Truck-Lite: The complacency challenge

Almost every successful start-up is defined by the people behind it – think Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Steve Jobs or Google’s founding duo Larry Page and Sergey Brin. All of them had a nearly obsessive desire to build up a clientele and truly understand the need to make a difference in each customer’s life, and even more importantly, never to believe that the job is done. The best companies are those that continually evolve and innovate, never being content to accept that the hard work is over.

That kind of start-up obsessiveness is a valuable mind set, as it will lead to a deep understanding of the market and provide the resourcefulness to serve it. But as companies evolve and expand, they often lose that sense of purpose and the benefits that come with it. Those who manage to retain that high energy and enthusiasm found in the start-up phase will have a distinct competitive advantage.

Truck-Lite, now a global powerhouse in the ‘vision systems’ industry, has retained the start-up vibe for more than half a century. According to President Brian Kupchella, it is this strong sense of urgency that has been driving the Truck-Lite brand since it was founded in 1955, a “shared mission” of running full-force toward a common goal. 

Not surprisingly, Truck-Lite’s story of success is the work of a positively obsessed personality too. Almost 60 years ago, truck driver George Baldwin encountered frequent electrical system failures during the cold and snowy winters in the state of New York. Shock and vibration from potholes in the roads, corrosion from salt and chemicals used to fight ice and snow, and an overall lack of vehicle maintenance all contributed to lighting and wiring system failures, vehicle downtime and much frustration.

In his garage workshop, Baldwin took the initiative to overcome the reoccurring problem. He fit the light bulb into a rubber mounting to protect it against filament failure from shock and vibration; he injection-moulded both lense and housing from polycarbonate plastic to overcome damage from road debris and physical impact; he vibration-welded the lense and housing to prevent contamination of the delicate interior and he developed a method of sealing the lamp-to-wiring-harness connection to prevent water and contaminant ingress.

Truck-Lite was born.

Ever since Baldwin experimented in his garage to change the way things were done – albeit not in sunny Silicon Valley – Truck-Lite has continually worked to preserve this same steadfast attention to detail and unobstructed focus on staying relevant in the market.

According to Kupchella, that laser focus on innovation is still the company’s strategy, but can also be the most fleeting. That’s why every division is constantly communicating with the rest of the company, giving and receiving feedback, challenging the status quo, one innovation at a time.

“We have found that staying relevant is not so much about reinventing the wheel, but solving actual problems our customers may encounter down the road,” he says. “That’s also what a good start-up is about – understanding and meeting certain needs in a simple and useful way. The trick is to maintain that sharp focus and to not become complacent.”

It is because of this attitude that Truck-Lite began to embrace light emitting diode (LED) technology in the late 1980s. LED technology could have been viewed as a potential threat to the company’s older light bulb-based product line, instead Truck-Lite actively pursued research in emerging LED technology and merged it with the knowledge gained since Baldwin first built a sealed and shock-mounted lamp in a New York garage.

“Diodes, without a filament, are impervious to shock and vibration.  This understanding combined with a sealed polycarbonate lens and housing, epoxy to protect the circuit board and our “Fit-and-Forget” connectors between the lamps and wiring harnesses were what the market wanted and needed,” says Kupchella.

“Let’s face it, start-ups are traditionally radical and game-changing, so to maintain that vibe, the traditional rulebook has to be challenged at times. In the case of LED technology, there was no point clinging to the past.”

According to Kupchella, the desire to understand the markets is the only constant in a technology-driven world, and Truck-Lite actively seeks to understand them. “From a small garage workshop 60 years ago to today’s CAD-designed, robotic-assisted production, that drive to improve our customers’ lives is what we’re working to accomplish,” he says. “That desire to make a difference, that was palpable in Baldwin’s garage, is still present in our laboratories in North America and Europe.”

Retaining Baldwin’s do-whatever-it-takes attitude, an army of engineers is now tasked with designing, developing and prototyping lighting and wiring systems for the commercial road transport industry, regardless of their vocation or where in the world they may be used.

“Right now, we are exploring the new technologies that will set the standards for safe and efficient solutions for generations to come. All of our investments are chosen with the goal of advancing the performance of our products and services to add value to our customers’ businesses,” Kupchella says.

The company’s trailer division is actively benefitting from that constant push forward. Every trailer can now be completely equipped with Truck-Lite LED lighting products front to rear, inside and out, including a sealed wiring harness system.

“We are now able to produce full lighting solutions from the front of the truck to the back of the trailer, which is a really unique service in the market,” says  Brad Van Riper, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, revealing that Truck-Lite’s Trailer Kit, a plug-and-play lighting solution already used in the US OEM environment as well as the aftermarket, is now available globally. Aptly named ‘Lifetime Trailer Kit,’ the ADR and TÜV-approved packages boast lifetime warranties directly handled by Truck-Lite’s certified service network. Each kit has an individual identification number coupled to a specific trailer to individually service every client over the lifespan of the vehicle.

At the heart of the kit is Truck-Lite’s ‘Rapide’ junction plate, effectively replacing the old junction box for a quick and easy installation of each loom. Covering every light source from side-markers to the license plate light, it is designed to simplify both initial installation and on-going maintenance to give fleets a competitive advantage. 

Originally developed in the US, the kit is now available around the globe with the same comprehensive warranty that is being granted in North America. “It’s a huge commitment from our side and a strong sign that we are very confident in the quality of our portfolio,” Kupchella explains. “Both the OEM and fleet sectors should be able to benefit from the progress we make every day, and we believe the Lifetime Kit could be a real game-changer.”

Part of the European version of the kit is the Model 756 LED rear lamp, which, according to Truck-Lite, is the first lamp to be fully electronically compatible with all current and past truck designs available in Europe. The lamp’s built-in load detection circuitry is able to identify the direction indicator function in the truck so that the driver’s tell tale is always accurate, while the pulse detection circuitry can respond to the truck’s trailer presence monitoring system without giving a false signal.

“We did not just offer a solution to Europe that may or may not work, but we invested a lot of time finding out what the market really needed. The 756 model is one result of that process,” says Kupchella. “Every new project is a new start for us, and we revive that start-up mentality every time – even if we know a system or product has performed well somewhere else. We do not want to lose that entrepreneurial culture which is all about fierce activity and problem-solving.”

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