Conversions: Bodies on the line

Date: Thursday, November 24, 2022   |   Author: Steve Banner

Component shortages and a grim economic outlook are presenting challenges to LCV convertors.

Soaring raw material and component costs, shortages of certain key parts and uncertainty over when chassis are going to turn up are all bedevilling Britain’s light commercial body builders as the economy teeters on the brink of recession. 

“In my 26 years in the commercial vehicle body building industry this is the most challenging time I have ever seen,” says Alloy Bodies sales director, Anthony Clayton 

Also speaking on the issue, Ashley Morris, chief executive officer of Scattolini’s UK operations, which include body builder VFS says: “It’s a difficult time, and it’s been a difficult year. High energy costs have put a burden on businesses and raw material prices have rocketed.” 

With sites in Eastleigh in Hampshire and South Kirby, Wakefield, in West Yorkshire, VFS is a well-known producer of tipper bodies alongside Lutons and dropsides.

Says Matthew Terry, managing director of London-based Tipmaster: “A sheet of 4mm aluminium now costs £280 as opposed to £120 not so long ago. Tail-lifts and cranes have all gone up in price, and at the other end of the scale even a 5p widget may now cost 11p or 12p. It all adds up.”

Clayton adds: “Anything that requires a lot of energy to produce has got more expensive.”

Specialising in building tippers, Tipmaster now keeps at least 50 tipper rams and 75 power packs on hand in case it runs out and is unable to obtain replacements. 

“Once stock levels reach those figures, we re-order,” comments Terry. “The days of ordering items on a just-in-time basis have gone.”

“The lead time for delivery of a tail-lift is now ten to 16 weeks as opposed to two to four weeks in the past,” says Clayton. 

As a consequence, the Manchester business keeps 200 tail-lifts ready to hand to ensure it does not face a shortfall.

“As it happens, we’re getting more interest in low-floor Lutons because the customers concerned don’t want to spend money on a tail-lift anyway,” he observes. The Alloy Bodies product portfolio includes dropsides and curtainsiders on 3.5t chassis as well as Lutons.

There is a cost to holding big stocks of components. “But if you haven’t got them then you can’t make anything,” Terry says.

Rising prices of just about everything that goes into LCV bodies means customers are having to pay more for them.

“We’ve increased prices by 15% so far this year and we’ll probably have to put in another increase before the end of December,” warns Terry.

“Our prices could end up 20% higher than they were 12 months ago,” Cayton adds.

Morris sings from the same hymn sheet: “Between June 2021 and September 2022 we put our prices up by between 15% and 20%,” he says.

Chassis delivery patterns can be unpredictable, with large batches suddenly appearing when not expected.

“If that happens then you can find yourself trying to compress six months’ worth of work into four months,” Clayton remarks. That can be especially problematic given that some body builders are reporting difficulties when it comes to recruiting and retaining skilled workers.

Comments Terry: “We’ve recently had chassis arrive which we weren’t expecting for another month or two. Yet at the same time I’m waiting for chassis which were ordered a year ago.

“We get told that there are transport problems with chassis, or they’re stuck at a port, or they’re waiting for a missing part to be fitted,” he adds. “It all makes life difficult.”

Morris observes: “Semi-conductor availability clearly remains a problem for chassis manufacturers. It means they’re having to stop production lines for a day or two and sometimes for a week.”

This means body builders are not experiencing a steady, dependable flow of chassis. “That’s our major difficulty at present rather than the availability of tipper rams or tail-lifts, which is causing us fewer problems,” says Morris.

Experiencing unplanned-for influxes of chassis can increase costs in unexpected areas. 

“If we suddenly have 350 chassis at our premises rather than a more-typical 200 then that increases our insurance liability for the vehicles concerned,” Clayton explains, which pushes up the insurance premium.

Tipmaster has been doing some conversion work on used chassis, and Terry points out that three-year-old Ford Transit chassis are selling for the same price as new ones because they are available immediately. Order a new one from the factory and you will face a wait before it arrives but you can put a second-hand one to work right away, subject to it being fitted with the body you want.

You can always rent a 3.5t tipper while you wait for your new one to arrive, but rental vehicles can be hard to come by and hiring them does not come cheap. “If you want to rent a 3.5t cage tipper for a month then it’ll cost you £1,000,” Terry points out.

The shortage of chassis to build on is by no means as acute as it was 12 months ago however, says Clayton. Renault claims Master chassis are now being delivered in two to three months compared with nine months previously.

Tipmaster still has a healthy order book despite the economy’s trials and tribulations, says Terry. “In that respect we’re very fortunate, although inquiry levels have slowed quite a bit recently,” he observes.

Says Morris: “Our order bank remains extremely good but our intake of new orders has slowed down of late.”

Customers are increasingly enquiring about electric models. “We’ve supplied quite a few based on Renault Master E-Techs and on Maxus eDeliver 9,” says Clayton.

Terry adds: “We’ve supplied a number of electric vehicles to customers involved in waste management in the City of London. Other clients are ordering them too, but we may not see the chassis for another 12 months.”

“Councillors at some local authorities are eager for their fleets to go electric,” he says but cautions their transport managers realise electric models still have limitations and may want to stick with diesels for the next four or five years.

Mounting bodies on electric chassis is not a major challenge body builders say, just so long as the employees doing the work receive some basic training. Safe working practices are a priority given the presence of high-voltage cables. 

VFS has come up with a tipper body for electric chassis that has been purposely designed to ensure nothing fouls the battery pack or cables. The position of the tipping ram has been altered and the output of its power pack has been cut, so it draws less current from the battery when the body is elevated.

“We’ve reduced output by 18% but without affecting performance.” Morris claims.

Delivering electric models can pose logistical complications because of their range limitations if the customer is based some distance away from the body builder’s factory, says Clayton. “As a consequence we may have to send them on a transporter.”

That can mean a delivery charge of from £450 to £600 compared with closer to £300 for a diesel-powered vehicle.

Bournemouth-based body builder Horton Commercials has constructed a somewhat-unusual vehicle on an electric Renault Master platform cab in conjunction with Renault Trucks.

The E-Tech Master OptiModale features a 4.1m low-loader Luton body with a drone mounted in its roof on a retractable heli-drone pad. It also boasts an electrically power-assisted eBullitt cargo bike carried in a nearside compartment from which it can be lowered using a small built-in crane. 

Able to carry up to 100kg, the bike can be used to deliver parcels if OptiModale is stuck in grid-locked traffic assuming the vehicle is crewed by two people. One of them can stay with the vehicle while the other hops onto the eBullitt and starts weaving through the congestion.

The UAVTEK drone can only lift 2kg but could be used to, for example, fly off urgently-need medical supplies.

Grossing at 3.5t, OptiModale can carry 800kg of parcels, says Renault Trucks. 

Equipped with a 33kWh battery, it can offer a range of 80 miles between recharges, says the manufacturer. A 52kWh battery can be specified instead if more range is required.

The eBullitt bike offers the rider over 30 miles’ worth of power-assistance which means it could potentially make several return trips to OptiModale to pick up more consignments. Once it is re-stowed in its compartment its battery can be recharged to 50% of its capacity in an hour, to 80% in two hours and to 100% in four hours, Renault Trucks states.

If such a vehicular package seems a little far-fetched and impractical, then it is perhaps worth noting that the Royal Mail is planning to put up to 500 twin-engine drones into service to handle deliveries to islands around the UK. At 100kg, their carrying capacity is admittedly far higher than that of the little UAVTEK drone; but the principle is broadly the same.


View The WhatVan Digital Edition