Prime Mover Magazine

Giant Steps

Giant Steps

Fleet replacement for applications in dangerous goods is made an even tougher task during the height of a global pandemic when economies of scale force assets into lines of work they weren’t initially specified for. National energy carrier, Supagas, through Fuso and Stillwell Trucks, hasn’t let such a major dilemma get in its way.

To the power conscious, strictly speaking in commercial vehicle language, the Fuso Shogun offers ample horsepower in a comfort ride easy on both the driver and just as crucially the cargo.

For dangerous goods carriers like Supagas, a national gas and services supplier equipped with the latest cutting-edge equipment of which it has, along with its facilities, a major presence in every state, moving industrial cylinders and bulk tankers means cushioned suspension and surfeit safety features. It comes as no surprise then that the Shogun is high on its list of future acquisitions.

The company, which counts over 500 commercial assets among the expansive national fleet, recently installed a new modification on its trays which have been specified to ensure, among other measures of effectiveness, the driver has less to do.

Extra jobs outside the purview of operating the vehicle itself over long hours function to encourage fatigue.

As a dangerous goods carrier, load restraint remains a critical aspect of the Supagas operation.

It moves in addition to bulk tankers of LPG, gas cylinders, which it shuttles to customers across a host of industries including, crucially at the minute, hospitals and health care businesses. 

A new tray design successfully applied in its Victorian operation is being migrated gradually across the country including the company head office in Ingleburn, New South Wales.

For the improved safety of moving industrial cylinders, Supagas has installed a self-locking system as part of the new tray design on many of its tray trucks- and semi-trailers. The design uses the gates as a locking mechanism to secure the stillage which slides under it.

It also helps dispense with the time-consuming effort of applying straps when securing the load according to Erol Arican Supagas National Operations Director.

“As it doesn’t solely rely on the judgement of the operator, it saves a lot of time and ensures the load is secure before it leaves the site,” he says.

“An individual performs many tasks throughout the day and by the end of the day he can be tired. Having a mechanical system that locks in place further reduces that small margin for error. No one ends the workday feeling the same as they started it. This way the process of securing the load doesn’t fall squarely on the individual who already performs many other tasks.”

The rollout of the new system, which saves an hour loading time on a 45-foot single trailer, commenced last month.

By the end of the year it is anticipated that it will be standard equipment across the national semi-trailer fleet according to Erol.

“The aim is to retrofit some of the existing fleet with the self-locking systems and where possible replace the older fleet,” he says.

“Vehicle access is a critical part of our business. We’ve headed down the pathway of modernising the fleet and to preference vehicles fitted with lane departure warning systems, ABS and EBS.”

A project of this scope takes some planning and time to make happen across the 42 different sites where Supagas maintains its branches.

It was also one of the reasons the company last year brought in National Fleet Manager Michael Hannah.

A highly sought-after industry veteran, Michael has come on board to help shape the composition of the fleet as the company pursues a fleet replacement program at the unenviable height of a global pandemic.

For now, it means moving the goalposts to suit the economic climate and adapting to the current needs of its customers. One place Michael has identified within the business, where it can perhaps effect the biggest gain in efficiency and cost cutting, is in their repair and maintenance spending.

To date, Supagas runs more than 40 Fuso commercial vehicles and has another 28 currently on order.

Each has been secured with a strategic service plan. Before COVID-19 hit the company was looking at replacing between 36-38 vehicles. That number has since been revised according to Michael.

“We needed to get into a routine to decide on replacements and when that would happen and stick to it. The business itself heavily invests in equipment to ensure they are up to standard and compliant with all state legislation and all federal regulations,” he says.

“For us, going with a newer fleet and the Fuso range with their service plan makes perfect sense.”

Supagas has taken delivery of three new bogie-axle equipped tankers with another five in the works at the moment and 18 rigid tray trucks. These have only just begun trickling into operations. Under what is dubbed a ‘re-horse’ process, the barrel is removed from an older 24,000 litre LPG tanker, and refurbished, before it is placed onto a new truck.

In the most recent case this was achieved with a 400hp Fuso FV54 through Stillwell Trucks in Milperra. The re-horse process generally takes about 12 weeks and extends the asset life seven years according to Erol.

“The rigid tankers each can have its own unique requirements. There’s no one supplier who ticks a box for everything you need for a variety of reasons. It depends on which supplier is going to have the most appropriate chassis and this is determined further by its dimensions, its payload or the braking and chassis support structure. This has got to be assessed to ensure our tanker will fit on that vehicle,” he says. “That’s why it can be quite complex for us doing those assessments.”

Comparing the service intervals, maintenance requirements and horsepower ratio for each application in direct contrast with multiple models is all part of the process. Fuso ticked the most boxes under this demanding approach.

As it’s only a matter of time before EBS is mandatory on all tankers, the Fuso Shogun with its suite of safety options, is next on the shopping list after Daimler Trucks made provision for chassis extensions last November.

The drivers, according to Michael, have not been backward in asking when the new trucks arrive.

“They really enjoy the new Fuso especially in regards to the FV range for the tankers.

Fully automatic transmission. Spacious cabs. I enjoy driving them myself,” he says. “They’re comfy and the views from the cab have been improved. Blind spots are minimal. The standard safety features like reverse camera and adaptive cruise are essential in our line of work.”

Investments in the latest assets were made to meet both growth and demand as well as to accommodate the replacement regime underway for the existing fleet.

Some of the new equipment that was delivered was originally earmarked for the hospitality operations. Lockdowns placed on people movements have meant staff dedicated to the distribution network that involves delivering gas heaters to restaurants, cafes and pubs have had to be redeployed into the company’s health services supply chain in which Supagas provides oxygen and gas. It has been a major challenge, according to Erol, but they have risen to it.

“The hospitality team has been mobilised to support the medical team,” he says. “We’ve done a lot of movements like that within the business to ensure that we maintain our staff and redeploy their skillsets in different areas.”

Just recently the business took delivery of a Fuso 515 originally destined to work as a flat tray truck.

It will now feature a redesigned, closed-off section housing masks and portable concentrators for oxygen therapy patients bound for hospitals, nursing homes and medical centres.

“Customarily that kind of application would be associated with a van of some sort,” says Michael. “Having it reconfigured onto a truck the team gets more payload, more feasibility and utilisation.”
The philosophy here is if it can address the needs of a medical run than it can also meet the requirements of safely moving industrial gas.

These sudden and necessary changes in priorities across the fleet are suited especially to the Fuso trucks given the flexibility they offer the Supagas operations.

“Fuso themselves and Stillwell Trucks have been absolutely fantastic with the implementation of this new fleet. We haven’t had a set plan in place as we adapt our model and they’ve been able to adapt with us,” says Michael. “They’ve never once said we can’t do that. Instead, it’s always been, ‘yes, we can make it happen’. At this moment in time, where things do change at the drop of the hat and you throw in COVID-19 on top of it, that’s very important. It fits with our mantra.”

He adds, “At Supagas we’ve got a, ‘Yes we can’ attitude and it’s a matter of just taking it by the horns and doing it.”

The fleet includes almost every type of vehicle and application from roadtrains to heavy and light rigids to semis, utes, sedans and a litany of different trailer designs, modified for specific tasks whether its helium for balloons, dry ice and specialty gasses comprised of distinct parts to suit the requests made by the likes of university laboratories.

“We’re quite unique in that we offer a combined package where most of our competitors would do one or the other,” says Erol. “We do our product ranges very effectively.”

In the winter peak period vehicle movements, which can include up to 150 subcontractors, amount to an estimated 2.3 million kilometres per month.

The fleet, at present, is in the midst of two different pilot programs. As part of its evaluation of in-cab aids, Supagas is trialling a system from DriveCam that records geoforces where the footage of sudden stops or aberrant movements is captured, through a four-camera system, for review later by fleet management.

Aggressive braking resultant from inadequate separation with the vehicle in front, is, to hone in on one area, an example of how driver behaviour can be better served by the technology.

“It gives us a real window into driver behaviour and we can provide live footage to the driver to show them what is happening and why it might be of concern,” says Erol. “From a driver’s perspective, in the heat of the moment he probably doesn’t realise it but when you can stand back and have a look it can give you a different perspective.”

The trial involves 15 vehicles and is being assessed as to whether it is rolled out across the entire fleet or in certain specialty areas of the fleet.

In addition to this, there’s also another program involving off-road fuel usage the team is evaluating for the fuel rebate. Using GPS, off-road diesel usage is monitored as soon as the PTO is engaged on the bulk tanker and it starts to pump gas.

The measurement taken forms part of the tanker fleet’s off-road fuel rebate according to Michael.

“The GPS hooks into the engine management system and all that time is recorded. It also picks up on the driver when he engages hazard lights,” he explains.

“We can claim all that fuel whatever percentage it is, and we don’t have to do anything other than download a report. As soon as the PTO is engaged it sends a signal and records the time. The same principle applies to the hazard lights.”

Where some businesses have real-time temperature monitoring of their produce in cold chain carrying applications, Supagas, as the business ramped up risk mitigation for staff and clients in response to the coronavirus crisis, monitored the temperatures of its drivers.

The exacting practice continues to this day.

“We’ve got temperature monitoring on all of our drivers who have had to apply social distancing and take on a zero-contact policy for all our POP deliveries,” says Erol. “We’ve limited customers coming on site to minimise those more customary interactions.”

More seismic changes at the business took place in 2017 when Taiyo Nippon Santo Corporation consolidated Renegade Gas in NSW and Supagas Holdings, originally established by the Haddrell family in Victoria in 1968. That merger has been in effect for the better part of the last two years giving the business a true national footprint according to Erol.

“Previously the two companies collaborated together. But we were independent. We had independent boards, with management collaborating to provide support to each other which meant we had different operating systems, different structures, different suppliers, different equipment specifications as well,” he says. “By having this  merger we’ve been able to look at our suppliers and Fuso represents an opportunity where we can group all of our purchases together and look at our specifications and try to have the best of both worlds.”

It’s also about having a fleet design and specification, Erol explains, that now surpasses what the company had previously.

“That’s where we needed different structures and different processes in place,” he says. “Michael has been a key element in that ongoing process.”

Even so, the business ethos insofar as it varies amazingly little under the recent changes, was built on solid values. Nearly 40 per cent of the senior management team, Michael estimates, have been at the company for close to 20 years.

“We’ve got guys who have been here for over 30 years and yet the new changes have been taken on well and implemented successfully as the business strives ahead,” he says. “That comes from a strong management team.”

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