ASET works with Truckline to achieve productivity and functionality (SA)
When this South Australian machinery transporter couldn’t find the right equipment to do the job, he went out and designed his own to improve productivity and functionality, Tim Giles meets the team at ASET.
This article, written by Tim Giles, Editor Diesel Magazine, originally appeared in Diesel’s May/June issue and on the Diesel News website as a series of stories.
The world of agricultural machinery transport is not the easiest market sector to work in. The loads are invariably awkward. They are big and indivisible, as well as heavy. Carting this equipment interstate introduces countless issues of over-length, over-width, over-height and sometimes over-weight. Vehicle dimensions and bridge formulas also come into the equation.
All of these issues mean any operator in this field needs to be on top of all of the permit requirements and know how they vary from state to state. Running outside of the normal prescriptive mass and dimension rules requires a permit of some sort. While some of these are periodical and simply need to be renewed on a regular basis, others are needed for each one-off movement if the load is outside of certain permit allowances.
The strategy adopted by Ken Pitt, All Size Equipment Transport (ASET) Managing Director, has been to adapt prime movers and trailers to minimise size and weight to get as many loads inside prescriptive or periodical permit restrictions and as few as possible requiring special permits or pilot vehicles.
As farm machinery has grown in size and mass, it has become harder and harder for the operation to keep within these rules without customising its equipment to get a few millimetres of height here, an axle there, or a few kilograms shaved off the gross combined mass (GCM).
If a load can be arranged on trailers so a pilot is not required, as the dimensions fit within the rules, the costs of doing a job can be dramatically reduced. It can be worth spending an extra day loading on a specialist trailer and avoiding the use of a pilot after loading conventionally.
Ken is a hands-on operator, an innovator, constantly reviewing the equipment used and tweaking it to get improvements. The ASET yard has a number of ongoing engineering projects at different stages of development as new ideas are worked out in the metal.
The trailers designed and built by Ken and his team are widening, lengthening and have a gooseneck at the front. This means they are adaptable to a wide variety of loads, both those that pay well and those that pay less well. This enables a higher utilisation rate, when compared to more highly specialised trailers, which are often only good for certain jobs. For example, being both lighter and lower means jobs can be done without a dolly, or with a less restrictive permit.
“We treat weight very seriously,” says Ken. “Everything we look at we try and bring weight down. Agricultural machinery is getting heavier all of the time. There’s envelopes everywhere. As long as you can stay within those you’re OK. As soon as you step up to the next size you need thousands of dollars to do the job.”
Some customers insist on their machinery travelling on the custom-made trailers. For ASET, the issue is only a few of their trailers are set up to handle the difficult loads, and this means customers may have to wait to get their load shifted. As more trailers are built and come on stream, more customers will be able to get a more flexible service.
The trailers are tri-axle as standard, but Ken has designed a special module, which can be fitted to the rear of the trailer to turn it into a quad-axle float. When the trailers run as a quad the axle spacing is typical. Again, higher utilisation is possible.
Unfortunately, due to the design of the module, when it is running as a tri-axle, the spacing is uneven. The rules in South Australia (SA) had specified even spacing in the past, but were changed in 2012. On many occasions, roadside enforcement would forget the rules had changed and breached trailers during checks. This forced the ASET to appeal each breach.
Ken is now in the process of trying to obtain a piece of paper, in the form of some kind of permit which drivers can show to enforcement when the tri-axle trailer is running within general access dimensions. By the rules the trailer is compliant, but it will save ongoing appeals, if the officer at the roadside can be shown some form of documentation.
“The first prototype we built was quite time consuming to adjust, but there were no hydraulics,” explains Ken. “It was important for machinery to be able to run up onto the gooseneck and for the rear ramps to be easily detachable to enable a rear overhang, if required.
“At that stage, we hadn’t worked out how to change the front of the trailer so you could load from the front. We are pretty happy with the latest platform we have now ended up with.”
In essence, the trailers being built now by ASET are very low to the ground, running on low profile tyres. Hydraulic rams can transform the trailer by lowering the landing legs and folding the gooseneck out straight. The trailer ends up flat and straight, with the front at ground level.
With this platform, machinery can be driven directly onto the trailer, from either the front or the rear. Then, the hydraulics can lift the legs and recreate the gooseneck, with the machinery in situ.
“What we do is go to customers and ask them what they are doing and what is coming up for them,” says Stuart Wearne, ASET Business Manager. “What trailers do we need to build to get your work? That’s what we are asking. We look at the task and make the equipment to do the job.”
It doesn’t stop there. There is also a truck-mounted crane in the works. It will fold out from the prime mover and be used to load and unload separate components of the machinery being moved.
Building the fleet
Ken comes from a farming background in the southeast of SA. After a number of years working as an interstate truck driver running between Sydney to Perth, he ended up buying his own truck and worked as a tow operator for a period. He moved onto the livestock game, and came to the realisation that the kind of working hours he was putting in were not sustainable in the long term.
“I began looking at what a truck should be doing,” says Ken. “Working with stock got me thinking. All of these farms are small businesses and every time they bought something it needed to be transported in. I bought a drop-deck trailer and started out on my own. I altered the trailers as I went along.”
The vast majority – 80 per cent – of ASET’s work comes from the agricultural sector, with 10 per cent from construction and the rest made up of mining equipment, plus assorted sectors. The customer will either be a dealer or manufacturer selling the equipment or an agent bringing equipment into their area.
The kind of work which has developed over the years has seen a lot of new agricultural machinery heading from the east to west to the big farms of Western Australia. The loads heading west to east tend to be the secondhand equipment being bought by the smaller farmers in SA and in the eastern states.
“I learnt early on in the piece about fuel economy. An unreliable truck with good fuel economy, you don’t want,” says Ken. “It’s hard for us. We are running against a lot of wind and on smaller tyres. It’s very hard to compare loads and consumption. I’ll take reliability every day of the week.”
The fleet currently has 23 trucks on the road. There are another two in the workshop being built. These are two Freightliner FLB trucks being completely stripped down and reworked to fit into the ASET envelope.
The fleet has 35 trailers, of which only a few are the custom-built specialist trailers. The plan is to grow this number as fast as possible. Although a lot of the bread and butter work done by the fleet can be handled by the normal off-the-shelf widening trailer, Ken would like to see half of the fleet pulling the more flexible customised models.
At the moment, 30 drivers handle the work. The fleet runs at Basic Fatigue Management (BFM). Ken is looking at a more flexible approach to fatigue with more flexibility as to when drivers can take 24 and 48 hour breaks. If the load is wide, a driver cannot leave the depot, deliver to WA and get home in one week. They end up having to take a day off at Ceduna, a day’s drive from home. He feels some form of Advanced Fatigue Management (AFM) may provide a solution.
There are no illusions for drivers – this is a complex hard working task. The loading process involves a lot of handling and physical work. There is also a need for precision, when machines are loaded close together, the driver has to secure the load in a way that will not damage the goods.
Some drivers can come into the business and have the right kind of experience. Someone from a farm background will have experience of driving some the large machines they will be shifting. Machinery like self-propelled sprayers have a high centre of gravity, and when loaded on a trailer, needs a steady driver who will not rush. As a result, most of the drivers are from an older demographic.
The return of the Freightliner FLB
Ken has moved away from a policy of buying new trucks as he says he hasn’t found a specification available in a new truck that can match what he can achieve in terms of configuration and mass.
ASET are buying old Freightliner FLB trucks and rebuilding them to suit the tasks they are undertaking. According to Ken, the FLB has a number of advantages as a platform on which to build. It has a front axle set well forward, giving any combination good axle spread, helping the loads stay inside the envelope.
The tare weight of a finished FLB can be around seven tonnes, whereas a brand new equivalent, like a Freightliner Argosy or Kenworth K200 will come in around 10 tonnes. This three tonnes, again, helps ASET keep loads within the envelope.
“We can get the FLBs down below 7 tonnes tare, and they are still a 70 to 90 tonne GCM truck,” says Ken.
ASET have found a sweet spot where their combination will be able to handle a load on a normal semi, but many of their competitors will have to use a converter dolly to spread the weight from the front of the trailer.
However, Ken does admit to the necessity of bringing some new trucks into the fleet and is looking at the Argosy as the best alternative, with its dimensions more suited to the precise needs of the operation. Argosy models have been customised on arrival at the ASET yard. The suspensions are taken off and rearranged to suit the lower profile tyres the company fits on standard wheels.
Ken has been getting the parts needed for the rebuilding from Truckline, who have been working with ASET. He reckons price, response time and willingness to really listen to what ASET’s requirements are as the three things he values in the relationship. In fact, Truckline flew some ASET staff up to Brisbane for meetings to discuss how to ensure they were truly meeting ASET’s needs.
The business runs with five mechanics. They handle a varied workload, not only servicing trucks and trailers, but also working on building new equipment. One specialist rebuilds all of the engines, gearboxes and diffs.
There are two regulars working to manufacture trailers, but all of the team are multi-skilled. When work gets busy, those building trailers may be out driving trucks. When things are quiet, the trailer manufacturing team grows.
Learning from the US
“I spent some time holidaying in the US and it was a real eye-opener,” says Ken. “I got a car, went on the road and had a look at everything. America make some very low stuff. Their infrastructure in the cities lets them get pretty low, in stuff like car carriers. I was taking photos underneath the trailers. Some you couldn’t get underneath.
“I came across a wrecker in Indianapolis and he had 30 acres of stuff. I spent a weekend hunting around in there. Looking at all the bits they fit there but doesn’t come to Australia. I have now persuaded Freightliner to bring these different suspension pedestals into Australia.”
ASET do not use the 19 inch rims favoured by the Americans. Instead, Ken sticks with 22 inch rims but fits ultra low tyres sourced from Europe. The combination of the two actually allow the truck to sit lower than on 19 inch wheels.
The trailers are fitted with 19 inch rims with low profile tyres. This allows room for conventional brake set ups to be used, but keeps trailer height low.
In terms of tyre wear, ASET have found the tyres don’t last as long as conventional ones. However, the ability of this gear to stay under the 4.9, 4.6 and 4.3 metre height thresholds when loaded is reckoned to pay-off in terms of cost.
The disadvantages of running with these adaptations include more wear and changing diff ratios, and having to carry spares at all times. Going to the lower profiles will change a 3.7:1 ratio to one of approximately 3.2:1. This means the carrier has to be changed to keep performance and fuel economy balanced.
This fleet is clearly very different from many plying their trade on the highway. However, it has found a niche market to work in and a method of working which works for a very specialist type of operation.
To get this kind of specialist type of operation to function properly, it takes someone willing to think a long way out of the square to achieve the aims of the operation. If there is one thing Ken can do, it’s think outside the box, or the envelope in this case.