Vehicle alignment settings serve a variety of functions in vehicle operation. They affect handling, steerability, stability, performance and safety, among other things. When a vehicle is in total alignment, all wheels “agree” on one direction so there are no lateral forces to counteract.
Research has shown that total vehicle alignment maintenance and inspection programs can pay dividends in extended tire wear for increased tire mileage, enhanced fuel economy, decreased component wear, greater uptime, improved driver comfort and safer vehicles. Nevertheless, industry experts estimate that 70 to 80 percent of Class 8 trucks on the road today have alignment problems.
“The vehicle is a composite with the chassis as the foundation,” explains Dutch Johnson, Josam Products’ training manager. “The foundation must be square and solid to support the dynamics of the complete structure.”
Based in Orlando, FL, Josam Products is the North American operation of Josam, the world’s leading manufacturer of heavy duty vehicle frame and axle alignment equipment.
The chassis includes every wheel, axle, suspension component and frame member, he says, and all should be aligned in relation to one another as a whole.”
Total alignment is a correction of the entire vehicle geometry instead of only one wheel or one axle independently, adds Nick McCullough, president, RAV America, Texarkana, TX, a business involved in the sales and service of heavy duty wheel service equipment, with a special focus on wheel alignment. The complete rectangle is considered, with the alignment performed in stages, usually one axle at a time.
A vehicle not in proper alignment “is a recipe for a maintenance manager’s nightmare,” asserts Greg Brock, Hunter Engineering Company’s heavy duty equipment training instructor. “Misalignment affects every aspect of operating costs per mile.”
Hunter Engineering, headquartered in St. Louis, MO, is a leading manufacturer of automotive service equipment, including alignment systems, wheel and tire service, brake service and inspection lane equipment.
“Often times, the difference between a ‘good’ truck and a ‘bad’ truck is simply one that handles well due to proper alignment, Josam Products’ Johnson states.
With improper vehicle alignment, the two largest maintenance expenditures - tires and fuel - suffer the most, says Brock. Misaligned axles and tires cause the tires to be scrubbed across the pavement, increasing rolling resistance, which directly impacts fuel consumption.
Such unnecessary lateral forces not only require more horsepower to move the same load, they also significantly reduce tire mileage, resulting in more frequent tire replacement,” says Brian M. Lukavich, parts and service programs manager, TravelCenters of America Truck Service and Petro Lube. Based in Westlake, OH, TravelCenters of America (TA) is a leading travel center business in 41 states and Canada, operating under the TravelCenters of America and Petro brands.
“If the tires are not pointing strait down the road, they will wear, or basically scrub along the road, causing less life for that tire,” he says. “I have seen tires with more than 10/32nds on one side and down to the cords on the other. Tires like those did not provide the proper return on investment to the fleet, and in most cases, are no longer an acceptable tire casing, causing the fleet less return when a casing credit is not available for them.”
“Experience and studies have proven that 70 percent of steer tire wear problems originate from the drive axles,” says Mike Beckett, president, of M.D. Alignment Services, Des Moines, IA, a company that offers alignment equipment for heavy trucks and trailers, as well as alignment training and consulting. He is the author of the book, Truck Wheel Alignment: A Common Man’s Guide, which provides basic guidance to solving all the major aspects of vehicle alignment and tire wear.
“If you think about it, all of the engine horsepower and three-quarters of all the weight carried on the power unit is on the drive wheels,” Beckett says. “Until you get them pushing in the direction you want to go, all you are doing in the front end is trying to overcome that power.”
What’s more, “aerodynamically, a vehicle going down the road sideways negates all of the aids added to it to slice through the wind efficiently,” observes Josam Products’ Johnson. “A misaligned vehicle is anything but ‘green’ and works counter to the all of the aspects of the creed.”
Another element to improper vehicle alignment is the impact on drivers.
When a vehicle is not in alignment, the driver is constantly correcting the steering wheel, usually in one direction all the time, Lukavich of TA explains, likening it to a form of Chinese water torture. Drivers eventually get tired and frustrated with constant correction and are less effective and productive.
“Driver fatigue caused by constantly correcting for alignment pulls will become a factor that will impact safety, as well as employee satisfaction,” Hunter Engineering’s says Brock. Misalignment has an impact on driver retention, Johnson adds, because “ill-handling vehicles are a reason for a driver to quickly start looking for another company’s employment.”
Good inspection of the tires for early stage irregular wear ought to be a part of any regular preventative maintenance practice, advises Beckett of M.D. Alignment Services. Already in place should be a procedure for reading Driver Vehicle Inspection Reports, looking for any indications of handling issues.
He feels there is no need to measure vehicle alignment on a scheduled PM basis as this “does no more good than dismantling the truck engine to inspect the gaskets. If the gaskets are not leaking they are just fine. By the same token, if the tires are wearing correctly, the alignment is alright.
“We measure trucks to predict the tire wear,” he maintains. “If you have the tire wear you don’t need to make a prediction.”
Others feel that measuring and correcting alignment should be performed for all power units and trailers as a part of the PM program, although mileage intervals vary. “This will maintain effective cost per mile expenditures for both fuel and tires,” says Brock.
RAV America’s McCullough says checks at regular intervals are necessary because vehicle suspensions are flexible and, therefore, the alignment will change due to the g-force emitted by the powertrain. Regular alignment checks enable correction of any adverse changes in the vehicle geometry due to wear and tear.
“The choice that the fleet must make is whether to be proactive with a dedicated alignment program or to be reactive and align a vehicle when tire wear takes place and is obvious,” he says. “One method maximizes vehicles tire life and fuel economy; the other does not.”
TravelCenters of America’s Kukavich offers the following example of ROI attainable from a 50,000-mile alignment check for a long-haul rig:
If a rig averages 100,000 miles per year, and the fleet is on a preventative alignment program of two checks per year, the cost for the checks would be between $100 and $200 per year for over-the-road service.
If the power unit averages 5.5 miles per gallon, and diesel fuel costs $3.24 per gallon, the rig’s fuel consumption would be a little less than $60,000 for the year. The vehicle, improperly aligned, would cost the operator an extra $1,822 just in fuel consumption.
If the power unit’s average tire cost is $1,675 per year, based on 100,000 miles per set of steers and 300,000 miles per set of drives, then the operator could expect to save $590 in tire costs per year, per power unit. At the end of the year, per power unit, the operator could save around $2,412 for their $100 to $200 investment.
Along with periodic vehicle alignment, Johnson recommends performing a total vehicle alignment every time a suspension or steering part is changed that affects alignment; as the final step in an accident repair process; when steer tires are changed; as a response to driver handling complaints; and when the straight ahead position of the steer wheel changes.
When does it make sense for a facility to acquire and operate its own vehicle alignment equipment? “ROI is always the final factor,” says Beckett. “Items that can contribute to the equation include the initial cost of the system, as well as the annual maintenance cost for it and the labor to operate it. On the other side of the ledger are the costs paid for alignments, transportation costs to get the vehicle to the alignment shop and the loss of income from the vehicle while it is out of service.
“This formula assumes that you will produce an alignment equal to that provided by the vendor. If you think you can improve on the vendor’s results, or get the job done in less time or at a more convenient time, additional savings can help the ROI.”
Generally, any fleet that has 10 trucks or more can justify owning its own alignment system and making alignment in house, Johnson says.
“With a dedicated alignment program, and one that is adhered to, it is possible to save $1,000 or more per year on tires - 140,000 miles on steer tires versus 70,000 miles - and $14,000 per truck per year on fuel savings - 2 percent,” adds McCullough. “That is a total of $2,400 per vehicle per year, and this does not include other benefits which include improved handling and safety.”
“It is a misnomer that off road vehicles, straight trucks and P&D vehicles do not benefit from total vehicle alignment,” Johnson notes. “These types of vehicle often benefit even more than linehaul applications as they go through tires more quickly.”
Obviously, there are many factors to be considered when investing in alignment equipment. Hunter Engineering’s Brock says to look for equipment that provides the most accurate and repeatable measurements, as well as good after-sale support and training.
Speed and efficiency of the equipment is important, McCullough says, because labor is possibly the highest cost incurred by a shop, and time is money. So, too, is simplicity and ease of operation.
“The system must be simple to use whether the operator has good computer skills or no computer skills,” he says. “Training and retraining of employees is another major cost for the fleet operation and the best of the modern alignment systems can be mastered with or without factory training.”
Further, McCullough suggests finding equipment suppliers that offer thorough initial training, as well as a technical support line for alignment-related questions. “When repairs are needed to the equipment, the vendor should offer a plan that provides a prompt and professional solution.”
Josam Products’ Johnson advises purchasing truck specific equipment that provides “repeatability, reproducibility and accuracy.”
Other key considerations are ruggedness of the equipment and whether it has the capability to be routinely calibrated by a shop’s own technicians, adds Mick Dalton, director of marketing, Bee Line Company, Bettendorf, IA, a leading manufacturer of wheel alignment, computer balancing and collision correction equipment for automobiles, heavy duty trucks and tractor trailers. There is also the matter of shop space, which would dictate pit models or above-ground units, and the decision to dedicate an alignment bay with a total truck alignment rack or “tune up” alignments on the floor or on location.
Everyone agrees that the reputation of the equipment supplier is very important as well.
Also essential is the investment in technicians and training “to produce exceptional results,” stresses M.D. Alignment Services’ Beckett.
He explains that with some high-tech computerized alignment systems, the required training for operation is minimal and the equipment can be used by almost anyone by simply following instructions. “But if the operator doesn’t know enough about trucks, have an understanding of suspension design, tire characteristics or the methods of measurement and alignment dynamics, he is unlikely to produce high-quality results.”
“The typical driver or customer does not want an alignment,” says Beckett. “They want their problem fixed.”
For those that prefer to use a vehicle alignment provider, it is always advisable to evaluate the provider’s ability to perform an accurate total vehicle alignment. After all, the only thing that counts is results, and those can be are validated by tire wear performance.