Spotlight: A smooth ride

Hendrickson knows its customer end users have a lot riding on their product, and it is making a strong statement among independent service providers to keep its suspensions supported in the aftermarket.

This is the inaugural year of the Hendrickson Vehicle Suspension Institute, a hands-on, intensive training program created specifically for technicians who are affiliated with its Pro-Genuine member companies, of which there are 233 throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Seventy-two technicians participated in the Vehicle Suspension Institute through two summer sessions and one last month held specifically for members of the American Council of Frame and Alignment Specialists (ACOFAS).

According to Ed Powderly, Hendrickson’s aftermarket marketing manager of Truck Suspension Systems, the company plans to expand the program in 2008 to four sessions, two in the U.S. and two in Canada, including one for French-Canadian-speaking technicians.

“We wanted to develop a program that brought in the spring shop technicians from the independent side,” says Powderly. “When you look at the dealers, they have training programs when they launch new products. All of the dealers are trained on the engines and things like that, but on the independent side, there’s really no training programs unless they bring a vendor in specifically to their shop to do training.”

But with thousands of repair facilities, reaching all of them with onsite training is beyond the resources of most every manufacturer, Powderly says. Hendrickson instead focused its efforts on reaching independent spring shops which are in the company’s Pro-Genuine program. Installers and repair facilities are eligible for the program if they buy Hendrickson products through dealers and warehouse distributors that are Pro-Genuine members.

“By getting these guys aligned with the Pro-Genuine program, it opens up that line of communication and creates a relationship between the shop and Hendrickson,” Powderly says.

In addition to the Hendrickson Vehicle Suspension Institute, the Pro-Genuine Installer Affiliation Program provides shops with materials for onsite promotion and point-of-purchase displays, a listing on the online shop locator, print and CD-based catalogs, technical support and online training opportunities.

But of the available suite of services, the hands-on training may be the most valuable asset, according to participants in the institute.

“You actually got to see the product and the functionality of it, as opposed to a PowerPoint presentation in some classroom,” says Brian Huber, branch manager of Point Spring & Driveshaft Co.’s Greensburg, Pa. facility. “I’ve always found it better to grasp and understand it if it’s hands-on.”

Huber says he has participated in other OE-sponsored training programs, but “A lot of times we have trouble getting that much information. It’s just not available to us.”

For Huber and three other service managers from Point Spring who took part in the training, it helped raise the level of knowledge from mere familiarity to intimate understanding of functionality.

“When they talked about the Hendrickson walking beam – my guys have been working on Hendrickson suspensions for years – but to actually understand what each piece does and how it functions, they left understanding a lot more now than they ever did,” says Huber.

Having a well-trained field of independent service providers is advantageous to Hendrickson as well, Powderly says, as its aftermarket business is split about 50-50 between OE and independent service facilities. Because of the often symbiotic relationships between the OE dealer and the independents, the institute helps ensure customer needs are being met through both channels.

“What you see in the dealerships, for instance on a Hendrickson RT suspension, which is our spring and walking beam suspension, a lot of dealerships are not set up to press out bushings and push new bushings in,” says Powderly. “So what you’ll find is some dealers have a relationship with a local spring shop and they’ll farm some of that work out to them. What we’ve seen with the popularity or air-ride suspensions is that a dealer is much more willing to replace air bags or replace a main support member or a single leaf spring, versus replacing an entire spring pack or working on bushing jobs.”

The training focused on Hendrickson’s Airtek, Primaax and Haulmaax suspensions with a purpose to not only interact with the hardware through step-by-step service procedures, but to also show how the suspensions are engineered and why it makes a difference to replace parts with recommended equivalent parts.

“I found a few errors that we were doing wrong, stuff we shouldn’t be doing,” says Jose Vazquez, general manager of Ace Spring Service in San Antonio, Texas. “It brought up some topics about their competitors and showed me why Hendrickson stands alone and why not to interchange aftermarket parts with their products.”

One such practice Hendrickson hopes to dispel is using polyurethane end bushings to replace the rubber end bushings the suspensions are designed with.

“We don’t use polyurethane in our suspensions, but it’s a product that’s out there and available,” Powderly says. “We develop a suspension system with the entire suspension in mind, and when you use a product that is not genuine, you are risking the integrity of the suspension by using products such as polyurethane.” Not to mention, voiding the warranty.

The problem with polyurethane end bushings versus rubber end bushings is they do not absorb road shock. Rubber end bushings take on energy from the tires after hitting a bump, helping dissipate it before it reaches, and stresses, the frame.

This point was driven home to Huber.

“It was good to understand why the rubber components are in there, how they function in conjunction with the rest of the engineered system, and why you should replace with rubber instead of polyurethane,” he says.

Another frowned upon practice Hendrickson hopes the training will deter is bending the axle during what is called axle correction.

“With our Airtek product, we have a lot of people in the industry who believe the myth that the axle can be bent,” Powderly says. “It can be, but it completely throws out the integrity of the suspension.”

The training was conducted at Hendrickson’s Woodridge, Ill., facility where product testing and validation takes place, providing technicians with a behind-the-scenes, top-secret look at the abuse suspension designs endure before they ever come to market.

The testing laboratory boasts several unique, proprietary machines that subject suspensions to numerous simulations of real-world performance conditions.

“That testing equipment is not something you just go out and buy. There’s a team here that specifically designs machinery to test all of our suspensions in all different types of extreme conditions,” Powderly says. “We’re not just testing because we need it to perform, we need it to last 150,000 miles. We’re testing stuff to the very extreme to ensure that when the product gets on the street, it’s meeting customer expectations.

“We don’t want to put a product into the market that we’re not going to have trust and faith in. So from that standpoint, some of the guys that came through were really amazed at the testing equipment that we have in our lab.”

Based on the success of the Hendrickson Vehicle Suspension Institute, the company plans to not only expand the program, but to introduce more training opportunities for independent spring shops.

One effort is the Suspension 101 manual which will provide a comprehensive overview of how suspensions function, with the novice in mind.

“It’s something we need to do for the younger people entering our industry – we can’t just hire part-looker-uppers,” says Powderly. “We need to educate these people so they understand: What is a shock absorber? What does it do? What’s its purpose? What does it look like when it’s failed? How do I know it’s failed?”

It’s a further investment from a company that, Powderly says, knows the value that independent spring shops bring to the aftermarket.

“We look at the independent as in good shape going forward,” he says. “We don’t feel there’s any reason to believe the spring shop business is a dying breed. We don’t think that’s going to happen. But the only way they’re going to continue to evolve is through different training programs that manufacturers provide.”

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