A revered figure at PACCAR in Melbourne, engineer Phil Webb, has brought the curtain down on a significant career whose legacy will live on and off-road.
As a keen farmer, Phil Webb, who ended a 44-year tenure as an engineer at PACCAR in Melbourne this past July, says he takes into consideration the total environment of a customer when he is engaged to make design specifications or upgrades on a commercial vehicle.
His role, as such, has been largely guided by working within the limitations of the customer. These, he explains, have always been constant: finances and time.
“There’s no messing about for 12 months in order to come up with an idea once the contract has started,” he says. “It’s costing them money and it’s a resource cost here and at the dealership or the body installer. All of us have restraints, yet there’s a line that goes through at a reasonable time at a reasonable impost on everyone and the most reasonable one is zero.”
Much of the job for Phil, during the past four decades, has been about facilitating.
The process, he says, with a slight Highlands lilt, often commences following conversations between the dealer and customer.
It’s when these discussions progress that he has been brought in to complete the picture.
Rather than merely help equip the body to a truck, he makes an assessment of what the customer is trying to achieve in their operation so that it goes beyond adding capacity without simply putting more capital costs into the vehicle.
“You’re trying to focus on what the customer needs both today and tomorrow,” he says. “Once you get the big picture you can better understand the logic. If you step through everything logically, and you do a few loops, you will get to the end, reasonably well and in doing that you’re teaching the salesman, the salesman is teaching me and we’re both teaching the customer and we’re both getting taught by the customer.”
He adds, “So it’s a group learning exercise.”
The triangulation of these shared experiences delivers many benefits. One of which is the trucks, long after a contract elapses, are still good to do other jobs.
Having started in Sales Administration, Phil clearly recalls his first day on the job in early December 1975.
He was to help out on handling orders. PACCAR was selling one truck per day at that stage. Here he learned, under the tuition of the product manager, the function of processing orders, putting together price books, scheduling trucks, solving build capacity challenges – all of which, in those days, was handled in the sales department.
Back then PACCAR was building trucks for TNT.
These Kenworth units were dubbed the Grey Ghosts before the colour scheme was changed from silver to orange and ivory.
At the time Charlie Adams was the Chief Engineer. Orders were handled by ticking a range of boxes on a single sheet. PACCAR now runs a 20 page order form which is custom created.
The projects Phil works on are even more complex than that.
Order information is assessed from an engineering perspective as a sales tool so it can be utilised in production.
Phil says the format he has relied on for projects involves mapping out the gross load the customer intends to carry, the road profile, the maintenance facilities and the driver qualities.
“They’re probably my top four considerations. From there they cascade down to a whole subset of other questions. I look at it as being a funnel. With each answer you chop off a bit of the funnel so you’re narrowing down your answers and your choices until you come to a choke point where you go ‘I’ve got to this point and I can’t go any further,” he says.
“There probably is a decision tree but it’s not the same one we use every time.”
In 1979 he moved to Sydney where he was branch manager of the St Peters dealership.
He returned to Melbourne in 1981. That marked the start of co-ordinating the L700 and C500 Kenworth models.
As the Kenworth L700 had a low cab more suited to waste collection, they sold some to car carriers and Ron Finemore Transport.
The market, however, was mostly restricted. In contrast, the C500 series, which evolved into the current Kenworth C509, became synonymous with mining and some heavy haulage applications.
To date, it’s the model Phil is most associated with and as a platform it was later used to develop the Kenworth C510 and Kenworth C540.
“I’ve been involved in the C500 series the whole way through doing different things,” he says. “We built them as all-wheel drive. The C5 is my model.”
The commercial vehicle, however, Phil is most proud of is the K100 8x8 all-wheel drive.
Working in 1996 with dealer Tony Smith, Phil built to order two of these trucks for BHP, modifying a standard 8x4, raising the cab, lifting the engine to accommodate the front drive axles which involved redesigns to the front drive axle installations, the shaft and the transfer box.
The rear engine drill rigs, included having the cabin beside the chassis, were based on a combination of the C500 chassis and K100 electricals and a L700 intake.
“We took bits and pieces from everywhere. It looked nothing like a Kenworth, but we built two of them,” he says.
The first one went into service and did a good job.
On site they were three months behind with their drilling for the pre-blast when the second truck arrived. Within six weeks they had to stop work.
During the commissioning trials it had caught up with everything that had been prepped and ready to go.
“They couldn’t believe it. On this job they had been drilling a blast hole at the end of the mine while they were working tracking drill rigs up and down the site on low loaders,” Phil recalls.
“We had a drill crew with a low loader crew with two pieces of equipment with a time to load, a time to unload, a time in transit and only two guys on the drill rig running up and down going ‘we’re finished here, what’s next?’ The truck was really good.”
The pair of C500s were limited to coal work as there wasn’t enough mass in the vehicle to drill through iron ore. Then the Global Financial Crisis happened. As a result BHP started farming out the contracting rather than doing it themselves.
“That was,” says Phil, “probably the most way-out truck that we’ve done.”
Not long after that, as productivity envelopes in off-highway were being pushed beyond 150 tonnes, he began bringing in Sisu axles from Finland.
These included more than a thousand axles in tandem and tridem sets.
“We’ve had a significant effect on that business for them and it’s still ongoing and the products we’ve asked for and pushed here like cooled hub covers Sisu has now put into other parts of the world market,” Phil says.
“We’ve had a pretty big input around the world from what we do here in Australia which is quite different. We tend to pull big loads whereas in Europe they tend to carry it. Of course with our axle load restrictions and shallow road base we can’t put the same axle loads on that they typically put on. So we end up with more roadtrain type configurations than they typically see.”
Although the Kenworth T610 and T410 are part of the new series of cab, the C510 predates it.
The C510 and the C540 retain the same cab, hood and general chassis only with different cross members and quarter guards at the front.
“The base elements are very similar,” he says. “We’re trying to maximise the mixing with the least number of new parts. At least that’s how it starts out.”
Phil recalls when Kenworth changed from the C504 to the 19-litre engine option which became the C510 model.
The cab was shifted up and back while the hood was lifted. It featured a different engine train although a C509 essentially underpinned it.
Passionate about growing a knowledge base, Phil is active in helping upskill and develop graduate engineers on a rotational program.
He was the first PACCAR Australian graduate engineer or Junior Executive Trainee – JET for short. Last year he was presented with life membership at the Australian Road Transport Suppliers Association.
There’s been a lot of trucks in between. Something like 25,000 that he claims to have either had a direct hand in as an engineer or in a specialised sales role.
“When I was a sales application manager I was virtually dealing with every order,” he says. “After a while they all blend a bit in their own way.”
Phil helps guide the salesman should they show an interest in learning more.
“I find most of them have a desire to know more about the technical side,” he says. “The more that they know the better salesman they can be. They know how much more they can push themselves and why, but also why and when to ask questions.”
Although not every salesperson will get involved in the design and development of the truck they might be involved in the truck production or quality control or another facet of the business.
“It’s all knowledge. The more knowledge that you get and the expectation and needs of the user and how they’re going to use it, the better that we’re going to influence what we’re putting through the system,” says Phil. “That applies regardless of where it is.”
Of the new technologies on the horizon he’s most excited about the electric drive although he thinks there is still onboard energy storage weight issues to overcome for medium to heavy vehicles over the next decade.
“I don’t think we’ll solve that,” he says. “It’s the idea of taking a truck and trailer combination and having an electric drive in the trailer to supplement the truck for better acceleration in traffic and it will also give you overall fuel savings.
I don’t see anything radical in the big Australian picture where you’re talking roadtrain, B-doubles and long distances.”
The function of how electrics are controlled, according to Phil, are among a raft of changes he expects to see in the near future including radical improvements in tyre technology which he believes will yield improvements with diesel fuel, burn rates and energy efficients.
Developments in transmission technology, GPS control and predictive gear shifting for automation won’t, however, reduce the need for competent and engaged drivers.
“The more we automate the bigger risk we have of drivers not being engaged of what the truck is doing at that point on the highway at that speed and I can see we’re going to have a big issue coming up as we overly automate and drivers are less fully attentive,” he says.
“It’s all very well for somebody in Europe to say you’re going down the road an hour or so to deliver something, ‘make sure the driver has a good break because he’ll get bored after an hour’. I think for a lot of our own environments we need to have the drivers more actively engaged which means less automation but not less safety.”
Overseas technology will need to be better adapted in ways we don’t yet know once there’s a sense of the bigger picture.
“It’s like when we started with cruise control. Everyone would set cruise control at 100 kph and it was fine but when you nod off the truck is still on cruise control. We haven’t got a dead man’s switch around so some fleets started disabling cruise control. You had to drive it which meant that when you fell asleep, generally, your foot does come slightly off the pedal and then you slow down and it’s the slowing down that wakes you up. It’s not the other thing,” he says.
“I think we’ve got some challenges ahead, but I think we’ll rise to it as an industry.”
Phil breeds Scotch Highland cattle on 20 acres he owns in the Yarra Valley.
It’s become a passion having tried his hand at it 20 years ago, thinking it might be something to do in retirement.
Now that time has come.
If he adheres to a steadfast maxim it is this: do it right the first time. Do it right and, for the crucial purpose of electronic filing, remember where you put it.
Challenges and obstacles are inevitable, he explains, but the solutions in engineering trucks or breeding cattle are rarely determined by overthinking it.
“Each time something comes up you’ve got to try and get back to basics and avoid making assumptions. That’s how you keep building a pyramid on sand. It doesn’t work,” he says. “You can only get away with it for a while before it collapses.”
The legacy he leaves at PACCAR and the road transport industry over five decades has been informed by a philosophy at once modest and, most importantly, practical.
“Part of the trick is to build a truck the simplest and dumbest you can for the need,” he says.
“Yes, you’ve got to have the electronic safety and all the other modern componentry but it’s important not to over spec it. There’s no need, in my view, to add stuff to it that is not generating value to the customer.”