Bill Wakefield, the creative mind behind Meritor Trailer Products’ Strategy and Product team, has long understood that ignoring change can put a financial strain on a company’s future; and that the cost of technology isn’t simply calculated by looking at the cost in isolation. “You also have to consider the impact on the business as a whole,” he says. “The solution is to look beyond the list price and focus on the total cost of ownership (TCO).”
In an exclusive interview, Meritor’s trailing equipment expert reveals that only a big picture view – including initial purchase price, maintenance, technical service and support, networking and training – can help a business assess the true value of new technology.
Q: Is TCO the key to making a viable purchasing decision in today’s market?
A: At Meritor, we work very hard to understand our clientele and we are aware that more and more of them are using TCO as a tool to evaluate a product. The overall value of a product – not just the price – can make all the difference, and that’s where the Meritor Trailer Products group is focusing our attention. In that context, the durability of a suspension system, tyre wear, the availability of aftermarket parts and the ease of service and maintenance all play a key role.
Q: How do you continuously manage to translate market trends and customer feedback into a real life production process?
A: We constantly survey the trailer marketplace and collect data about our customers’ product priorities. In addition, we maintain a close relationship with our fleet clientele through our DriveForce sales team. These activities allow us to understand our key customers’ needs and translate those into product solutions that directly address important issues such as safety, cost of ownership and product reliability.
Q: How does that DriveForce concept work?
A: DriveForce is our North American sales and service organisation and was implemented to assist our commercial vehicle customers with customised solutions before, during, and after the sale. The team currently comprises some 110 members that make sure that we always keep our finger on the pulse of time.
Q: How does your vast experience influence that process? How much “gut feeling” can a multi-million company allow?
A: Meritor has maintained a reputation of delivering market-leading, high quality commercial vehicle products for more than a century and we want to maintain and preserve that reputation for years to come. Over time and through industry experience we have gained a sense of where the market is going, and that understanding will continue to guide us in the process of product development and commercialisation. Having said that, Meritor also has an extensive team of product development experts that supplant the “gut feeling” with good old-fashioned research and development. We combine those things to help us determine what’s next and respond to market trends straight away.
Q: Which role does the OEM trailer manufacturing industry play in that context? A: We maintain very close relationships with our OEM partners, through our commercial relationships, industry associations such as the Truck Trailer Manufacturer Association (TTMA) and joint development activities. Our OEM customers’ voices are very important to us in establishing our overall business and product strategy.
Q: So, when can we expect the next big leap in technology?
A: The global suspension marketplace is overdue for the next big technology leap. We feel that some of the improvements in suspension technology will include focusing on lighter-weight materials, improved safety, better aerodynamics to improve fuel economy, and improving cost of ownership by addressing specific operating concerns such as fuel efficiency and tyre cost.
Q: Which role does air suspension technology play in that respect? Some people claim that the overall share of air suspension is on the retreat…
A: I think that air ride suspension is still very important to the North American trailer market. According to our data, air ride penetration hasn’t changed significantly in recent years. In fact, we think that as we continue to address customer priorities and introduce important suspension technology improvements, we will continue to see air ride penetration grow in the near future.
Q: There have been many interpretations of the integrated axle and suspension system and the two-piece axle suspension system. Do you think the market wants both or will it be one in the long term?
A: Despite the many inherent advantages of the integrated axle suspension system there are a number of speciality applications where integrated systems are difficult to apply. Meritor currently views this as an opportunity to continue to improve integrated system market penetration. Ultimately, when all applications can be satisfied then the market, as it has trended in the past, would accept integrated systems in the long-term. But, until all niche applications are addressed there will be some limitations on satisfying all customers’ needs with integrated systems, so two-piece systems still have some future in our market.
Q: Which role do disc brake solutions play in that context? Will they carry Meritor’s post-slump rebound?
A: Recently, we have seen significant interest in air disc brakes on trailer axles and suspensions. Meritor firmly believes the US trailer market is ready for air disc brake technology, but the premium performance comes at a cost premium that many customers simply aren’t yet willing to pay. We strongly believe that air disc brakes will continue to be an important part of our product portfolio moving forward, and that air disc brake penetration will steadily increase in the coming years.
Q: Looking ahead ten years, where will Meritor be?
A: From a trailer products perspective, our goal in the next decade is to be a market leader in all product categories that we supply. We believe that our position as a leading force in the trailer axle, brake and automatic tyre inflation business is well known. We now aim to continue introducing new and improved trailer suspension innovations as we have been doing in the last few years, and intend to grow that business to be a market leader as well.