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Truck Trends: Lighter, Cheaper - TvTechnology

Truck Trends: Lighter, Cheaper

Stations on tight budgets refurbish their ENG/SNG vehicles
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Stations on tight budgets refurbish their ENG/SNG vehicles

WASHINGTON

Although the venerable Ford E-350 van remains a constant in the ENG/EFP truck arena, some new design and fleet maintenance trends have emerged in recent years.

One big trend is driven by limited budgets. More and more, broadcasters and production companies are extending the lives of their ENG/EFP vehicles. Many are putting money into refurbishing or remanufacturing existing truck fleets to save capital outlays.

What new designs or equipment are broadcasters seeking when having an old truck re-done and upgraded, or when buying a new vehicle? Some seek redesigned interiors that make space for laptop editing. Others want a built-in DSNG upgrade path or COFDM modulation. Lower truck weights, to save wear and tear on the suspension, and some new options in generators and other gear are also enticing.

KEEPING OLDER TRUCKS ROLLING

One trend in trucks that has been given added impetus because of the lean economic times is keeping older trucks on the road a few extra years.

"We've seen two budget cycles where people who were going to replace existing trucks have had to live with them," said Ron Crockett, president of Shook Mobile Technology, based in San Antonio, Texas. "We're having many people ask about refurbishing or buying used vehicles, nearly as many inquiries as about new units."

Crockett said customers are saying they want to hang in there two or three more years, hopefully long enough to see the DTV transmission investment become more defined, and long enough to see the return of some advertising revenue lost in the economic downturn.

Winemiller Communications focuses on this corner of the market. The company has "remanufactured" more than 200 mobile vehicles to essentially new condition since they started the business almost six years ago.

"(In the past) it was either budget the money to buy a new truck, or no truck at all," said Jan Winemiller, co-founder of Winemiller, based in Carlisle, Pa. "What our company has done is change the way customers look at fleet management... Remanufacturing has now become a viable option and an integral part of [many] fleet management plans."

The Winemiller remanufacturing process has three components, all delivered quickly and with the option of renting a stand-in vehicle from Winemiller while the process is underway.

First, the company's two full-time Ford mechanics deal with mechanical issues. "We replace engines and transmissions, and do extensive work on the suspension system because the vehicle's handling is one of the biggest complaints we hear about an older truck," said Winemiller.

This mechanical remanufacturing comes with a warranty and also covers things that Winemiller has learned often fail in high-mileage vehicles, such as catalytic converters and turn-signal switches.

Beyond the mechanical concerns, a remanufacture tackles appearance issues including new paint, weatherstripping, carpet and more, plus an electronic overhaul that includes a mast rebuild by Wil-burt factory-trained technicians and work on generators, microwave systems, AC and more.

"Typically the comment we hear [when delivering a remanufactured truck] is 'I can't believe this is a 1993 van,'" said Winemiller.

Winemiller said a typical customer might save around $30,000 by remanufacturing a vehicle for approximately $50,000 rather than replacing it with a rack-ready truck that would cost about $80,000 to $85,000. Winemiller says hard times have increased the need for such money-saving tactics, but it isn't just a strategy for hard times: "It's a proven tactic now; we're getting a lot of repeat business."

Beyond extending existing vehicles' lifespans, what new technologies and designs are broadcasters seeking inside (and on top of) their trucks?

COUNTER ATTACK

The feel of the inside truck space is changing. "Designs are still evolving," said Dick Glass of E-N-G Mobile Systems, based in Concord, Calif., and West Grove, Pa. "Digital editing is becoming more and more common and that is affecting the shape of the interior, toward more bench space and less rack space... People need a place to put that laptop editor."

"The need is to be able to turn that truck into a mini-news bureau," agreed Crockett. "They often want countertop space, and prefer L-shaped and wraparound consoles.

Shook offers a product called a "reporter convenience package" to fit these needs. This is a swivel passenger seat along with a powered laptop pedestal. It adds an additional operating position within the truck.

Bob King, international sales manager for Frontline, said that most of the laptop editors he is installing now are on a one-rack tray, although countertop applications are not uncommon. He mentioned a recent build for Time Warner Cable in Kansas City. There, servers were used, which saves space, and a "huge" countertop space for four laptop editors was part of the design.

"In the past [without laptop editors and servers] we would have had eight racks in these trucks," he said. "Now we have four."

Many vans being commissioned today include an upgrade path to DSNG. If this medium-term possibility isn't anticipated by someone ordering a truck, it makes the eventual switch much more difficult.

E-N-G's Glass says his company has made some combo ENG/DSNG trucks, and a few of his customers have planned for the eventuality without buying the dish just yet. Glass said the advent of smaller dishes that require lower power amps has made the combo vehicles possible. "It's more flexible, obviously, because you can get a signal out from anywhere," he said.

Crockett said that for the last two years Shook has been building all of its news vans as capable to handle a 1.2-meter antenna. "Our clients have been pricing the upgrade, but several are caught in a budget crunch right now," he said. "Several have bought combo [ENG/DSNG] units, several are pricing it."

COFDM: SOME UPTAKE

COFDM modulation is one relatively recent mobile transmission improvement that one might expect to be making significant inroads in mobile trucks. But here again money is an issue.

Although few argue that the robust and multipath-friendly systems have some real advantages, they have not yet become the standard, perhaps because of stretched budgets.

Shook's Crockett says he has seen broadcasters get around the cost issue by buying one portable COFDM unit for use within a station group.

King said Frontline had manufactured several COFDM-equipped vehicles, including two recently for KXAS in Fort Worth, Texas. "We see the interest in these vehicles in cities with crowded microwave problems and in places with receive path issues," King said.

King also said that the long term trend in the mobile vehicle market is toward smaller trucks. The problem is that broadcasters still want the same equipment in the smaller space. This leads to the very real need to put trucks on weight reduction programs, or the truck's suspension will suffer. "I spend so much time lecturing on weight," King said. "Fortunately, manufacturers have provided some relief... We've knocked 400 pounds off our standard ENG vehicle by using better materials."

Specifically, Frontline's custom latticework on the masthead piece chops off 15 pounds. Roof platforms and cabinetry that were formerly made of wood are now lighter aluminum. A whopping 100 pounds is saved by using 1/8-inch aluminum flooring rather than the traditional 3/4-inch plywood.

"And we're looking at materials other than plywood for the walls," King said.

Glass said the Onan Marquee generator was being replaced by the Onan Advantage unit in most trucks. Although not a smaller unit, it is quieter.

Crockett added that the new Onan units provide 7 kW rather than the 6.5 kW produced by the older products. "That extra half a kW becomes very important because of the trend toward updating that truck to DSNG in the future," Crockett said.

Crockett also mentioned a new under the hood generator from a company Auragen Communications, based in Rochester, N.Y. The drawback is that the engine must be running; the positive is that it frees up space in the back of the truck. Sometimes the Auragens are put in as a backup unit. As a standby, it could be used to power lights, which would be difficult with just one generator, Crockett added.

Although some broadcasters have ordered SUV-based ENG trucks or standard length Ford E-350s, most news vans built are extended E-350s.

Shook's Crockett said he has seen some interest in the raised-roof vehicles built on the Mercedes Sprinter chassis, a diesel vehicle. These give more rack space. Also, in very cramped metro environments like San Francisco, standard-length vans are sometimes requested even though Crockett says that the smaller vehicles don't really have the weight capacity to be a full-blown live microwave news truck: "They can be a shooters truck, but not full editing and production and not satellite."

Glass said he has sold a few trucks built around a standard length van. "For a basic truck it's a nice solution for tight spaces and driving around metropolitan areas," he said.

King mentioned one trend toward what he called "stealth" vehicles - those designed to minimize the "circus wagon" atmosphere that can surround some media events. For Frontline, these vehicles have often been SUVs with a flat dish antenna, digital microwave and minimal station advertising. Boston broadcaster WBZ has several of the trucks, King said, and the station likes them because of the good maneuverability and the low "flashiness" level.

Whatever type of truck is being ordered, many of the truck companies contacted for this article reported that turnkey trucks were more than 75 percent of orders, whereas turnkey vehicles only made up 25 percent of vehicles 10 or 15 years ago.

The trend away from rack-ready vehicles, all agreed, was a reflection on the limited time and engineering resources found at many companies.

The vehicles must also be simple to operate. "The primary [overall] request from the DEs and news directors we talk to is a basic, simple, easy-to-operate vehicle," said Crockett. "That's what's wanted now, and the lowest possible price."