SBI at 25: Service Trucks

Cover_ServiceTruck_59_SeptOct_99In the August 2012 issue of Sign Builder Illustrated, we’re celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of our magazine by taking a look at how certain segments of the sign industry (digital printing, electronic signage, lighting, etc.) have evolved since the release of our first issue. Another area of interest is service trucks, and our online exclusive article here tracks some of these developments during this twenty-five year time span.

So without any further ado, here are some of the notable changes to service trucks (boom trucks, aerial platforms, cranes, etc.) in the sign industry over the past twenty years, with commentary from manufacturers:

Cost. Obviously one of the biggest changes in this field over the past twenty-five years has been the price of these vehicles. That’s pretty much the case with any vehicle out on the road these days. “Back in 1987, the average price of a medium-duty cab chassis was $20,000,” says Bryan Wilkerson, vice president of manufacturer Wilkie Manufacturing, LLC. “Now the same truck is around $54,000.”

Although that might seem like a steep jump, you’re actually getting more for your money these days. “Twenty-five years ago, it was a big deal if you got an AM/FM radio in your sign truck,” remembers Wilkerson. “Now AM/FM/CD are almost standard on them, along with air-conditioning.”

Introducing the steel aerial work platform. Service trucks started out as mainly ladders mounted to vehicles. Today steel aerial work platforms, some measuring up to as long as sixteen feet in length, allow sign installers to stand and work comfortably with improved safety. “[This development] also permits the addition of features like tool circuits in the platform, jib crane arms, and much more,” says David Phillips, international sales and communications manager at manufacturer Elliott Equipment.

The evolution of the truck engine. Twenty-five years ago, the engines on all service trucks were pretty straightforward. They were still carbureted, and the thought of computers being involved in their operation remained in the realm of science-fiction. Then you have to add in the fact that most any type of mechanic could work on them.

How times change! “Now there are basically two manufacturers of diesel engines, regardless of the brand of truck,” explains Wilkerson. “And General Motors (Chevrolet and GMC) no longer make medium- and heavy-duty trucks, as well as the large Isuzu trucks.”

Dual-use aerial devices. Today you can find these combinations of work platforms and cranes to take advantage of winch capabilities that allow sign shops to use one vehicle to lift personnel and materials/signage.

Wilkie_LadderReaching for new heights. Height has definitely changed the way service trucks are being manufactured these days. “Twenty-five years ago, workmen were using boatswain chairs off high-reach cranes to do high sign work,” says Wilkerson. “Two-man baskets and remote control cranes were few and far between.”

Wilkerson also points out that communications to set-up site visits have evolved as well. “When the first issue of Sign Builder Illustrated was released, work crews were dispatched by radio or list of job locations,” he says, “as cell phones were very expensive, and no one had GPS.”

Increased work platform capacities. Twenty-five years ago, aerial work platforms and ladders could only handle a maximum of 300 to 350 pounds. “After many years of engineering and technology advancements, service trucks have work platforms that can now handle 500, 600 or even 1,000 pounds, making it possible for two or three workers to perform service as a team along with their tools,” says Phillips. The end-result: Boosted productivity and reduced overall job costs—and possibly less of a call to undertake an extreme diet challenge.

Elliott_Old_TurretControlsThe hydraulic boom extension takes off. While some companies still use a cable boom extension, many manufacturers have moved to featuring hydraulic boom extension on their trucks. This has improved durability and performance, as well as reduced service costs. “Cable extension systems required expensive regular boom teardowns for service,” says Phillips. “They were also jerky to operate and lacked smooth performance.”

The standardization of hydraulically powered outriggers. Hydraulic technology continues to impact this segment of the industry. Previously, outriggers/stabilizers had to be deployed manually by rocking the truck back and forth and pinning the outriggers by hand. “Nowadays, outriggers are powered hydraulically, which provides a more rapid setup and substantially improved safety,” says Phillips.

The Elimination of round tube booms. “Most of the service aerial trucks produced today feature rectangular C-channel or four-plated booms,” says Phillips. “This rectangular design ensures less boom ‘deflection,’ giving the operator a more stable and comfortable ride.

“It also permits much greater side-reach, allowing sign companies to perform work up to eighty feet over the side of the truck, depending on the aerial device configuration.”

Proportional aerial control systems. “While previous control systems basically used an on/off switch for extension, rotation, leveling, etc, new systems feature proportional hand and remote controls that permit smoother operation, gradual speed adjustment, and other benefits that boost performance near the work area,” explains Phillips.

Cover_ServiceTrucks_10_1989New aerial legislation and standards. Maybe the biggest factor of the service truck industry over the past twenty-five years (and one that has really picked up steam over the past year alone), has been in regulations and requirements. Twenty-five years ago, there were no special licenses for medium-duty trucks or DOT hour requirements or reporting. “Now there are multiple licenses for different types of trucks,” says Wilkerson. “You have a maximum number of hours you can drive/work in a commercial truck along with lots more paper work.”

OSHA’s recently enforced new standard for crane operators that requires companies using service trucks with winch capacities above 2,000 pounds to employ certified crane operators has made lots of changes—in designs and operations.

In 1987, most operator training on this equipment was performed on-site and usually by one of the more experienced workers on staff. There were not special requirements or tests. “Today there are multiple different crane operators licenses depending on the equipment that is used, and the certification course is taught by certified and authorized instructor on equipment that you may not be familiar with,” explains Wilkerson.

Phillips points out that the implementation of new standards and legislation—mainly ANSI A92.2—has required companies to add multiple safety features that didn’t previously exist. “These features include proximity sensors on outriggers, preventing the use of the aerial device until outriggers are fully extended,” he says. “This new standard, along with others, have improved work safety and performance.

“However they’ve also increased overall equipment costs.”

New sign technologies bring new truck designs. Because of the changes in sign ordinances and signs being reduced in size and height but increased in complexity, the way trucks are fitted has changed. “Twenty-five years ago, the main focus was more toward large fluorescent lamps, large plastic faces, and neon,” states Wilkerson. “Now because of the mix of what there is in the field, the trucks storage area is a lot more complex. Storage on the bed is needed for everything from compact fluorescents to large HPS blubs to electronic message centers and LED video displays.”

A_SBI_25_LogoPhillips points out that the outdoor digital LED sign has really affected the design of service vehicles.To manage the needs of sign companies working on this type of signage, manufacturers are designing service aerials with a greater emphasis on high performance, lower cost, light material handling, and smaller chassis,” he says. “Servicing digital signage requires a unique set of maintenance tools and requirements different from those needed to service standard signs and billboards.

“And [we] expect this trend to continue.”


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