Freightliner - Born in the USA


Despite a recent past that included quality issues and gaps in the model line-up that restricted sales, Freightliner is firmly enshrined in the global Daimler Trucks family, and recently hosted a group of Australian truck journalists to show how far the brand has come. Gary Worrall was there.

Freightliner - Born in the USA
The new Freightliner Coronado 114, designed specifically for Australian conditions

 

When your brand is referred, somewhat disparagingly, in truck parks and over the UHF as 'Frightliner', that could be a signal to take your bat and ball and go home, but for long-serving Freightliner boss Gary Wheatley, it is just another challenge.

Wheatley, who has overseen Freightliner in Australia for more than five years, says the company is in a stronger position now, with the backing of parent Daimler Trucks North America, an expanded product range to meet market demand, all at a time when heavy truck sales are expected to pass 12,000 units per annum by 2014.

Freightliner's history stretches back to 1942, when it was founded by Leland James to manufacture trucks for his own transport operations, which led to Freightliner opening its first factory in Portland, Oregon.

Within three years, it had secured Hyster as its first private customer, followed not long after by an agreement with White Motor Corporation for Freightliner trucks to be retailed through its dealerships.

Although this arrangement remained in place for more than 25 years, finally ending in 1977, in 1967, White launched the Western Star brand, a name that was to become intertwined with Freightliner in the new millennium.

In between time, Freightliner opened its corporate headquarters in Portland in 1976, and then launched its first dealerships in 1977, before Mercedes-Benz bought the company in 1981.

Under Mercedes-Benz stewardship, the company continued to grow, opening a new factory in St Thomas, buying American La France, Ford Trucks and re-naming it Sterling, Thomas Built Buses, and then Western Star, all between 1995 and 2000 − as well as launching the Freightliner Custom Chassis and Select Trucks brands.

After parent Daimler merged and then split with the Chrysler group, Freightliner Trucks LLC was renamed Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA), bringing all of its subsidiaries, including Detroit Diesel, under the one umbrella.

This period also saw the demise of the Sterling brand, closing its doors in March 2009, which inadvertently caused significant problems for the Australia-Pacific operation, with Western Star Trucks distributed in this region by Transpacific Industries, making the stablemates opposing brands.

SHORTENING THE ODDS

The end of Sterling left the Australian arm without a short-bonnet, axle-forward offering, locking it out of an estimated 300 sales annually, with other markets promoting Western Star products in place of the defunct Sterling.

Into this gap DTNA is launching the Coronado 114, a short bonnet version of the brand's 'hero truck' with a bonnet to back of cab (BBC) measurement of 2,850mm (114 inches), while still offering a gross combination mass (GCM) of 102 tonnes.

The result of five years planning and what Wheatley says is 'thousands' of hours of engineering work, the Coronado 114 is available with the 15-litre Detroit Diesel DD15 'big bore' engine, rated at up to 417kW and 2,508Nm (560hp/1,850ft/lb), with a choice of Eaton manual and automated manual 18-speed transmissions.

Greg Nightingale, Project Manager for the Coronado 114, says the new model absorbed $2.2 million in research, along with 35,000 hours of engineering work to ensure it is right for Australia.

The biggest headache for designers and engineers alike was the shorter bonnet.

Nightingale says this necessitated a complete redesign of the cooling package to ensure not only optimal operation but reduced parasitic power loss through the fan.

By only offering the 'in-house' Detroit DD15 engine, with the 10,967 square-centimetre (1,700 square-inch) aluminium radiator mounted directly onto the motor, the designers have moved the transmission cooler to under the engine radiator, for peak function.

In addition to the main radiator and transmission cooler, the total cooling package incorporates a 37-tube charge air cooler mounted directly in front of the engine radiator, with a smaller condenser for the air-conditioning unit mounted at the front.

Other modifications include twin exhaust stack mounted either side of the cab, to keep the cab back wall clear, the development of an ADR-compliant front under run device, and an underslung cross member to allow additional fuel tanks for local conditions.

The Coronado will retain the twin steering boxes offered in other Freightliner models, while the cab is moved 200mm forward, the cab and bonnet are also an additional 50mm higher than the current Coronado to clear the engine.

ABS brakes are fitted standard to the truck, although disc brakes are available as an option, Wheatley says the standard fitment will be drum brakes, in line with customer demand.

The cab is expected to be one of the major selling points of the new model, as its all-aluminium construction will keep the tare weight low for maximum payload, particularly in bulk haulage operations.

Nightingale says the current chassis design is 'future-proofed' for Australian requirements, which includes ensuring there is space for the combination of exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) and selective catalytic reduction (SCR) emission control equipment expected to be fitted under ADR 80/04 regulations.

Although the truck will also be offered in South Africa, where Freightliner sells close to 1,500 trucks per year, the key market is Australia, with the majority of testing used to replicate local conditions.

Wheatley says the sizeable investment in the Coronado is proof of Freightliner's commitment to the Australian market, given the target of 300 trucks per year, where the main applications for the new model will be lightweight fuel tanker work, while the 147 cm (58 inch) extended sleeper version can be fitted with a bullbar but is still legal for use with a 13.7m (45-foot) single trailer.

Also on the radar are tipper and quad dog operators, using the day cab version, and the 19m pocket B-double sector, while the 86cm (34-inch) sleeper version is also legal for 26m B-double work.

"We will take back the market we lost through the end of Sterling," Wheatley says.

BUILDING THE BEST

Although DTNA operates a number of production facilities across North America, Australian trucks all come from the Cleveland, North Carolina factory acquired by Freightliner from MAN in February 1989.

By October 1989, production of Freightliner models had commenced, primarily for domestic use, with the first Century Class models built in 1996, followed by the Argosy cabover in 1997 and then the Columbia conventional in 1998.

The latest addition to the Freightliner range arrived in 2010, with the launch of the Coronado, which included both standard and Severe Duty (SD) models, with the first of the new Coronado 114 models slated for production in September 2012.

Offering a stark reminder of the size of the North American market compared with Australia, even during slow economic conditions the factory is operating two shifts per day, producing 106 trucks daily.

Of this, close to 80 percent of the trucks produced are the Cascadia, sold in North and Latin America, with a mix of Argosy, Columbia and Coronado making up the rest of production.

Mike McCurry, plant manager of the Cleveland factory, says there are close to 2,000 staff at the facility, with an average age of 48 and an average of 16 years employment.

While older Freightliners had sometimes questionable build quality, McCurry says the improvement in new models is due in part to Daimler's Truck Operating System (TOS), a continuous improvement manufacturing method.

Staff at all levels are involved, allowing for ongoing review of processes to improve the finished product, with open access to build and production information on the factory floor, as well as regular meetings inside the production area.

While the build process is heavily regimented, including product training, build sheets and parts lists, one aspect of the American psyche shone through clearly, with staff preferring their own wardrobes over company-issued work wear.

With Cleveland building from scratch, McCurry says the cab and chassis begin in different parts of the factory, before they are mated near the end of the process, followed by the installation of the dash and firewall in final assembly, which eases the task of fitting other components earlier in the build.

Despite plenty of human labour, Cleveland also has fully-robotised sections in the cab construction department, which could not be photographed, resembling scenes from the Terminator movies as computer-controlled tools whirl about with laser-guided precision.

In one section, a mechanical octopus, working inside a mesh cage to prevent injury to distracted humans, measures and drills, selecting the right tool from an inbuilt tool kit, before riveting the panels for maximum rigidity.

McCurry says finished trucks are then subjected to 'customer perception audits' before leaving the factory, which is intended to view the truck through the eyes of the customer, searching for flaws that could lead to complaints from end users.

Interestingly, while this process is random for the majority of production, McCurry says every Australian truck goes through this process, "due to higher customer expectations" with an Australian auditor visiting the factory every six months to ensure the audit team understand local market needs.

While the audit team is expected to find flaws, McCurry says the goal is to bring the overall error rate down to a level where less than 3 percent of customers would complain.

Next time - After leaving the Cleveland, North Carolina factory, the media tour head to Detroit Diesel in Redford Michigan, before visiting the DTNA head office in Portland, Oregon, including the research and development centre and a meeting with Martin Daum, head of DTNA.

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