Conversions: Demand is racking up

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Addition of customised, business-specific shelving is becoming one of the most popular van conversions

Demand for van conversions is soaring as the number of vans on UK roads continues to increase. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), there are now more than four million vans on our roads, with new registrations rising 2% for the year running up to October and especially fast growth of 13.5% in the pick-up market.

Many owners want vehicles that are customised to their specific business requirements but also meet stricter safety standards and minimise weight at the same time, with racking being one of the most popular types of conversion.

Customised racking, for instance, can save time because staff can quickly find the right tools for a job. Companies can sometimes downsize to smaller vans that are cheaper to run if a skilled converter can design a racking system that maximises storage capacity.

Health and safety is also becoming a major focus for van fleet operators. Racking can play a major role in keeping employees safe.

Think about what objects are being carried around in your vans every day. Are they secure? A loose load can damage both a van and the cargo. A can of paint rolling around in the back could leave a costly mess but a power tool could do even more damage, scratching or even denting the interior panels of your vehicle.

For heavier items the safety risk is even higher. Heavy items can lead to ‘load shifts’ causing the van to lose traction when cornering and then, for vehicles without a bulkhead, the driver could be on the receiving end of an untethered object.

Lyndon Stonier, managing director of Qi Van Systems, says: “We have noticed there is growing focus on payload, base vehicle weights, and conversion weights. This is something which we are adapting into our designs. But thanks to the introduction of our new laser we are also utilising high tensile steel which can reduce rack weight by up to 25%.

“One of our main challenges is overall conversion weight – this has been an ongoing issue and continues to be extremely important to our customers. We notice more and more regularly that customers are multi-skilling their people, which means they require more carrying capacity. This gives our designers the task of being able to design specifications which allow users to fit more into a vehicle, without impacting on the payload.”

Traditional materials, such as wood, are becoming less popular among racking providers. Despite its low cost, wood is impractical, heavy, offers limited grip and is liable to splinter, so galvanised steel, aluminium and plastic are becoming the materials of choice as they can be easily screwed or clipped together and are much lighter.

Straight from the factory

Turnkey conversions are becoming more commonplace in the van market as fleets demand a more efficient handover and finance process. One order/one invoice is the ideal scenario and manufacturers are gradually getting on board and offering in-house conversions.

Vauxhall opened its in-house van conversion centre earlier in 2016 and plans to offer a custom racking service in early 2017.

Volkswagen has partnered with Sortimo to offer a bespoke service alongside its existing racking solutions, with prices starting from £350. The modular system allows for a range of customisations, is crash tested and includes a three-year warranty.

Liz Richardson, service and parts product manager at Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, says: “When buying racking through an original equipment manufacturer (OEM), the key advantages are the quality, safety and professional fit. The trained technicians in our van centres and authorised repairers know what to fit and how to fit it.

“The other advantage is that racking can be selected at purchase (on a new vehicle), so when the customer comes to collect their vehicle it’s fitted out and ready to go; there’s no waiting while it goes to another supplier. They can get to work straightaway. There can also be a financial advantage with the cost of racking incorporated into monthly payments (if the van is bought with finance).”

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles also offers a Sobogrip protective floor (from £205) which is needed for the racking, but also appeals to non-racking customers as it has an anti-slip durable surface and is oil and chemical resistant.

“We would encourage any van user to consider OEM racking solutions – and to do so when they buy the van. Too often, aftersales and aftermarket accessories are an after-thought. But anyone who uses racking in a van on a day-to-day basis will know that they’re every bit as important as the van itself and it’s essential to find a solution that fits your van and your work,” adds Richardson.

Renault has also embraced racking. It has introduced Ready4Work for the Renault Kangoo, a turnkey conversion service giving customers a van that is ready to go straight to work.

It costs from £1,150 (including VAT) and is installed into a customer’s van before delivery. The cost can be incorporated in a single finance package arranged by any Renault dealership or the brand’s specialised Renault Pro+ dealer network.

The Ready4Work systems were developed in partnership with vehicle storage specialist Bri-Stor.

Steve Wilson, LCV product manager at Renault, explains: “Ready4Work racking adds to the versatility of the Renault Kangoo, while at the same time offering customers an efficient and cost-effective way to fit out the back of their van with a quality storage solution that meets their needs.”

There are two versions of Ready4Work racking available.

Kit-1 is designed to provide engineering tradesmen with an economical solution that offers storage for tools, parts and accessories together with the option to add additional features.

Kit-2 is designed to suit the more specialist tradesmen who require an enhanced racking solution for the storage of tools and service equipment.

“By choosing either Ready4Work kit, our customers aren’t losing revenue while their new vehicle is being prepared and they are also safe in the knowledge that the equipment they have invested in is covered by the warranty,” adds Wilson

Leasing, finance and rental providers are also becoming increasingly capable of offering racking and conversions and incorporating the costs into their payment plans.

According to Alphabet more than 80% of commercial vehicles require some form of conversion.

Therefore vehicle providers are putting more focus on building and maintaining relationships with suppliers to ensure they can offer a competitive converted vehicle.

Jamie Atkinson, vehicle acquisition manager at Enterprise Flex-E-Rent says: “More than half the vans we rent out for a month-plus involve a degree of specialist equipment. When customers are renting a vehicle for a longer period, it’s with a particular role in mind and that usually means a bespoke fit-out. Our vehicles typically begin with standard ply line, and from there we work with specialist racking providers to meet any bespoke fit-out needs, sometimes from existing templates or designing from scratch.

“We create bespoke storage for more than 50% of our vans, which means we can offer expert guidance and consultancy on design that customers might not have considered. We aim to be a business partner rather than just a vehicle supplier.”

When you fund a conversion, the assets remain the property of the finance, leasing or rental company during the payment period. Dependent on the type of funding used, the equipment may need to be returned at the end of the contract or bought with a final instalment.

Atkinson adds: “We cost any fit-out with total transparency and build it into the monthly rental for our vans. We pay for the equipment and installation before giving the vehicle to the customer.

“We will often guide a customer towards a solution that works better within a budget, or that could control cost in a different way, say by reducing the number of vehicles required. We worked with one food industry customer to reduce cost by introducing flexible removable racking for refrigerated vehicles, which meant that a replacement truck could quickly be adapted if one of the fleet was being repaired. This meant no downtime combined with fewer rental days.”

It is important to discuss your options thoroughly with your provider from the outset, especially if you are financing the vehicle and conversion as a single package. If you intend to transfer the equipment to another vehicle at the end of contract, you need to be sure the costs of transfers, repairs and refurbishment are properly taken into account and costed into the monthly rentals.

Using a conversion specialist

The conversion market is awash with providers, ranging from large organisations handling thousands of fit-outs to smaller, niche companies.

Cartwright Conversions was launched in March with a specific focus on vans, building on the success of its parent company which has experience in the heavier side of the industry. It is housed in a 30,000 sq ft building with two production lines, 30 bays and 20 engineers, and specialises in installing cargo bay equipment including shelves, cupboards and lighting.

The company offers three types of racking – steel modular, mobile and mini. The latter is suitable for small vehicles such as the Peugeot Bipper.

According to the company, its dedicated operation enables it to respond to the needs of the market, whether a customer requires a one-off vehicle or has a fleet of 500.

It says: “We bring to the market a number of exciting features. Firstly, our build flexibility – our plant allows us to build multiple repeat vehicles in a line. We also have up to 30 bays so we can build different vehicles at the same time which obviously wouldn’t work on a production line. This flexibility allows us to build one vehicle in a bay or 500 on a line.”

Qi Van Systems has been in the conversion business for more than 30 years. This year new products have been introduced such as folding shelves which give operators a more flexible storage capacity dependent on their needs.

It has also introduced glass reinforced plastic (GRP) internal lined vans which have been used in a specification for one of its customers in the healthcare sector.

To strengthen its service offering Qi has separated its technical support team from its customer services, and now has a designated aftersales department.

The aftersales investment has allowed the company to reduce downtime for end users needing warranty repairs. It can also undertake projects at customers’ own depots.

Stonier explains: “We take the worry away from fleet managers – all they want to know is when can they pick up their vans and do the vans include the specification ordered on them. We manage everything from start to finish.

“Smaller conversion components or simple racking is now more regularly requested as an on-site fitment, and where possible we can now carry this out on-site with customers rather than at our site in Telford.”

Build it yourself

As many commercial vehicle fleets are used as mobile toolboxes, some are likely to have skilled workforces who could build their own racking systems. This can prove costly and unproductive, especially for larger fleets, but for those that don’t mind getting hands-on, a number of suppliers will sell flat-packed racking solutions.

There are health and safety and warranty considerations when taking this route but, by far, this would be the cheapest way to rack out a vehicle, with kits starting from £100.

Bott launched its SmartVan range in 2013 and now offers solutions for most small vans. It is custom-developed and can be fitted in about 60 minutes with no need for drilling.

The systems are fully configurable online and can be ordered to a vast range of specifications including floor modules. Prices range from £200-300 per module.

Payload, productivity and the impact on vehicle performance should be key considerations when determining your equipment specifications.

Systems that increase payload, save fuel and enhance your employee’s efficiency will make valuable investments.

Choosing higher-end, modular fit-outs means they can be reconfigured if your requirements change.

Today’s lightweight components and modular construction make versatile conversions. But the price of these systems can be significant, with costs running well into the thousands of pounds per vehicle.

However, internal racking or mobile workshop equipment may retain some residual value which can add to the vehicle’s second-hand appeal or detract from it – dependent on how bespoke the conversion is.

Lifecycles can also play a part. A quality modular racking system, for example, might remain serviceable over the vehicle’s lifetime and could be used in two or more successive vehicles. You could expect to get up to 10 years of use from the equipment by refitting it into other vehicles. This could also enhance the vehicles’ residual value, as some buyers want plain, stripped-out used vans.

By planning ahead to anticipate the reuse of racking and other equipment, you can work out your lifetime funding costs and determine which finance plan will best suit your needs.

Not just for vans

With the pick-up market gaining pace with the launch of a  number of new and efficient models joining the market, many fleets are finding them invaluable when they have to access off-road sites. Using a pick-up instead of a van means the driver can get closer to the worksite, is less likely to get stuck and the vehicle is less likely to get damaged.

Truckman is a UK supplier and manufacturer of pick-up accessories, including hard tops and canopies.

Mike Wheeler, managing director of Truckman, says: “It’s all to do with somebody who needs a four-wheel drive vehicle with reasonable ground clearance. It tends to be everybody from the coastguard through to utility companies like Network Rail, water authorities, EE and BT.”

To fully utilise the truck bed in a pick-up, a hard top can be added – in some instances doubling the enclosed load volume.

“When we designed our utility top there was a requirement from one of the utility companies to install racking into their fleet. Therefore that canopy has been designed specifically to be racked out. It’s got very large doors, giving good access.

“The inside is designed to have a very large area for racking. When you take a pick-up and that canopy, it’s basically a receptacle for racking –that’s how we designed it.”

Truckman does not provide the actual racking system but its vehicle specific hard tops are used by converters when carrying out the work, generally at the request of operators.

For those requiring the practicality of an open-bed pick-up, Truckman has also introduced Invis-A-Rack, a foldable frame which can hold 220kg above the vehicle’s roof height.

It’s designed to carry heavy materials, like metal pipes, timber and sheet material. But when not in use, the rack can be folded away into rails clamped to the pick-up without impacting on truck bed storage space.

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  • Ian - 12/07/2018 14:38

    As the demand for more freedom of mobility continues to grow, the automotive industry looks to best suit wheelchair user needs by providing more customize options with each mobility conversion vehicle project.

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