Sound racking means better productivity

Mobile technicians who scatter tools and spare parts all over a van’s load bed without any attempt at organisation can’t expect to work efficiently or travel safely. 

What they need is well-thought-out load area storage with bins, racks, shelves and cupboards. That will enable them to find everything quickly, and handle more jobs during a working day while keeping everything secure as they drive. 

But how does a van operator decide which storage system supplier to pick? One option is to put the work out to tender and see who comes up with the most cost-efficient package. 

National Grid operates more than 6,000 vehicles, including 3,300 light commercials. 

Last year it went to tender with a contract for load area fixtures and fittings, livery application and de-fleet services for 250 vehicles annually. The contract included more than a dozen different specifications, and Bri-Stor was the winner.

To meet the tender’s requirements, Bri-Stor had to show it could design, build and install the products National Grid needed – 10 of its design engineers were employed on the project – and produce competitive quotations accompanied by illustrations outlining suggested fittings. It also had to demonstrate that it could manage the build process and meet the quality standard required; everything had to be designed and manufactured in accordance with ISO9001.

Going to tender

Bri-Stor was able to use an in-house operation – Hex Signs and Graphics – to produce and apply the livery. Its de-fleet process includes arranging for the handing-over of vehicles to auction houses when disposal time rolls round.

When Hitachi Capital Vehicle Solutions (HCVS) was asked to supply vans to a major fleet, it put together what national sales manager, specialist assets, James Bligh refers to as a mini-tender for the racking. “We looked at the warranty each of the racking companies that tendered for the work was offering, how good their aftersales support was, the cost of replacement parts and a variety of other factors,” he explains.

The data was run through HCVS cost of ownership calculator, which worked out which firm offered the most competitive package overall.

While going out to tender may be viewed as the best option by a big fleet, especially if public money is involved, compiling a tender document is time-consuming. But the time and resources required are significantly reduced if a framework agreement covering the sector concerned happens to be in place.

Embracing contract hire, fleet management and associated services, the Procurement for Housing (PfH) Tender Framework is a prime example. Managing the purchasing of more than £2.5m worth of goods and services a week, PfH represents more than 900 members throughout the UK. Van racking specialists listed as preferred suppliers to the framework can be appointed by public sector housing providers, without the need for a full tender, and include Bott. 

“It plays a key part in enabling us to work for public sector housing organisations,” says Bott sales director Stephen Turner. Bri-Stor and Sortimo are listed, too.

But working with framework agreements and dealing with purchasing teams can sometimes be problematic for leasing companies, says Venson marketing director Alison Bell. That’s because the individuals doing the buying may not have the same in-depth understanding of what is required that a fleet department does. 

A factor which could influence fleets in their choice is the ability of  a racking company to think laterally and use variations of its existing products to fulfil a client’s needs. Bri-Stor was able to do this by installing a version of its asymmetric wedge-shaped Vantage racking kit in Vauxhall Vivaros operated by Clarion Response. Part of Clarion Housing, one of the UK’s largest housing associations, its vehicles are used by trades people who maintain and repair properties. 

All equipped with twin sliding load area side doors, the Vivaros make up the bulk of Clarion Response’s new 300-strong van fleet. The Vantage racking can be accessed from both sides of the vehicle. As well as including racks, storage boxes, cabinets and tiltable bins, the package has been modified to meet the different user needs but retains enough uniformity to enable vans to be easily switched from one set of users to another – one of Clarion Response’s requirements.

Electricians and plumbers, for example, can make use of a diagonal tray to store lengths of piping while trades people of all types can avail themselves of a specially-designed nearside unit to house sheets of glass. The design also allows sheets of plasterboard to be transported.

Bri-Stor arranged for Clarion Response’s employees to drop off their old vans – which were then de-fleeted ready for disposal – at its site near Stafford and pick up their new ones, which were ready to go to work straight away; the level of support that fleets have come to expect.

Some operators want van manufacturers and their dealers to supply new vehicles that arrive racked out and ready to go to work. “We’re seeing this more and more,” says Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles specialist sales manager, Nick Axtell. “Murphy Plant is a good example.”

This year, it took delivery of 134 Volkswagen Crafters from London VW dealer Alan Day Volkswagen Van Centre, complete with a bespoke racking system installed by Bott. “The complete package offered by VW meant this was an easy choice for us,” says Murphy Group fleet manager, Tony Murphy. It specified Bott as the supplier, a stipulation VWCV agreed to, although the company is not on its list of recognised partners.

In the past, Murphy Group did all the work on its vans’ load areas in-house. “Some of them didn’t even have a steel bulkhead,” Murphy recalls.

It decided to use an outside supplier in the interests of efficiency and safety and initially opted for System Edstrom, in part because of the way in which it had successfully crash-tested vehicles with racking installed.

It still has a good relationship with System Edstrom, Murphy stresses, but opted for Bott this time round as a cost-efficient alternative. Bott also subjects its products to regular crash-testing.

Do customers ask Axtell’s advice when it comes to selecting racking, shelving and so on? “What frequently happens is that the customer will show us photographs of what is installed in his existing vehicles,” he replies. 

He may want the same again, but Axtell and his colleagues may be able to come up with a more efficient package with the same result, hopefully at a lower price, which is always a focus.

Expertise on the ground

Lex Autolease employs eight field-based light commercial vehicle engineers who regularly visit customers to discuss their van load area needs, says commercial vehicle manager Andy Hill. “The engineers in effect act as consultants, and try to find the most suitable solution,” he says. Bell adds: “That’s the approach Venson favours too.” 

In her view it should include talking to the van drivers because they know how the racking is used in practice; which tools they take out and use daily for example, and which are barely used at all.

The need for co-ordination can result in racking companies working with specialists in other items that fleets are likely to require with the aim of delivering a near-seamless package. 

With that in mind, Bott has a history of working closely with Lightfoot. It provides onboard devices designed to encourage drivers to improve their driving style, thereby reducing fuel consumption, emissions and accidents. Lightfoot is also a PfH Tender Framework preferred supplier.

Fleets expect racking companies to be capable of responding to the needs of a fast-changing market. Recognising that many people now work from home as a consequence of Covid-19, and may want their vehicles serviced there, System Edstrom is stressing its ability to equip vans so that they can be used as mobile workshops. A member of Ford’s QVM – Qualified Vehicle Modifier – programme, it has kitted out more than 100 for use by UK Ford dealers.

“They reduce the need for workshop space in dealerships,” says Steffen Karlsson, System Edstrom chief executive officer. They may also lessen the need for dealers to provide customers with loan vehicles while their vehicles are fixed.

Like many of its competitors, System Edstrom can equip vans with a properly-designed and professionally-installed load area power supply which can be used to provide mobile engineers with additional lighting, or to charge up their power tools. Bott is among those businesses that can install an inverter which can turn DC into AC, and enables a 12v DC battery to produce 230v AC mains power. Such systems must be installed correctly to minimise the risk of a short circuit leading to a fire; and a burnt-out vehicle.

Fleets are likely to favour one-stop shop suppliers to meet all their load area needs, rather than go to different vendors for racking, tow-bars, lighting and so on. Clarion Response wanted Bri-Stor to fit a tracking system and roof racks to its vans and apply the graphics as well as install load area racking, and Bri-Stor duly obliged.

When it comes to ancillary equipment most racking suppliers have the angles covered. Bott’s portfolio includes a Eberspacher mini hand-wash unit with a hot water tap; vital for many businesses in the Covid-19 pandemic. Soap and paper towel dispensers can be included itoo. 

“People are moving away from wash handbasins in vans because they can be fiddly,” says Hill. “But hand sanitiser dispensers are very popular.”

Modul-System can offer an onboard weighing package capable of monitoring front and rear axle weights as well as the vehicle’s gross weight. Figures can be displayed on an in-cab display,  smartphone or tablet.

Innovation is key

Some firms are developing a suite of support services alongside more tangible products.

Modul-System, for instance, has come up with a telematics and fleet management software package under the Modul-Fleet banner. It uses a dongle plugged into the van’s OBD – On Board Diagnostics – port, collects relevant data, uploads it to the driver’s smartphone, then saves to the cloud when the phone is connected to the internet.

Fuel consumption and driver behaviour can be monitored and the number of hours the driver has worked can be logged. The van’s whereabouts can also be tracked.

Many, if not all, businesses expect innovative thinking from their suppliers. Openreach installs fibre optic cabling across the UK and recognises not everybody understands what it is or the benefits it can bring. So it asked Bott to equip two of its Ford Transits with a load area package that can help explain its activities to the general public.

As a consequence, the vans feature everything from a mock domestic living room with a TV screen and a sound bar to an Openreach underground access box.

Fuel consumption is a perennial concern. The more weight you carry, the more fuel you burn, so fleets tend to favour onboard storage systems that are durable, but do not weigh too much.

Sortimo’s SR5 racking makes use of a single aluminium side profile at either end of each run of shelves, along with lashing points mounted in Sortimo’s own floor. This means a heavy and complicated support framework, which would pile on kilos, take up more space and take longer to install, is not required.

Lightness does not mean strength is lost, insists Sortimo. Some of SR5’s drawers can handle items weighing up to 100kg, it points out.

“Weight plays a massive part in the customer’s decision-making, but it is not necessarily all down to concerns about fuel consumption,” says Axtell. “It may relate to payload instead and the operator’s desire to carry as many items as possible.”

It may also involve their desire to avoid venturing above the 3.5-tonne barrier, thereby becoming involved in O-licences, tachographs and the other requirements of a tightly-regulated sector of the market. 

Weight is a major influencing factor in Murphy’s choice of load area equipment, says Tony Murphy. “We used to specify aluminium chequer-plate flooring but we’ve dropped that in favour of a lighter floor covering instead.”

But not all businesses are as weight-conscious as they should be, says Hill, and that can result in overloading. 

“We sometimes take portable weigh pads when we go and see customers, and weigh a vehicle or two,” he says. The figures displayed can show they have far too much weight on board.

Some operators seek racking, shelving and cabinets that can be transferred from a van to its successor once the leasing agreement covering the first vehicle has expired. 

Such transfers are possible, but can be problematic. They require  organisation, onboard units may have to be refurbished, and installation difficulties can arise if they are moved from one model of van to another.

Also, older racking packages may be heavier than their more modern counterparts, which may render re-use undesirable.

Even staying with the same manufacturer can bring problems. “You may find the next generation of Ford Transits, for example, has a load area that’s a slightly different shape,” says Bligh.

Murphy adds: “We keep vans for six years, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t re-use racking if it’s still useable. But if you acquire a new van, use it on a publicity photo shoot and it’s got old racking inside, somehow it doesn’t look right.”

“There isn’t a massive demand among fleets for racking to be given a second life,” says Axtell. The needs of businesses change and racking and binning designs that may have been appropriate three or four years ago may not be suitable today.

As a result fleets may conclude that the vehicles are best disposed of with the racking in place, or may wish to have it removed as part of the de-fleeting process. But those that choose the latter route may want to know if it is recyclable; a question which should be asked when it is first installed.

Steel and aluminium can be recycled easily. But not all plastics can be repurposed so readily – and while carbon fibre, which is now used by some racking firms, is lightweight, strong and durable, recycling it remains problematic.

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