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Less Is More

"It's not what you gross.

“It’s not what you gross.

It’s what you get to take home at the end of the day.” That philosophy has not only helped Alberta log haul contractor Michael Mallock establish a successful business but has also allowed him to expand his business. One of his primary strategies has been to reduce the weight of his log haul trucks to improve fuel efficiency and increase his payload. That’s while still having enough horsepower to transport a log load under all road conditions, without additional truck maintenance costs and without decreasing service life.

His approach has definitely proven effective and has had a positive impact on company income.

“Going with a lighter weight design just made economic sense to me,” he says. “When other logging trucks are working at $90 per hour, we are working at $107 per hour just based on the difference in tare weight.”

With the high cost of fuel, Mallock says he has witnessed a definite trend toward lighter weight equipment among other log haul contractors.

“There’s no free ride,” says Mallock. “With higher horsepower and torque, you are burning more fuel and wearing out tires faster.” Some that have traditionally used heavier, higher horsepower trucks and trailers are now asking to see his documented evidence related to tire wear, fuel usage and repair bills.

“When you sit down and do a comparison, maybe we have both grossed $300,000 per year,” he says, “but his operating expenses are $17,000 more, and that comes right out of his bottom line.”

Mallock owns a company called Hostyle Takeover Ltd., located in Athabasca, Alta., and has been in the business for 15 years, starting out as an owner/operator. The name started out as a joke among his fellow logging contractors when they were discussing how the company was in expansion mode, and it stuck. The company now owns a fleet of 11 trucks, five that work transporting logs for pulp producer, Alberta Pacific Forest Industries (Al-Pac), and six contracted out to a company called Gold Star, which is responsible for transporting chips to the pulp mill.

On average, the log trucks operated by Hostyle Takeover make about a five-hour round trip, operating on 50% pavement and 50% gravel and bush road. The bush roads have a lot of clay and about 20% of the terrain is hilly.

Mallock’s search for a more economical truck configuration all started about six years ago when it appeared that Al-Pac wasn’t able to give its contractors a raise because of poor pulp prices.

“If someone else is not going to give you a raise, then you are going to have to step up and give yourself a raise, so to speak,” says Mallock. So he began investigating trucks with smaller motors that burned less fuel and with a smaller tare weight that could haul larger loads. He is paid by the tonne of wood fibre delivered to the mill and each extra tonne per load adds up to about $8000 extra income per year for his company.

Here’s what Mallock did:

He switched from the standard 15-litre engine to a 12-litre model, which has less displacement and horsepower without adversely affecting pulling power. He further lightened his eight-axle truck and trailer by converting to smaller tires, aluminum wheels, a shorter wheelbase, a single exhaust stack and a lighter rear trailer, which he designed himself.

Mallock spent a couple of years with Al-Pac’s support working on a new trailer design. What resulted was his double pole frame trailer design, which is two tonnes lighter than the traditional double rail trailers. It also has the added advantage of being more flexible.

While Mallock designed this truck and trailer configuration for use in the northern Alberta forest environment, he says it is versatile enough to work anywhere in Canada where a Super-B trailer configuration is required.

“Anywhere that loggers are hauling processed wood in 28- to 40-foot lengths of wood on Super-B trailers, they could utilize our double pole frame trailer system,” he says.

As a result of the changes Mallock made to his truck and trailer configuration, his diesel fuel bill is about $10,000 a year less than the average truck that hauls logs for Al-Pac.

Initially, he started with a Caterpillar C12 engine, but has switched to a Mercedes MBE 4000 engine because it is much lighter than a bigger block engine.

“I’ve heard some good things from other contractors that have tried them in the way of fuel economy,” he says, “and because I was dealing with Western Star Trucks which is owned by Mercedes, there’s a fairly large discount when you put in a Mercedes engine versus anything else.”

Because Mallock’s truck and trailer set up is about five tonnes lighter than average, he is allowed to carry five tonnes more logs per load. The lighter the truck and trailer, the larger the payload, the more money he makes.

Initially, Mallock says putting all the components in place to get the design he wanted wasn’t difficult. He worked with the local Western Star Trucks dealership, which was already familiar with the eight foot six inch wide axle configuration, fuel tank sizing and frame length that has become standard among Al-Pac’s log haul contractors. Although the dealership was initially concerned about the durability of this truck configuration, Mallock says it has performed as well as traditional larger trucks.

Hostyle Takeover’s oldest lightweight truck is a 1999 Western Star with 1.6 million kilometres on it and it is still going strong. The company has not experienced any abnormal operating costs or wear and tear on the unit’s tires, rims, frame, or engine than is typically experienced on larger rigs.

Initial cost and resale value is a bit of an issue and has to be balanced against the extra income derived during operation. In the late-1990s when Mallock was just getting started with lightweight trucks, the cost was about 8% less. With increasing demand for lightweight trucks and trailers, the price is now about 15% more than a heavier unit. In terms of resale values, he says the trucks are probably worth between $10,000 and $15,000 less, although he anticipates that this will change if fuel pricing remains high.

Mallock says he has experienced resistance from drivers until he sits down and crunches the numbers for them.

“Drivers will tend to gravitate towards the bigger trucks with more chrome and the bigger power and maybe a small sleeper on them,” he says. “We sit down a lot with drivers to do the math, showing them that they are going home with $25 more dollars in their pocket each night from hauling a load from the same distance as another big and fancy truck.”

Eager to find any way possible to reduce his operating expenses, Mallock is currently making the transition to Allison automatic transmissions mainly due to a shortage of experienced drivers. Essentially, the transmission is no more complicated than a standard vehicle, and one added advantage Hostyle Takeover has discovered with this transmission is mobility.

“We haven’t found a place yet where we couldn’t get mobile if we had the traction,” Mallock says. “So for us on forestry roads, our experience has been awesome.”

It has also reduced the amount of training time they need to spend with a new driver by about 20%.

However, there is an extra initial expense to purchasing the Allison transmission in the range of about $10,000.

Hostyle Takeover has operated a chip truck equipped with an Allison automatic transmission for over two years and with 450,000 kilometres on it with no major issues, and now has four of its logging trucks outfitted that same way.

“I believe that it won’t take more than 10 years for 90% of our truck fleets to be equipped with automatic transmissions,” he says.

Finally, what has also helped the company improve on both traction in the bush and its financial bottom line is a central tire inflation (CTI) system installed in its logging trucks. This equipment is in fact required equipment on all trucks operated by Al-Pac’s log haul contractor
s. Mallock equips his trucks with the Tire Boss brand of CTI equipment, where the operator can deflate or inflate the tires from inside the cab, as needed. Deflating the tires in soft and clay ground conditions increases the footprint and provides better traction. CTI also ensures that all tires have balanced pressure and this can extend their service life.

Al-Pac was so impressed with Mallock’s results using his lightweight truck and trailer configuration that the pulp mill hired him as a consultant because it wanted to make sure he put his experiences down on paper so that they could be shared with other log haul contractors.

Tony Kryzanowski is a St. Albert, Alta., – based freelance writer who has been writing about industry, equipment, business, and the trucking industry both nationally and internationally for the past 15 years.

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