Mixing it up

In Tests, Jan/Feb 2017, Freightliner13 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineMay 22, 2017

The Freightliner Columbia concrete spec truck has a solid family history behind it – but how does it handle the load at Allied Concrete?

Allied Concrete has a range of truck makes under their concrete mixer bowls and the four new trucks will bring their Freightliner total to six.

The new trucks are 8×4 configuration but there‘s already a 10×4 Columbia in Christchurch and a 6×4 in Queenstown. In fact the Queenstown-based Freightliner FL80 is Allied‘s oldest concrete truck, a 1995 model.

The giant nationwide ready-mixed concrete group that Bill Richardson started building when he bought Allied Concrete‘s two plants in Invercargill and Gore back in 1976 is breaking with tradition. New Zealand Trucking featured a Kenworth T359 in their Invercargill fleet a few months back, now they ‘ve put another four Freightliner Columbias into the mix. Allied Concrete southern regional manager Grant Driver says, “

The other three new Columbias are based out of Penrose in Auckland, so we can compare the Penrose-based Mack 8×4 autos head to head with the Columbia autos.”

Grant offered the truck to Chris Birch, the manager of Allied Concrete Dunedin, and said he wanted a good, experienced driver on it to test it. The new Freightliner is in the capable hands of Neville Bremner, who has been driving concrete mixers for 43 years.

The Freightliner Columbia falls into the category of a medium-duty truck, it‘s the lowest duty model Freightliner on the market here. After their cabover Argosy and conventional Coronado heavy-duty models, the medium-duty Century Class is rated up to 58 tonne GCM and powered by a 450hp Detroit 13 litre DD13 engine.

Freightliner‘s Columbia, on the other hand, is designed as a construction truck, with engine outputs from 320 to 400hp and a GCM up to 32 tonne (although the 10×4 boasts 36 tonne GCM and special ratings can be supplied). It‘s powered by Cummins, through an Eaton or Allison transmission, and Meritor rear axles.

Running gear is where the North American brands have a massive overlap. Freightliner‘s Columbia, Kenworth‘s T359 and Mack‘s Metro Liner are all available with the same Cummins, Eaton/Allison and Meritor components. While this point does limit the value of testing the drivelines of the different brands, because Allied expect their concrete trucks to last 10 or more years, the trial is likely to bring out some interesting points when it comes to driver preferences and service backup. Points which are more important to Allied than initial cost.

The 8×4 Freightliner looks good. It‘s fitted with the new six cubic metre G3 Mixer supplied and fitted by Gough‘s Engineering, with the bowl made overseas and the hydraulics and electronic ‘brains‘ developed by Gough‘s in conjunction with Allied Concrete.

The mixer unit has a number of safety features; the ladder for cleaning the bowl has a decent platform, complete with a safety bar. A wireless remote means the driver can operate the discharge from a safe position, and a camera on the rear lets Neville see what ‘s going on behind him. But the mixer‘s efficiency features are likely to be where money is made. The unit is connected to the Cortex ibright® system, which gathers a lot of data that Allied can crunch to ensure they ‘re not wasting fuel and time. The advanced cleaning system that is part of the G3 development cuts driver involvement, cleaning time and water use when cleaning out the bowl too.

We joined Neville for a run out to Mosgiel with 5.5 cubic metres in the bowl of the 340hp Columbia. A distance of about 20 kilometres from Allied‘s Dunedin base in the old Palmer‘s Concrete plant opposite the Forsyth Barr Stadium. Even at this weight, the acceleration is impressive and Neville points out that empty it will beat a lot of cars away from the lights. The 6-speed Allison auto matches the 8.9 litre Cummins engine perfectly.

Neville has been behind the Freightliner‘s wheel for two months, since it replaced his three-year-old Mack Metro Liner. He explains that this is the first time he‘s had air suspension under the back of a concrete truck and it is noticeably nicer to drive than a leaf sprung rear, adding, “ You can‘t beat air suspension on mixers.”

He‘s also captivated by the automatic transmission, although he was apprehensive about getting the auto after bad memories resurfaced about an automatic International he drove in the 1970s. However, he says there‘s no comparison between the two.

We‘re soon on State Highway 1 heading south and about to tackle Lookout Point. It‘s a steep climb up to the fire station on Lookout Point and one that Neville has driven thousands of times. He points out that this is his test hill and it provides an excellent opportunity to compare trucks. The Columbia‘s auto lets the engine get down to between 1200 and 1300rpm before it drops into first gear close to the top. Once in first gear, the engine is doing about 2200rpm, however the speed is a reasonable 20kph and Neville says it has a couple of kilometres an hour advantage over the Mack. Although he adds that some of the older 340hp Macks do outperform the new arrivals on the hill. Once the hill starts to flatten off the acceleration is impressive and we crest it in fourth gear.

Grant says they fitted 11R22.5 tyres to gain better ground clearance, and lowered the bowl height to improve the SRT (static rollover threshold). The diff ratio was changed to match “ where we have always been”. But, as Grant points out, “ With the wider ratio of the Allison, matched with what, in the industry is considered small horsepower and torque, there will always be the one incline where a different diff ratio would suit the situation better with only a 6-speed transmission. However, over the wide range of urban driving and other terrain we cover, we are very happy with the marriage of the Allison and the Cummins as we have seen considerable reduction in driver fatigue, which is one of our critical risk areas.”

An Allison engineer joined Neville in the cab and made some adjustments to the auto‘s change pattern. Neville says he connected a laptop to the transmission and worked out the best change patterns for the unit in its working role with the regular driver‘s input. He reckons that it‘s definitely better. He rarely changes gear manually, but he does change down when coming down the Killmog laden, to take a bit of pressure off the engine brake and foot brake.

Neville‘s only real gripe with the truck is “It ‘s a bit gutless”. He‘s not being critical of the Columbia, or the Cummins engine; he explains that with a bit more horsepower it would probably be a much better driver‘s truck. He has spoken to management about it, and suggests that the Dunedin hills are much more demanding on a 6-metre concrete truck than the flatter land around Southland where the Kenworth is based. The engine output can be uprated and it‘s possible that Allied will alter the rating when they have enough data to carry out a worthwhile comparison.

Coming down Saddle Hill into Mosgiel the Columbia‘s engine brake comfortably controls the descent. It‘s a capable system and Neville leaves it in high when laden and usually uses the low stage when empty, because high can be a bit harsh.

The delivery point is an old brickworks being used by a builder to make concrete panels for buildings. It‘s a reasonably tight entrance and Neville has quite a lot of reversing to reach the prepared formers. The Columbia does have good vision and Neville reckons the mirrors are better than any he‘s used. The split windscreen and steeply sloping bonnet ensure plenty of forward vision, and cameras on each mirror support show the driver exactly where the front wheels are. A concrete worker guides the reversing truck and Neville laughs as he moves from one side to the other so that he‘s visible in the mirrors. There‘s a camera in the middle of the rear of the truck that not only allows the driver to see the surroundings, but also to see the concrete flow, so he can control the flow from the comfort of the cab.

Once in position, the chutes are fitted and Neville controls the flow without leaving the cab. There are several moulds to fill and it ‘s simply a matter of watching the placement and controlling the flow via the camera and remotes. Occasionally the concrete worker gets him to move the truck to the next pour.

Once the concrete is placed, Neville reverses the truck up a steep metaled ramp to a cleaning area. He switches the diff locks and cross lock on and there is absolutely no wheel spin. It‘s wet, loose metal and the truck is empty so we would have expected a little traction loss, but there‘s none. The Allison transmission helps, but it appears the Freightliner airbags do a great job when it comes to site work.

Next we head to the Mosgiel Allied plant that ‘s used when an increase in local demand requires, and sometimes the Dunedin trucks travel for a couple of hours into Central Otago with loads of concrete for big jobs, where they need to support local trucks. It‘s a steep climb out of the Mosgiel plant and the driveway is wet. Neville stops on the drive, engages the diff and cross lock and the traction proves how good it is again.

The Columbia is a well-proven construction truck, particularly overseas. It looks more than capable of meeting the demands placed on it at Allied, and with a wide range of horsepower options, Allison auto or Eaton manual and wheelbase options, it has the potential to be a popular