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Truck manufacturing in Australia almost counts as one of those industries that flies under the radar, which is almost comical given the size of the trucks that are not only built but designed here. Not much thought is given to the industry despite its good health and vitality, perhaps that’s why it’s not consuming the column inches in newspapers – it is doing well compared with its smaller automotive cousins who are now all imported despite a few lonely start-ups.
Little is understood about the truck industry by the general public and probably also by engineers many of whom have dreamt of designing cars but have not turned their minds to trucks.
Kimberley Bennett doesn’t quite fit into that mould though, the young Adelaide born engineer was not blinkered in any way when she was completing her mechanical engineering degree.
“Through my later high school years, I really wasn’t clear on where I wanted to go,” she said. “I happened to be good at maths so that led me into an engineering degree but I didn’t want to restrict myself to a particular type of engineering.
“I had mates who were doing automotive specifically or aerospace, but I thought a more general mechanical would give me a greater option for going into the workforce.”
It was this open attitude that led her to what has become an extremely enjoyable career at PACCAR, the manufacturer of Kenworth and DAF trucks in Australia.
Now in her eighth year with the company she had a fortuitous start.
“To finish off my uni degree I needed to do 12 weeks of work experience and I had a contact at Kenworth and he said why not come and do your work experience here. I knew nothing about trucks…and I loved it and asked whether they had a graduate program,” she said.
The PACCAR graduate program is a four-year program and every 12 to 18 months you are rotated around to different departments.
“I started in manufacturing engineering looking after the procurement of tools, jigs and identifying efficient ways of building our trucks, helping out our production team.
“Then my second year was in liaison engineering, which is the link between our production team and engineering. So, when there is a problem on the line and they can’t build the truck for whatever reason then I was called in to figure out what the reason is and how we can solve it. That was really eye opening, it was a lot of thinking on your feet, quick resolutions, it was really exciting.
“My third year was in customer service, because you’ve got to see the end result and what happens if we don’t do our best with our design. My final year was in R&D; research and development that’s where I have stayed. I’m still there now and I’m now one of the project managers for product design and development.”
Now part of her job entails reviewing what her designers have come up with from a point of view of whether it is durable and reliable; in short whether it is what customers have come to expect from such a well-respected truck brand.
“I have two people working directly for me and we’re part of a larger concept team which is another 3-4 people. We each take certain chunks of a project to work on at this early stage.
“We come together once a week to review how we have developed our area, make sure we are not impeding on other peoples’ area and that we’re cohesive,” Ms Bennett said.
Also on a monthly basis, she can be working with up to 20 suppliers very closely, and in the early stages of a project she will engage with five or so quite heavily to identify the best engineering design for manufacturing that will either bring costs down or improve the quality, either bring costs down or improve the quality, or improve the visible design. There’s no point spending time designing something that can’t be manufactured or done in a cost-effective way.
“At the moment, we are at the early stages of the next project I’m working on so we’re trying to gather a lot of different information so that requires me to work with sales, purchasing, talking to customers directly. There’s lots of planning at the moment,” she said.
“We have to keep many factors in our minds – manufacture, assembly and then also service. We’ll have reviews with other departments to make sure we have their buy-in and that we have considered all those different factors.”
Information comes from all sides including the sales and customer service departments and then there’s also the practical side where Ms Bennett visits customers and spends time not only with the company that purchases the truck, but on the road with a driver.
One such day was spent with Hansons, a concrete company, in the passenger seat of a cement truck while the driver went about his daily business. This enabled her to gain a solid understanding of the work done day-in-day-out by the driver and what was required of his truck. The truck was a T360, a truck just recently released.
“It was a really proud moment when we launched our new model the T360, on which I was a program manager. It was gratifying to see that released to the public and all the positive feedback, that personally was a really great moment,” she said.
What does a day look like for a PACCAR engineer?
“I make sure I grab a coffee first, that’s task number one. I run through my emails…then I will sit down with my team and work out what we’re going to do, we’ll review the designs we’ve been working on, and if I can give any guidance or direction there that’s what I’ll do,” Ms Bennett said.
“We have a workshop in R&D and we do a lot of prototypes in that workshop; we have a 3D printer we can use to mock parts up and then we also have our test and certification team of two and they will help us take the trucks out for a drive. We’ll instrument them up whether for sound recording or vibration recording. Then analyse that data, we do a lot in-house.”
One of the standouts between car and truck manufacturing is the amount of specification that must be done for any one truck order so that it meets the exact requirements of the job.
Take the T360 as an example, it comes with six engine options, three manual transmission and seven automatic transmission options, then there are options for drive configurations, exhaust, fuels, suspension, axles and safety systems. Compare that with a car and its easy to see how much engineering work is needed for truck manufacturing; it’s not a case of let’s build a model range, each truck is a custom build.
Kenworth more than any other truck in Australia has a very strong, distinctive and traditional customer base – it has a stronger following than Ford or Holden could ever hope for. The older customer base loves the Kenworth woodgrain dash, the diamond pleat trim, to them that is a Kenworth but there are also new young drivers coming into the industry.
These younger drivers are looking more at European truck designs, and these designs are much more ‘automotive’ based, with a lot of high tech equipment and a more streamlined interior and exterior.
“We have to move with the times, we certainly need to integrate as much technology as we can so that we can include all the safety features that are availalble to us these days like adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, all those,” Ms Bennett said.
“We have a lot of new technology available to us, new styling, new design techniques and it is nice to be involved in that.
“The technology has come from our parent company PACCAR. There’s been a big focus recently for a global PACCAR push so that we can all share off one big platform and get the most out of the technology available to us.
“We have to take the US product and do our own evaluation and testing. The Australian conditions are a lot different to the US – harsher conditions, the road quality isn’t as great, so there’s many things that come into it. We evaluate their designs to make sure they will be suitable for our customers.”
Training and an investment in its staff is a big part of PACCAR so that means that access to training is easily given and encouraged.
“We’ll have subject matter experts give a presentation on the types of technology and what’s available. We integrate it conservatively, we borrow from what PACCAR is doing globally and pick which is the best course for us,” Ms Bennett said.
“We built it into a prototype truck and we’ll spend many months validating it and how to best optimise it.
“We have regular contact with DAF and PACCAR engineers to exchange ideas, we have ways to connect with them, we can see what projects they are working on and if there is something that relates to us we can get involved. It’s on us to get involved as much as we want to.”
Different engineering areas work on different solutions, being in R&D means that Ms Bennett is looking longer term down the track than those in liaison engineering as an example.
“I’m involved in a 3 to 5 year program but there is another department that is looking further ahead than that, around 10 years – that involves hydrogen and electric powered vehicles, those sorts of things.”
After eight years with trucks and PACCAR, Ms Bennett now feels that is where she belongs.
“Just driving down the street, a truck will go past and that will turn my head, I’m always on the lookout, it’s now part of me. I love what I do, I love the people I work with and I love the opportunities that are open to me.
“There are a number of graduates that started in the same year as I did that have made it to management positions, that’s what’s so good about this company. They are open to the development of young engineers and other graduates.”