For every border restriction, city or regional lockdown and PCR-confirmed positive Sars-COV-2 case in Australia there has been an equal and opposite reaction for someone on the supply chain.
In the high-pressure domain of managing commercial vehicle fleets — especially those the size of Centurion Transport’s — inspecting the equipment when travel restrictions have decentralised the ability to oversee it have required immediate adaptations.
Technology, as much as teamwork, plays a crucial role.
Forecasting capital expenditure, a task wholly reliant on unequivocal calculations, must factor in maybes, when it comes to contracts, as well as the absolutes.
The task of replacing mobile assets, no matter how refined it has become in recent years, is one achieved on expertise, knowhow, close consultation and, with import scheduling depressed to an all-time low for parts and components, educated uesses.
This has been the world of Andrew Foster, Centurion Transport National Fleet Manager, for the better part of 18 months.
The challenges during this time of COVID are many and never the same when you are responsible for the induction and phasing out of commercial vehicles.
“At the moment the key is early forecasting. That requires talking to our key suppliers and locking slots in even though we don’t know if we will need them or not,” he says.
“But we’re locking them in so when it gets to crunch time they can give us the option.”
The mechanism of parts supply, for which industry is now completely captive, remains an exceptional situation.
Certain manufacturers now require customers to justify ordering parts. This involves providing the vehicle details of what is being planned for the vehicle as a matter of record.
That way it helps curtail an influx of parts being hoarded like was seen not less than six months ago.
“Major suppliers had to put a stop to that,” Andrew says. “If you have an engine rebuild kit and you have to justify what truck you’re going to put it on. You normally don’t have to ask that. Because it’s in short supply, you have to do a declaration on parts. I’ve never seen that in my lifetime.”
It has also helped clamp down on an emerging black market of parts being sold back by backyard operators for twice as much as their worth.
Centurion is leaning towards keeping its equipment a little longer than usual to adapt to the shifts in the supply environment.
Whereas equipment may have, normally, been sold off before now it will likely get rebuilt as a way of working around such shortages.
“That’s been a different process for us. We are pulling our capital forecast earlier. Normally we don’t do it to early next year. We’re doing it obviously now,” he says. “It’s going to take a long time to order equipment in and we understand that.”
In Queensland, a growing focus of the business over the past two years, there are 57 Kenworth commercial vehicles, operating out of one of Centurion’s five depots in Rocklea, Mackay, Emerald, Rockhampton and Townsville. They mainly service the Bowen coal basin. In Mackay and Rockhampton, the trucks are on general freight tasks in and out of the mines running, for the most part, B-doubles.
From Brisbane the trucks operate linehaul up to the major centres, which in turn, service the mines on a gruelling daily schedule. In a flurry of recent activity, Centurion Transport also added a contract delivering explosives around the country.
Kenworth, again, is the choice of truck here pulling single trailers and B-doubles.
These vehicles, regardless, receive a roadtrain spec for up to 130 tonnes, and are often away for up to three weeks at a time according to Andrew. During rare, quieter periods, these same vehicles will hook onto a B-triple and assist in general road freight operations when the opportunity demands it.
Vehicle combinations that push the upper limits of mass like those in Western Australia are often specified with Dana drive axles. In the case of Centurion, it is running, depending on the location, a range of Dana full systems packages.
More specifically, the Dana D46-170 is fitted on several of the Kenworth T610s and T610 SARs.
It features a self-lubricating system ideally suited for higher mass limits common in heavy haulage and roadtrain operations above 140 tonnes.
As the road speed for these loads is usually fixed to 85km/h, downspeeding on the engine can contribute to extra stresses on internal components under these arduous conditions.
The D46-170, D50-170 and D52-190 axle variants from Dana all utilise a Full Time Pump system to mitigate against those additional pressures placed on bearings, gears and shafts by extracting and circulating oil through a 40-micron stainless steel gauze filter which is easily removed and cleaned when changing the oil.
“One of the reasons we go for the Dana diffs is they’re simple,” says Andrew. “They haven’t got any unnecessary stuff hanging off them that gives us trouble up the road.”
For the extreme loads common to Australian roadtrains, Dana, with its locally developed and engineered differential solutions, is the go-to OEM.
The new Dana axle variants were first introduced last year to the Centurion fleet on its Kenworth T610s and predominantly on linehaul assignments. The Dana D50-190 and D52-590 rely on the same external pump as the D46-170.
Mounted differently, however, the driveheads feature a front cover plate that has been designed specifically in Australia for the rugged conditions.
Essentially the same drivehead, the axle housing wall thickness is heavier, however, for the D50-190, making it more robust option for additional whole of life costs.
Dana evaluations suggest oil temperature runs around 10C cooler when compared to previous models without pumps.
For Centurion expectations are that the Full Time Pump system will lead to extended oil service times.
“Dana in the last six years has really come into our fleet,” says Andrew. “I’ve never had a reason to ring them because I’ve never had any issues with them. We like them because they are simple, well-functioning products and don’t give us a hard time.”
In the torrid circumstances afflicting transport operators since early last year, preventing unplanned maintenance to ensure the fleet, where possible, is at full capacity has never been more crucial.
During this process PACCAR must consider, among a slew of critical factors, the gradeabilities Centurion commercial vehicles encounter including the start-off. Having three or four trailers on a single unit makes it imperative the driver can get going without burning the clutch out.
Traditionally, out west Centurion opts for a 4.56:1 differential ratio for its outback roadtrains.
However, with the improved torque of the new Kenworths they have been able to drop the diff ratio to 4.3:1 and as a result see an added benefit in fuel savings.
“Some people said it would not work,” says Andrew.
“PACCAR demonstrated the trucks four years ago when the T610 was first launched and along with Cummins they were very keen on that specification. We have got some amazing reliability and fuel consumption out of that demo and it’s been a standard spec ever since.” That’s also, to qualify the statement, under maximum weight.
In general freight 130 tonnes is considered the threshold. “But once you start moving to 140 tonne you need to drop your diffs back to that traditional 4.56:1 for trucks like that,” Andrew says. “Heavy haulage is another world again. It’s extremely low ratios and it’s a different sort of scenario.”
Specification is commonly determined by the location, which is to say the Western Australian, flatter terrain, shares little in common with the higher ground of inland Queensland. In Queensland, Andrew will defer to the local knowledge of the Queensland dealers for the correct spec.
“They know what’s required. You’ve got a lot more hills over there in Queensland. For instance, we’ve got trucks running out of Mackay and they’ve got to get up over that mountain range to the coalmines every day of the week,” he says. “We’ve only got three highways over here in the west. One goes east and the other two go north and northeast. There’s not many hills in between. It’s quite simple to spec a truck application. If you’re looking for a truck in Western Australia it’s only on one of those three.”
The team in Queensland is now responsible for the fleet since lockdowns effectively grounded Andrew from travelling across the country to carry out inspections.
The procedures that were already in place were followed, as were the maintenance regimes. Andrew turned to technology like Bluejeans and Facetime to scrutinise equipment in remote locations and to consult with key staff.
Operations didn’t, however, slow down. It only got busier.
At one stage in April, when Western Australia was in lockdown and leaving Perth was prohibited, Andrew had his people in remote areas walk around some of the fuel fleet trucks with their phones to capture live visuals so he could complete an audit.
“Travelling is great where you get to see the trucks working in those areas and get the feel of the conditions and the frustrations of driving but when you’re supposed to do diagnosing or specc’ing a fleet how was I going to do that when I can’t assess the fleet?” he says.
“I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t touch it. I had to resort to relying on experienced people and technology. Our people have been great. Videoing inside and around the cab so I could do an appraisal on it over Facetime. Everyone has been great in their willingness to adapt under these circumstances. We’ve done the same for our customers.”