For many years, asphalt producers viewed a large truck fleet as a sure sign of success, a sure sign the company was winning bids and hauling more material to jobsites. But Jack Wheeler, president of Wheeler Coatings in Austin, Texas, wasn’t so sure that was true anymore. With fuel prices and other operating costs rising rapidly, it seemed to him trimming down his truck fleet and learning to operate more efficiently with fewer assets was more important. So two years ago, Wheeler launched a five-year plan to reduce the size of his company’s fleet from 60 trucks to 45 – while continuing to haul as much as 700,000 to 800,000 tons of hot mix asphalt a year.
Wheeler works in an extremely competitive market. On any given day, his company has an average of four crews working on a range of paving jobs within 30 miles of Austin. “You can win or lose a big job over a small difference in bids,” he adds. “Every aspect of your business has to help you get that contract.”
Hauling more and working faster
Wheeler’s first step in reducing the size of his fleet was to make a critical analysis of his current assets. He began by examining how the company’s tandem and tri-axle dump trucks contributed to its productivity, operating costs and ability to compete. His findings were disappointing.
To comply with federal and Texas bridge formula laws, Wheeler’s tri-axle trucks are limited to 16 tons of payload. But that weight limitation made the company’s transport costs too high to compete effectively. Wheeler needed fewer trucks hauling larger amounts of payload. He considered belly-dump and end-dump trailers as a solution, since they can haul up to 24 tons of asphalt, but ultimately rejected them as impractical. “We do a lot of tight jobs where maneuverability and precise placements are important,” Wheeler explains. “And those two options are simply too big to work effectively in those environments.”
In 2004, after researching several possible solutions, Wheeler began spec’ing Super 18s, also known as Superdumps. Rated at 80,000 pounds gross weight, Superdumps are straight trucks that can legally carry up to 28 tons of payload. Built by Strong Industries, of Houston, Texas, the Superdump bodies feature a “Strong Arm” load-bearing liftable axle rated as high as 13,000 pounds. It trails 11 to 13 feet behind the rear tandem, stretching the outer bridge measurement – the distance between the truck’s first and last axles – to maximize the legal gross weight under the bridge formula. When the truck is empty or ready to offload the Strong Arm toggles up off the road surface on two hydraulic arms to clear the rear of the vehicle.
In addition to the load-bearing trailer axle, Wheeler’s trucks have a 20,000-pound-capacity set-forward steer axle, three 8,000-pound steerable pushers, and 46,000-pound tandem drives.
The Superdump bed has an elliptical-shaped floor and tapered, conical-shaped sidewalls that become wider toward its rear. This shape allows the payload to spread out and loosen up as it exits the bed, like it’s being poured out of the large end of a funnel. As a result, the driver doesn’t have to raise the hoist as high to get the load to break, and the material flows into the paving machine efficiently, quickly, and in a controlled manner.
Cleaner deliveries and more coverage area
More importantly to Wheeler, the design and shape of the Superdump bed, along with lightweight, high-tensile steel and aluminum materials, significantly lower the vehicle’s tare weight. The aluminum tailgate and absence of an asphalt apron also contribute to the body’s low weight and efficient operation. During dumping, an apron and tailgate can press material down deep into the paving machine, applying pressure on the pavers and the truck. The Superdump bed has an extended floor, which makes the apron unnecessary. The driver can flip a switch, close the tailgate and go pick up another load without having to face a messy and time-consuming cleanup job.
“You know, there’s a tremendous amount of time lost backing into the pavers,” says Wheeler. “Since your average Superdump can pour material covering 50 or 60 feet more than a regular dump truck, we’re not wasting time backing in. That means the paving crew is busier. The drivers are able to turn more runs. Everything is just a little bit more efficient, a little more productive, and in this business that may be all you need.”
The increased payload offered by the new trucks has led Wheeler to rethink his initial downsizing plan. He’s still on track to reduce his fleet size, but plans to buy more Superdumps. “Some of the trucks we’re replacing are almost brand new,” he says. “But the Superdumps contribute so much more to our productivity it doesn’t make sense to keep them around. We’re doing as much work as we’ve ever done, but with less equipment. As a result, we’re saving money on the cost of owning and operating those trucks – the labor, fuel, tires, insurance, the risk exposure. We’re able to make more competitive bids and win business.”