Hills Tankers: The true meaning of disruption
In a world besotted with the idea of instantaneous innovation, Hills Tankers has chosen a surprisingly measured approach to infusing new technology into daily business practice – and created what could be the most progressive fuel haulage fleet in Australia.
Peter Hill, long-serving Managing Director of Newcastle-based Hills Tankers, is the first to admit there is a certain irony to how the family enterprise has evolved into one of Australia’s most forward-thinking fuel haulage businesses. Now a fierce advocate of Performance-Based Standards (PBS), he says the decision to embrace high productivity vehicle design only came after a period of “sitting back” and observing the market.
“Fuel haulage is a delicate business and the equipment we use must help us achieve the best possible outcome for our clientele, so there is a certain innovation pressure on us, if you will. But, that doesn’t mean we follow every technology trend blindly,” he says, reciting British architect Cedric Price, who famously asked, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”
According to Peter, infusing new technology like PBS – where traditional, restrictive design standards give way to a more liberal, simulation-based method – into daily business practice must follow a highly strategic approach to truly add value and cannot be rushed. “PBS can be incredibly useful to achieve that next level of productivity, but only if you do your homework,” he explains. “You need to ask the right question first and make sure the solution you end up with is actually able to answer it.”
To not get lost along the way or succumb to what the tech community has dubbed Fear of Becoming Obsolete, he says forming a close-knit support network is vital. “That fear of missing out can be a real pitfall for businesses in a technology-based industry like commercial road transport, especially if they are feeling under pressure. Just one bad investment can be extremely costly in our space,” he says. “By observing the market for a while, we quickly learned that simple binaries such as ‘old versus new’ just don’t hold up in the digital age. You need an integrated approach; you need to innovate the smart way.”
Peter says for the Hills Tanker operation, the ‘smart’ solution was to seek advice from Brisbane-based Holmwood Highgate and Volvo Trucks Australia early in the process. “Once we had seen what PBS could do in the truck-and-dog segment, we felt compelled to try and apply it to fuel transport. To do so, bringing all stakeholders together felt like the right starting point.”
Having had time to observe and analyse the market, he adds, has helped him understand that the true potential of PBS can only be unleashed by allowing for a certain degree of flexibility within the fleet. “You need to make sure that a PBS tanker can be used with a range of prime movers, for example, and not just the one you had in mind when designing it,” he explains. “The same is true for tyres – you need to have some flexibility as part of the design approval, which is entirely possible if you do it right. All that has to be considered before the actual PBS process sets into gear, though, which is where your network comes into play.”
Peter says it wasn’t until early 2014 that he had seen enough to confidently embark on his own PBS adventure, but once committed, he didn’t want to settle for a low-key solution. “We knew early on that the real potential was in the A-double, so we set out to bring the first-ever A-double to the fuel haulage market. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the opportunity to reset the benchmark for an entire industry segment was too good to ignore.”
In collaboration with Volvo and Holmwood Highgate, Peter and his team went on to develop a modular A-double concept that could be broken down and used in a single, B-double or even AB-triple configuration if required. “Holmwood Highgate certainly was the driving force during that initial consultation period, but the scope of the whole project quickly expanded. Volvo’s Application Engineering team came on board soon after that to ensure we could use the new equipment with a range of suitable prime movers and helped us find the best mix of engine, transmission and gear ratio to achieve the best result.”
According to Peter, involving the truck OEM from the outset may have been the key to success for the ambitious project: “What we’ve realised quickly was that PBS is all about identifying the problem, comprehensive planning – and patience. The truck company is an integral part of that process, not just the trailer OEM, which is where many people turn first. They need to work together to ensure you don’t end up with a combination so restrictive that it is at risk of becoming obsolete.
“Volvo Trucks Australia has been a tremendous asset in that regard – the team was acutely aware of what could go wrong and not afraid to point out any issues, especially when it comes to safety. When you commit to such a project – which, if we’re honest, is absolutely unique in the world – you need the supplier to be on your side. Going for a quick sale won’t cut it.”
By joining forces early on, Peter says Hills Tankers was able to use Volvo’s FH model with the standard wheelbase and only had to adjust the rear axle ratio to a more torque-y 3.78:1. “It was amazing to see just how in sync the Volvo team was with Holmhood Highgate and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR), which now plays a central role in the whole process – from design all the way through to final approval. PBS is a very complex concept, so you need to choose a truck brand that is able to work in a team environment.”
The real challenge, Peter adds, was ensuring access, which is why he connected with the NHVR’s Access Team and local road authorities early on. “Our first unit was supposed to travel from the Port of Brisbane to our depot at Eagle Farm, which meant having to cross the iconic Gateway Bridge. Convincing various local authorities and road owners that a fuel tanker of such size was able to safely get across without any damage to the integrity of the construction or the pavement proved to be a bit of a hold-up, but we worked through it and accepted the fact that breaking new ground won’t ever happen overnight.”
Once the Port of Brisbane project was green lit, however, Peter didn’t lose time to roll PBS out in New South Wales too, where Hills Tankers had been servicing Port Botany with a standard B-double fleet. Despite working closely with the NHVR and Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) NSW, the follow-up project proved even more complex than
“The plan was to head north from Port Botany and go right through Sydney, staying close to the CBD,” he explains. “Our tankers would pass by Redfern Station and the University of Technology to then join Parramatta Road after going around Victoria Park – so we knew from the start we had to work closely with road agencies again to get such a big combination approved for what is essentially stop-and-go traffic.”
Even though the chosen route out of Sydney had been pre-approved for Dangerous Goods transport and under the Higher Mass Limits (HML) scheme, Peter says getting approval for two full-length semi-trailers and a dolly to roll through central Sydney wasn’t easy. “There was some concern at the beginning, which is probably understandable given we wanted to operate at a GCM of 81.5 tonnes.”
To address the issue, Peter and his team staged a trial where an RMS control vehicle followed the A-double to see how it would trail, brake and accelerate, “and that’s what ultimately broke the ice,” as he puts it. “What we learned here is that showing is a lot more effective than telling. But the numbers are quite impressive too.”
Peter says Hills Tankers branded A-doubles have been running through Sydney as well as in and out of the Port of Brisbane and Eagle Farm since the start of the year now, with the company enjoying a 30 per cent payload increase per trip in each location. In fact, the project has been so successful that more than half of Hills Tankers’ 60-strong truck fleet is now made up of Volvo FH prime movers that come PBS-ready even if they don’t go into a high productivity application straight away. Among the company’s 133 Holmwood Highgate tankers are now four dedicated A-double sets that work alongside a range of tri-axle semi-trailers, 19m and 25m B-doubles. Some trailers in the 25m B-double bracket are also PBS-rated and ready to be used in an A-double if required. “Our modular fleet design is what sets us apart today,” Peter says. “It’s really quite remarkable how far we’ve come since we gave PBS a go, especially given the early feedback we received from our competition. Many didn’t believe it would be doable to run an A-double fuel tanker through Sydney, for example, and we proved them wrong. They used to call us out for running ‘strange-looking’ equipment, and now can’t wait to get on-board.”
While Peter admits to believing in the old ‘if you’re not moving forwards, you’re moving backwards’ adage, he says Hills Tankers’ measured approach to PBS is what has ultimately made all the difference. “What we now have is a highly efficient, and beautifully balanced set-up where we can switch back and forth between a standard configuration and PBS. Taking the time to think it through and bringing on board proven partners was the right choice. Everyone is talking about disruption right now, but being disruptive doesn’t mean rushing headlong into something.“
According to Peter, many executives in the transport industry rightly worry about being left behind as technology evolves faster than they can adapt, but the idea of frantically embracing every technology trend on the basis of hyped-up statistics still doesn’t sit right with him. “You need to take your time and learn how to read the industry you’re in. In the meantime, form the right network to build up your company’s innovation capability – that’s what truly helps you respond to disruptive circumstances once you’ve seen enough to take action.”
While staying up-to-date about new technology is important, Peter says not losing sight of what that technology should ultimately accomplish for the business is key – “continued relevance in a fast-changing marketplace”.
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