippsland, meant the truck fleet grew from historical levels quite quickly.
“We’re coming to the end of a couple of contracts this year, so we are faced with the decision about where we want to go forward from here,” says Ricky. “Some of the trucks are beginning to age now. So we need to think about how much we need to reinvest. We can decide if we want to get bigger or smaller.
“The market is going quite well at the moment. The local market is strong and the Aussie dollar being down helps the export market. We’ve grown quickly so now we can decide if we want to stay at 25 or drop back a bit.”
Currently, the fleet is a mixture of single trailers and B-doubles, depending upon application. GCM is capped at 68.5 tonnes for the B-double, so Leeson’s is always looking at trying to lower tare weight and increase payload.
“If we can keep our B-doubles at around 21 tonnes tare we are happy,” says Ricky. “For the singles, we are looking at 15 tonnes tare. Productivity is all about tare weights. Stability is deemed an issue in the timber industry, so all of our new trailers are fitted with EBS.”
Load stability concerns also see some trailers running on 19 inch wheels, to keep load height down. These are used on runs where there are not many forest dirt road included and the roads are smoother.
One innovation in recent years has been the introduction of twin steer prime movers. Running the trucks on permit, Leeson’s can get a 32-tonne payload on a single trailer. It now runs four of them and other operators in the area are starting to bring them into their fleets.
“Productivity is all about tare weights. Stability is deemed an issue in the timber industry, so all of our new trailers are fitted with EBS.”
“We probably keep our trucks longer than we should,” admits Ricky. “As we built the fleet, we haven’t been able to get rid of the older ones. We are starting to look at the older trucks and trailers to work out what we do and do not need. We will probably sell four over the next six months.”
Leeson’s likes to move a truck out of the fleet after ten years and a trailer after fifteen. It would really like to look at deciding to sell trucks on between seven and ten years, getting two trucks for one trailer. According to Ricky, the maintenance costs of older trucks are obvious: Looking out in the yard, he says the trucks seen in the workshop most of the time are the older ones he probably needs to get rid of.
“At the moment we are looking at investing in a workshop at our Morwell yard, but it’s probably going to be a million dollars to build and equip it,” says Ricky. “It’s a daunting thing to think about when you to try and work out what benefit it will bring. It is a big investment. For a workshop for 25 trucks, you probably need two pits and a hoist. We have eight mechanics between apprentice status and fully qualified. They perform well working from 7.30 to 5 pm.
“In the past, we tended not to look at things like extended warranties because of the facilities we have, but we’ve got to now, going forward. We have to look at the cost of them. There is so much spent on maintenance. Do you put it all into your mechanics, or do you put it into outsourcing your engine, gearbox and clutch work, then just do general servicing with fewer mechanics?
“You spend the same amount of money, but you just spend it differently. That’s where we are at the moment, weighing it all up. The skill level of mechanics in the area is good, but the good ones have all got a job and are being paid well. If you lose one, they are hard to replace. We are looking at the kind of equipment we would need to fit out a new workshop to get a handle on how we need to go forward.”
Trucks get serviced every 250 hours, with 18 trucks this equates to one a day. Over 18 in the fleet and there is more than one truck in the workshop every day. This increases the amount of space and equipment needed to keep the workshop efficient. The original workshop at the yard in Rosedale struggles to cope with the pressures of more than one truck at a time and lacks the kind of sophisticated gear to speed up service work.
“If we drop the number of trucks in the fleet and we get some newer hoists, it takes the pressure off of the workshop staff,” says Ricky. “The idea is the newer trucks should need less looking after, although it doesn’t always work like that.
“It’s a matter of deciding where we want to put the money. It’s also seeing where we are in term of new contracts. If we are not making money from a contract, we are not interested in doing it. We are not going to slash rates to pinch someone else’s work or if other to stop others undercutting us.”
The fleet has had to work on other issues, like load shift, in recent years. Wood movement on loads was causing concern to the road authorities. This resulted in the customer, HVP, putting a Restraint Committee together to look for improvements. New chain slings have been developed and are now being fitted to the trailers to reduce load movement.
“The market is going quite well at the moment. The local market is strong and the Aussie dollar being down help the export market. We’ve grown quickly so now we can decide if we want to stay at 25 or drop back a bit.”
The specifications of the trucks is relatively standard, with heavier diffs and gearboxes to handle the tough work. Like many forest trucks they are fitted with an Air CTI central tyre inflation system, to help with traction on forest roads. All new trucks use Groeneveld auto greasing systems to keep wear and tear down.
“We’ve had a pretty good run with the automatic greasing,” says Ricky. “Our former workshop manager made sure the Groeneveld blokes did the job right, because we have to cable tie a lot more and make the system a lot tighter. We have to ensure there is no chance of a stick getting up in there and knocking something off. It’s worked for us, we have a truck here which has done 35,000 hours and still has the original king pins.
“The American trucks are pretty robust. We are buying Kenworths with Cummins engines. We had a lot of trouble with the original EGR engines. We still have some but the turbo issue has now been fixed, the fuel economy hasn’t though. The new SCR engines from Cummins have been great, with fuel economy and everything. It’s a big improvement.”
There are some odd ones out among the trucks in the fleet, which is dominated by US trucks with US engines and manual Roadrangers. For the highway work between Morwell and Geelong, Leeson’s has gone down the European style route with a pair of Iveco Powerstars, using Cursor engines.
Working out just how to service your trucks in a small to medium fleet can be an issue. There doesn’t seem to be one solution; there are as many solutions as there are problems. Existing capacity and location can be one thing, getting skilled staff is another. At the same time, the truck and component manufacturers are offering a broader range of extended warranty or contract maintenance options. This is a subject Diesel Workshop will probably be returning to again and again.