Lafarage Calgary On Front Line Of Development, Field Testing Program

For much of the last five years, Lafarge North America’s ready mixed operations have played a key role in developing and testing Eaton Corp.’s mixer-geared

Steven Prokopy

For much of the last five years, Lafarge North America’s ready mixed operations have played a key role in developing and testing Eaton Corp.’s mixer-geared UltraShift PLUS Vocational Multipurpose Series. As a result, the company has also become an early customer for the new transmissions, which following modifications and refinements have received overwhelmingly strong driver feedback.

Presently, Lafarge’s Western Canada operations own 14 vehicles with VMS transmissions. All units are in International Paystar chassis, most with 15-yd. trailer mixers from McNeilus or London. There are also two 8×4 McNeilus Bridgemaster units with a 14-yd. mixer and an 8×4 unit with an 11-yd. standard mixer. Lafarge Calgary’s operations have five of the tractor trailer units.

Knowing the automated transmissions were coming, we jumped in early with the testing, explains Colin Pinkerton, P.Eng., equipment manager for Greater Calgary and a member of the Lafarge NA Truck Team since 1994. Our drivers’ experience with automatics and automated transmissions was virtually none. We have always run standard Eaton transmissions. Any experience our drivers might have had with automated transmissions came with them.

Test driving occurred on a sampling of terrain and weather conditions. A Vancouver plant includes a steep hill that must be negotiated shortly after leaving the site, while the Edmonton area has river valley terrain and Calgary is in the foothills of the Rockies. All of the operations in the three prairie provinces experience significant winter conditions as well.

Pinkerton, who personally test drove a VMS-equipped truck at Eaton’s Marshall, Mich., proving ground on at least three different occasions, was most impressed with the transmission’s ability to move at slow speeds. Getting the vehicle to move at creep speed while staying in gear is crucial for curb and gutter work, he says. We were able to get the speed down to 55-60 ft./minute, or less than 1 mph. That’s an important criterion for Lafarge and one of the toughest parts of the testing.

Driver observations have been across-the-board positive. They really love the hill-hold feature for steep grades, and that the VMS skips shifts when it needs to, says Pinkerton. Since safety is our top concern, we also like that drivers don’t have to worry about shifting, especially in an urban environment. Keeping hands on the wheel and eyes on the road means drivers are being more attentive to driving.

When approached by Eaton in 2008 to field test the new transmissions, there was never any question that Lafarge would take as many units as Eaton could provide them. I think the oldest Eaton unit in our fleet is 16 months, explains Pinkerton. We’ve never converted an existing Lafarge vehicle to an automatic. All the automated manuals were purchased new from Eaton. We like the way they have taken on-highway technology and brought it to the vocational market.

Pinkerton adds that since the original UltraShift PLUS field test transmissions came to the company in the spring of 2008, Eaton has upgraded the clutch and software. Eaton came to us with the proposed upgrades last winter, so that the version we have now is the same as the OEM-supplied model you would get Îoff the shelfÌ today, he says.

Pinkerton adds that it’s too early to talk about any improvements the new transmission has realized in terms of maintenance issues. He also said that because of the soft economy, there has been a hold on major capital investments, such as spending for new vehicles. Alberta and the rest of Western Canada has historically been a strong market for Lafarge, but we saw a significant drop-off in 2009. We anticipate Canada to come out of the downturn, hopefully in the next 12-16 months, he explains. But, I’m guessing that any new fleet additions won’t happen until 2011, though if we were planning a new truck order today, we’d specify the Eaton UltraShift Plus VMS transmissions, no question.