One giant step for truckerkind
"Slip and fall, getting out of a cab, is one of the top causes for workers injuries in trucking," said Kary Schaefer, general manager of product marketing and strategy at Daimler Trucks North America. "I had a large fleet customer (Gardner Trucking in Albany, Oregon, part of CRST International) come to me wanting to work on a solution for that problem. It's a problem that needs design, it needs training of the drivers, and it needs some technology to support it."
So began a project that saw Oregon State University engineering students working with a local company — the truck giant formerly known as Freightliner. Their task was to develop a way to make truckers get in and out of their cabs safely — and not just rely on their agility, which they often overestimate.
Between 2019 and now, the students in OSU's Prototype Development Lab developed a safety handle that purposefully gets in the way as truckers enter and exit the cab. Drivers have to use it. The five-sided handle is like a baby gate, mounted under the steering wheel, that swings out as the door opens, providing a safe place to hang on.
Internally, Daimler refers to it as the "truck cab fall prevention system," although it will have a snapper title if it ever hits the market.
The design had to change driver behavior. Truck drivers are trained to enter and exit the cab facing the truck, as they would use a ladder. But in their interviews, students found many of them exit facing forward, sometimes falling and hurting themselves, especially if they skip the last step.
Schaefer works on Freightliner, Western Star, and Detroit trucks. Although the truck cab fall prevention system was a Daimler-driven project, Schaefer wanted a device that would fit in a variety of truck models, including older vehicles.
Daimler gave money to the university to sponsor the project. It is a capstone project, meaning a final-year project the students undertake as part of their degree, similar to a dissertation. They have to show how an idea is developed and makes its way from a prototype to a potentially mass-manufactured product.
"It's a great way to engage a completely different perspective," she said. "If they don't have experience in the trucking industry, they don't really have any preconceived notions. They come with a really fresh set of eyes, and it's a great way to spark something and create something."
Rattle and hum
Schaefer says the fleet operator's first idea was a kind of harness, like a rock climber might use for belaying, that they had to clip in and out of every time they entered or exited the truck cab.
"Imagine all of the challenges with trying to get a driver to use a safety harness and how inconvenient that is?
"Very early on, the students identified that part of the solution has to be to change driver behavior. If it's in the drivers' way, they're not going to use it. So, we said it has to be a natural movement."
The students went through two or three prototypes to hone in on a design that was easy for drivers to use, wasn't too bulky, didn't weigh too much, and didn't rattle when the vehicle is driving down the road.
Baby gate steps
Part two of the project will be Daimler supporting the students in how to get the device manufactured.
"I'm not in charge of manufacturing. I'm not in charge of service. I'm in charge of product strategy: What products do you want to bring to the market?" said Schaefer. "It could be a vehicle. It could be a component."
Typically Daimler has its engineers design parts or sources them from an appropriate supplier to the drawings, then assembles the vehicles and sells, services and supports them in the market.
Schaefer said the part could potentially be made by a company outside of the truck supply chain — a baby gate manufacturer, for instance — but it would have to be made to certain specifications and tested for roadworthiness to become a qualified part.
From the beginning, she wanted the students to approach design problems, as is done within an engineering organization, and go through the typical development steps of having a long list of concepts and ideas that can then be whittled down to a shortlist of two or three ideas.
"They then go through trials and to get feedback, then cut it down to one or two main designs that can be prototyped and shown to drivers to get their feedback. We went through a classical design process with the students and asked them to present to us and to give us the background any kind of data that they had collected (in their survey of drivers)."
Professor John Parmigiani is the senior research director of the Prototype Development Lab at OSU's School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering. He told the Business Tribune the project was led by one of his prototype development graduates, Arthur Wells, and was intended to teach students the engineering design method.
"It's a method that we use for pretty much everything we do in life," said Parmigiani. "You can break it down into some simple steps. Step one is going out and understanding what are the requirements to make what the client wants, and get a list of those requirements in their language."
The next step is to look at the solutions to other related problems. That can start with a Google search. "What else is out there? Because nothing is truly complete. You don't want to reinvent the wheel. In my time at Oregon State, there have been instances, I can remember two or three, where we would find exactly what the client wanted."
Other ideas the students came up with were a non-slip coating for the cab steps, changing the steps' pitch angle, and adding additional handles.
Adding grip tape to the steps would seem to work, but it was not following the three points of contact rule, that drivers should have three limbs in contact with the cab as they enter or exit, so if they slip, they can save themselves.
Parmigiani added, "Once you know those two things, then you're ready for step three, which is developing alternative designs. You'd like to come up with at least three. Then you move on to step four, which is select one of those alternatives."
Steps four and five go together. "Step five is where you're fully specifying it, and this is where the students most use what they learned in their other classes.
The next step is to test the prototype to see if it meets those requirements. The last step is, revise.
"For step 3, they conducted a survey of drivers, and that was a big source of information for generating some design alternatives and in understanding the problem."
"In the survey, they said 29% of the drivers admitted that they did not follow the plan for how to proceed in and out of the truck. This came up in conversations with Daimler trucks." To cut down on slips and falls — and the expense associated with worker time lost and insurance claims — the message was, 'We need something that is going to change behavior, that you're going to have to use, but isn't going to be obtrusive.'
"The survey came back with 78% of drivers liked the idea," said Parmigiani.
In the end, Parmigiani said, they can only take the process so far. The truck industry decides if the product gets made.
"My role and all the service I provide is to give them that first prototype, that physical manifestation. Whether it's going to be a viable commercial product, I really don't answer that."
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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