The mechanics truck or service body is unique to the North American market primarily due to the large geographical areas in which equipment fleets operate. It has evolved to become a service shop on wheels to repair equipment located on even the most remote jobsites, often eliminating the need to transport equipment to the closest repair or service facility.
Early mechanics trucks initially proved their value in the remote oilfield industry, where it was much more efficient to repair equipment in the field than haul it all the way back to the shop. It began with simple crane-mounted trucks.
The cranes themselves started in the late 1950s in the oil and gas industry of Oklahoma. “Mechanics often refer to their crane as an ‘autocrane’ because Auto Crane was the first vehicle-mounted service crane,” says Bryan Wutzke, product manager, Auto Crane. “In fact, the first crane was mounted in the back of a car trunk to raise and lower drill bits in the oil field.”
“These early cranes were operated with winches,” says Tim Davison, product manager of bodies and cranes, Stellar Industries. To raise and lower a boom, they had a series of winches that would elevate and lower the boom. It was a fixed boom length, typically about
15 ft. long.”
These early crane trucks evolved as customers discovered the increased utility possible by adding cargo space. “Customers needed to be able to load items into the bed of a truck and still have the capability to lift components,” says Davison. “The solution was to offset the crane to the side of the bed. This allowed not only the lifting of well components, but you could transport components and service the equipment.”
The trucks were then adopted by heavy equipment dealers who discovered they could efficiently repair equipment in the field with a mobile crane, air compressor and drawers to store tools. “It became more advanced because dealers needed to rely more and more on field service to keep operators up and running in the field,” explains Davison.
The Modern Mechanics Truck Emerges
The mechanics truck package with the crane, boxes and utility components really began to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s, according to Davison. Progress in hydraulic system development enabled advances in crane technology.
“Cranes evolved to where you had one hydraulic extension and maybe a manual pullout. The trucks were getting to the point where they might have 20 ft. of reach,” Davison points out.
Incremental improvements occurred as features such as hydraulic outriggers gained popularity over the more labor-intensive manual outriggers. Radio remote crane control and hydraulic extensions were the next major evolutions. “It wasn’t until 1999 that Stellar became the first U.S. manufacturer to make two hydraulic extensions,” notes Davison.
Crane controls also evolved. To speed up the job, you want the crane to be capable of faster line speeds, yet you need the fine control offered by precise proportional control technology. Today’s planetary winches can provide speeds up to 60 fpm. In addition, visibility is critical when performing precise lifts. Users can now choose from a tethered or wireless remote that allows them to position themselves for the best visibility.
As usage evolved from simply picking items off the ground to pulling components off the equipment, very fine control became a requirement, necessitating all companies to develop more advanced control systems for the cranes. Multiple sensors and user feedback functions translated to increased safety.
Brett Collins, president, Venco Venturo, believes the most significant advancement in mechanics trucks by far has been the development of advanced crane controls. “Crane controls will continue to advance to include more sensors and connectivity (telematics). The Internet of Things (IoT) will play an increasingly important role,” he adds.
Today’s predominantly wireless remote technologies include both visual and sensory feedback for the operator including alerts when the crane is reaching the limitations of its capacity.
“Besides crane controls, the popularity of labor-saving and safety-enhancing features like fully hydraulic booms and outriggers led to the elimination of cumbersome manual extensions,” says Collins. “These trends are the major drivers of Venturo’s R&D and product development strategy.”
Electric cranes are also making inroads for mechanics trucks that don’t need high-capacity cranes. Smaller 12-volt electric-powered cranes are a more cost-effective alternative for customers that have lighter loads to be moved.
Last year, Venco Venturo Industries introduced a new variation of its ET12KX-P, a 3,500-lb. electric-hydraulic service crane with a fully powered boom extension up to 16 ft. The winch is operated by an electric power unit mounted to the service crane, but also includes hydraulic-powered boom elevation, boom extension and crane rotation. Hydraulic functions are driven by a self-enclosed hydraulic pump system. This allows the crane to be installed and hooked directly to the battery as opposed to purchasing a separate PTO to run all the hydraulics of a full hydraulic crane.
One downside with electric cranes has been the on/off controls, which make fine control difficult. The Venturo ET12KX-P features proportional controls, which give the operator precise load control functions including rotation, elevation and extension.
CDL Requirements Pose Challenge
Finding field service technicians who also have a CDL to operate a truck with a GVW of or in excess of 26,000 lbs. is a real challenge.
“That is a pretty regular problem,” says Davison. “Most of our mechanics truck sales in today’s world are in that under 26,000-lb. GVW. You’re able to get a really good-sized mechanics truck in that 25,999-lb. GVW range.” This still allows a 10,000- or 12,000-lb. crane. “The lifting capacity is there, but it’s generally a shorter bed — 11 ft.”
The use of lightweight materials, such as aluminum has gained acceptance in recent years as manufacturers look for ways to shave weight. “We’ve developed an aluminum service body which will save about 1,000 lbs. of payload,” says Davison. “That helps a lot in being able to stay in that 26,000-lb. GVW range.” Modern fleet buyers want to save weight because it’s a fuel reduction and it also lets them run smaller trucks. “There’s some cost reductions plus you have the CDL driver issue. Owners still want to fill it with tools and parts.” This means the manufacturer need to focus on the unladen weight.
Even the weight of the mechanics crane itself is being carefully considered. Last spring, Stellar Industries introduced an aluminum telescopic service crane, the EC3200 Aluminum. Weighing in at 500 lbs., this crane is nearly 200 lbs. lighter than comparable cranes yet it offers 3,200 lbs. of lifting capacity and 15 ft. of horizontal reach.
Technicians want to be able to carry more on the trucks so they have everything on site to complete the job. This is creating an environment where the drivers can be cited for an overweight violation. “Vehicles weights are trending higher, causing many operations to get cited,” says Tim Henrich, national sales manager, Service Trucks International (STI). “STI has developed a 19,500-lb. GVWR body, the all-new 2244, aimed at reducing truck weight which ultimately increases operator payload.”
The size of the mechanics truck may shrink in the future. “In lieu of ‘large’ vocational crane trucks, the industry will demand smaller, more cost-effective vehicles that offer increased capabilities,” says Henrich.
Fleet Management Trends Focus on PM
Dedicated fleet managers are changing the landscape. “More companies are getting true fleet managers to manage their fleet,” says Davison. This is putting more of a focus on uptime.
Construction equipment companies have responded by selling uptime contracts. “They want the customer to buy their equipment and understand they’re going to have uptime guarantees,” says Davison. “But to do that, they need to have regular service.” Equipment needs to be serviced during its normal downtime in order to ensure maximum uptime when it is needed. “That has really created a shift in our marketplace.”
As a result, lube skids are gaining popularity. In 2011, Stellar acquired Valley Industries, which makes Lube Mate and Fuel Mate products, in response to this growing trend. Depending upon the month, 25% to 40% of Stellar mechanics trucks leave the factory with its American Eagle lube skids installed.
Data Drives the Future
“Field service will become more technologically advanced due to expected productivity improvement, technical certifications and requirements for mechanics’ training,” says Wutzke. “With the shortage of labor force in our industry, we will have to use technology to increase knowledge with VR and AI (for training and problem solving) as well as telematics of critical information to help users specify the right equipment with the right features.”
Data is going to drive the future. “The next evolution really is how much information we’re sharing with what’s going on with the truck itself, the crane and what we share with the operator and the fleet manager,” says Davison.
According to Henrich, interface via telematics is one of the most significant advancement in mechanics trucks over the past few years.
“The access and use of telematics to optimize fleet management, safety, and ownership cycles for the users has created more efficient and effective alignment of equipment needs,” says Wutzke.
Telematics systems are the key to data collection. “Advances in chassis and outputs of cranes led Auto Crane to be the first to devise and place crane telematics systems,” says Wutzke. “Our Nexstar crane management system already incorporates much of this and our next generation will incorporate the latest advances for better productivity, safety, and truck spec writing — ultimately providing a more efficient and effective use of physical equipment and human resources.”
Telematics on equipment in the field has changed the way the fleet is managed. “Dozers and excavators are typically telematically connected so that the organization that sold them will know when it is time for the preventative maintenance,” says Davison. The telematics system also provides advanced warning that a component may fail. “That’s exactly the way we intend to use telematics on our equipment, as well. They can service it when they need to service it and not get into a breakdown situation.”
Auto Crane has introduced telematics on its NexStar crane management system. It helps maximize productivity; provides alerts, proactive maintenance on cranes and accessories; track power units and compressors; monitor equipment to help increase the focus on safety and even see the equipment status in real-time. The historical data helps fleet managers optimize their equipment on future builds. The system also gives Auto Crane a platform for the next generation truck hydraulic systems that will further reduce operation costs.
Many customers are exploring the right-sizing of their fleets, including the service cranes. Telematics data is useful in helping contractors identify their actual equipment demands. This is creating a shift from the temptation to oversize the mechanics truck crane.
“There’s a change in the marketplace where fleet managers are really being conscientious about how they spend their money to be most effective for their fleets,” says Davison. This will help ensure a fleet has the optimal size crane in place — small or large — where they are actually needed.
Outfitting a modern service truck to best meet your demands is a complicated process. Many decisions can impact how the truck performs on your jobsites. For instance, crane sizing, storage space and payload capacity are only a few of the considerations. Would you be best served by an above the deck, below the deck or underhood air compressor? Should it be a rotary screw or reciprocating compressor? Should it be driven off the truck’s hydraulic system or have its own engine? What type of welder do you need? Do you need to stay under CDL weight requirements? The answers to these and many more critical questions require you to work with a trusted supplier.