Keeping track of parts from factory to warehouse to distributor to customer takes some doing. Here, a barcode reader records parts’ locations for a central computer system.
Handy owner-operators who do their own maintenance know that buying the right parts makes a big difference in how successful a repair will turn out to be.
The area of truck parts is one where buying generic often isn’t worth the short-term cost savings. You could end up spending more in the long run.
“I understand that, with the costs of fuel and insurance as high as they are, and rates pretty low, it’s not easy for an independent operator to face a high repair bill and consider spending more than absolutely necessary on parts,” says Steve Crowley, president and CEO of VIPAR Heavy Duty, a major marketer of parts at about 500 locations in the U.S. and Canada. “But squeezing maintenance costs is a bad proposition. As the smartest large fleet managers will tell you, you can’t make a snap decision. You need to learn to look at long-term cost per mile – the total cost over the lifetime of the component and the vehicle.”
Crowley is not a Wall Street type but a man whose experience in the trucking industry runs deep. He understands the mechanical realities of trucking, and it’s clear he knows his company won’t be profitable in the long run unless it sells parts that offer high value for the dollar and performance on the vehicle.
“I’d tell somebody unfamiliar with parts selection to stick with the major brands,” he says. “They include companies like Bendix, ArvinMeritor, Baldwin and Donaldson. Our business revolves around brand names. We carry the top 50 brand names, in fact. These constitute about 80-90 percent of what’s sold in our network.”
When it comes to other parts, says Crowley, “There’s a lot of stuff available from all over the world these days. Some of it’s good, and some of it is not.” When VIPAR does sell non-big-name parts, it first studies test results from private labs.
“We do this because running an 80,000-pound rig down the road day after day, you need all the parts to function as well on the thousandth day as on the first day,” Crowley says. “Defective parts will show up very quickly under typical heavy-duty use. You need to understand that all the parts of a system, and all the systems, work together.”
A good example of the difference quality parts can make is when buying air brake system regulating valves. Truck brake systems have a pressure regulating “relay” valve on each axle that speeds and equalizes the delivery of pressure from axle to axle. A common problem is brake imbalance caused by valves that don’t have exactly equal “crack” or opening pressures, and don’t apply and release all the brakes at exactly the same rate (“hysteresis”). The result is often excessive wear or even critically dangerous brake fade on a long downhill run.
The policy about parts quality at Aurora, a trailer parts marketer with 250 trailer dealers, distributors and repair shops in Canada and the United States, is similar. Tony Diphilipantonio, vice president of sales and marketing, says, “About 80 percent of the parts we sell are name-brand parts. These are the same ones specified for OE application. We require our other suppliers to provide us with test data. The performance of their parts must equal that of an OEM part.
“Parts buyers should know that they are sometimes protected by DOT standards, too. This applies to a lot of truck parts, including wheels.”
What’s so different?
When it comes to buying parts, you really do “get what you pay for,” says Ron Draheim, marketing manager at Dana Corporation’s Heavy Vehicle Technologies and Systems Service division.
He points out that the difference in price between a lesser part and a much better one is often based on the additional cost of what goes into it. “We spend time, resources and money to design, engineer, manufacture, test and retest products for a specific application to ensure we meet the needs of the customer,” Draheim says. “That is what you pay for. This is not to say that there are not some good non-genuine parts. But there are also some really bad ones.”
Draheim knows because the company has bought competitors’ parts and tested them – for example ring and pinion kits for rear axles. Ring and pinion sets consist of the two large gears that convert the fore-and-aft rotation of the driveshaft into the torque sent out from the center of the drive axle to the wheels.
“This test not only proved that our product out-performs the competitor’s, but it proved that our product consistently out-performed the competition,” Draheim says. “We’ve done similar testing on driveshaft components as well and found the same to be true. Not only are our parts better, they are consistently better. What this means is that if you buy a non-genuine part, you might get lucky and get a good part, but the guy in line behind you might get a bad one.”
He explains that many of the Spicer branded parts Dana Corp. makes are used by the truck OEMs exclusively when they build their trucks. “The parts that we sell to the OEMs are the same parts that we sell in the service parts market,” he adds. “When OEMs like Paccar, Freightliner and International are brand loyal, there must be a reason. There are sound technical reasons for a manufacturer to be approved as an OEM supplier. For one thing, they have found over the years that the manufacturer produces a consistently superior product.” He also points out that many large fleets join the OEMs and refuse to buy any part not identical to that used by the original equipment manufacturer.
When replacing engine or driveline parts, it’s wise to remember that “a will-fit part may cost you less today but it can cost you a lot more down the road,” Draheim says. “Premature failure can cause collateral damage and downtime.” A failed bearing in a driveshaft U-joint cross could cause damage to the center bearing that stabilizes the driveshaft and is mounted to the frame, for example. Driveshafts spin at very high rates and can be very dangerous. So you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the risk to use lesser components.
For example, what do you find if you take a U-joint apart? “Some crosses may be forged steel and some cast steel,” Draheim says. It takes significantly more material in a casting to equal the strength of a forging.
“Spicer Life Series U-joints have a three-lip seal system rather than a single-lip design. This gives at least 200 percent more protection, keeping lube in and contaminants out,” Draheim says. “We install thrust washers inside the caps to eliminate end galling, thus reducing heat and extending the life of the joint. Sometimes it’s harder to really identify features of products that make all the difference in performance. Are the bearing wear surfaces hardened? And, if so, how deep/precise is the hardening? Is it too hard/brittle? These are significant differences that are difficult for the common eye to identify.”
Earl Evans is a savvy owner-operator from Canfield, Ohio, who has his own shop, fixes nearly everything on his truck, and agrees that OEM parts are better. He uses Caterpillar oil filters on his late-model C15. “Caterpillar designed that filter for what they really wanted it to do,” he says. “And it’s obvious that they cut the threads and clean the filter head before assembly. Many aftermarket filter makers do not. If you pour a few drops of solvent into their filters, swish it around and pour it onto the parts counter, you see metallic shavings. These go right to the bearings after you install the filter.”
He also likes Racor OEM cartridges in his fuel/water separator. He believes they do a better job of knocking the water out of the fuel and forcing it down into the collection bowl. And because their cartridges are plastic and not metallic, they’re less likely to rust from the water in the fuel and allow rust particles to get through the unit.
Evans disputed one parts distributor’s statement that a brake job done on an existing vehicle will never last as long as the original, factory brakes. The reason, he believes, is that most people use cheap aftermarket parts when they do a major brake job. He inspected some cheaper replacement brake parts after a short while on his vehicle. He found that the aftermarket brand’s S-cam thrust washers rapidly began to develop a dish shape, rather than staying flat. The washers were noticeably thinner, and in worse condition, than some original Rockwell parts he’d saved that had 500,000 miles on them. He says the Rockwell parts were not even that much more expensive. From then on, he refused to use anything but OEM parts.
Another aspect of Draheim’s argument is that the market value of the time, effort and money put into developing Spicer parts is great enough that a black aftermarket exists. This is the marketing of parts designed to fool the buyer by looking like original equipment. He says, “We try to stamp or identify our products when and where possible.” For example, “SPL” for Spicer Life. Forgers will even package a part so “the box looks similar,” says Draheim. Spicer actually patents its designs and registers its brand names with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to protect them.
“We’ve worked very hard to produce the top quality products our customers have come to expect, so we take patent and trademark infringement very seriously,” Draheim says. “We pursue violators to the fullest extent possible. That offers a measure of quality protection to a buyer who sees such identifying marks or the brand name.”
Picking parts outlets
Owner-operator Gordon Bow of Oakfield, N.Y., another do-it-yourself truck maintenance guru, takes a very practical approach to buying fuel filters. His source, William A. Phillips of East Bethany, N.Y., will cross-check fuel filter specifications for him. He says, “The micron rating and flow rate must be the same.” If those two specifications are met, he is not afraid to buy an aftermarket brand.
He likes Heavy Duty Parts of Buffalo, N.Y., because of “the service and the fact that their people are flexible and will work with me.” T&D Parts of Buffalo will drop off orders at his home while he is headed there, or ship them via UPS. Another quality of a good distributor for him is “the availability of the parts. The distributors I work with have the parts I need all the time.”
Parts buyers need to realize that a great deal of the cost equation is legitimate overhead at the distributor or dealer level, not just a high price markup based on greed. For example, if a heavy-duty parts distributor has all the parts you need all the time, he has a lot of money tied up in his inventory. He will also need to pay more for quality people and add enough staff so that his people can take occasional time off for training.
One of the best signs you’ve come to the right place is a knowledgeable counter person who can give you all the information you need to get a job done properly. He or she will say things like “When you replace that thermostat, make sure to replace the gasket and ring seal, too. And make sure you scrape the sealing surfaces till they are clean and use a waterproof sealer, or you might have a leak.”
Some distributors will even offer training for a fleet customer’s technicians and owner-operator do-it-yourselfers. If you visit a place that sells parts cheap but often has to order them for you and cannot help you with information, it’s probably smart to stay away if the part you’re looking for is critical to keeping the truck running.
For more information:
(800) 387-3889 (Canada)
Aurora Parts and Accessories
Bendix Commercial Vehicle
Dana Corp. Commercial Vehicle Systems
Vipar Heavy Duty