Ford designs trucks, vans for upfitter customization

Ford designs trucks, vans for upfitter customization

Best of 2014: Designing commercial trucks for the aftermarket.

January 3, 2015

Commercial vehicle buyers don’t buy off the rack. They need custom tailoring.

The shelf heights that are perfect for a locksmith running a mobile shop out of the back of his van would be useless to a florist looking to maximize storage space for deliveries or a plumber who needs to stock three replacement toilets in each vehicle.

So when Ford designers began working on the vehicles targeted at those tradesmen – F-150 pickups and Transit commercial vans – they decided not to try to predict how owners would use them. Instead, the goal became to make the vehicles as modular as possible and let aftermarket specialists – upfitters – develop unique systems for different industries.

“We wanted to support their innovation,” says Minyang Jiang with Ford’s marketing department. With the 2015 Transit, she adds, “There are 11 upfitters in and around our plant in Kansas City, and we wanted to make it easier for them to be creative with what goes in the back of a van. They are able to develop whole new products on the platform we provide them.” 

Keeping it simple

Both pickups and vans offer commercial customers something pretty basic – an empty box that they can fill with the tools, materials, or goods needed to perform jobs. Ford Program Management Analyst Alana Strager says it was very important not to think too hard trying to reinvent something as simple as the wheel.

“Rooted in the shape of the horse-drawn cart, the pickup truck box has been a standard, relatively unchanged fixture for nearly a century,” Strager says. “[Any] innovations we developed couldn’t alter the box, but rather needed to enhance and evolve its flexibility and modularity to create infinitely customizable solutions for hauling cargo.”

Strager is the co-inventor of a cargo management system for the new 2015 F-150 that Ford calls Boxlink. Designers installed slotted steel plates at four of the strongest places in the truck’s bed, attaching the plates at structural steel crossbeams. Truck owners can put cleats, hooks, tie-downs, or other attachments that will come from aftermarket inventors on those plates.

In addition to the four slotted plates, the aluminum-bodied F-150’s bed includes four die-cast zinc tie-down cleats, so owners will have as many as eight available points to secure cargo. Each one of those points will be tied to the truck’s steel frame, allowing drivers to effectively attach loads to the truck’s strongest part.

Using the slotted plates and cleats, owners and aftermarket developers will be able to offer ways of subdividing the truck bed – placing heavy loads or equipment in some spaces while maintaining the basic open box in other sections. Users will be able to secure loads up to 275 lb horizontally or 600 lb diagonally across the bed. Depending on engine choice, the F-150 has a bed payload of 1,690 lb to 3,060 lb, so heavy loads can be attached to the sides while leaving most of the bed available for bulk storage.

While designers say they’re leaving the bulk of the development ideas on how to use the new system to aftermarket companies, a few early ideas are to create tie-down systems for ramps that can be easily attached to the sides of the truck bed. A landscaper with a small tractor would be able to drive his vehicle into the truck’s bed and remove the ramps. By placing them in locked positions inside the bed, he wouldn’t have to worry about those ramps sliding into the tractor.

Such aftermarket systems are common in the industry, but typically, they have to be custom installed. By building simple, modular attachment points into the truck’s design, Strager states that Ford is making the job easier for upfitters, potentially giving those companies a reason to develop unique products for Ford. And if the best aftermarket accessories are available only for Ford, the F-150 gains new selling points against competing products.

“This is an open system,” Strager says. “We have facilitated the aftermarket in a way that has never been done before.” 

Connecting to commercial vans

If the pickup bed traces its roots to the horse-drawn wagon, the cargo box on the commercial van is the modern equivalent of the Conestoga wagons that carried settlers out West. Again, it’s a simple box on wheels to be filled with tools or cargo.

“Once you put an empty box on the back of a van, you almost have to put racks and bins in it. It’s the first thing that customers are considering,” Jiang says.

With the 2015 Transit, Ford’s replacement for the perennially best-selling Econoline, designers took an even more basic approach. Rather than create unique attachment systems for the shelving racks and other space organizers typically used in such vehicles, Ford focused on the simplest connection points – screw holes.

The Transit uses hard-to-cut, high-strength steel throughout its structure. In the past, aftermarket upfitters would drill into those tough support beams to create attachment points. With the new van, Ford pre-drilled holes in the toughest frame components early in the manufacturing process. In addition to saving on labor for the aftermarket, those threaded holes provide extra protection to users.

“We drilled the holes before body weld, before the treatment processes,” Jiang explains. “So the insides of those holes go through all of the pre-treatment. They get e-coated, so they’re protected against corrosion.”

A common concern when buying a van that’s been adapted by upfitters is how the enhancements will affect the vehicle’s warranty. In some cases, drilling holes violates rust-protection clauses because automakers can’t ensure that the newly exposed steel was treated properly by aftermarket companies. By pre-drilling and threading the holes – both inside the van’s box and outside to provide attachment points for roof- or side-mounted ladder racks – Ford makes it easier for those aftermarket providers to stay within warranty agreements. 

Easing in radical changes

With both new vehicles, Ford is radically changing its product offerings to the bulk of its commercial buyers for the 2015 model year. The Transit is a carryover from Europe – the latest in a series of high-roofed commercial vehicles powered by V-6 and smaller engines that replace the wider, flatter Econoline and its V-8s and V-10s. Transit vans offer more overall cargo space, but less weight capacity and very little towing power.

“We surveyed our customers very carefully, and we found that the tow ratings we’re getting with Transit are within the needs of about 90% of owners,” Jiang explains.

Customers who need to tow more typically opt for pickups, not vans.

Still, the significant change to the workhorse panel van will force some customers to reconsider what product they need and how they’ll equip it. So keeping a wide range of aftermarket options available is critical to Ford’s strategy.

On the truck side, Ford is swapping out the steel body panels on the F-150 with aerospace-grade aluminum panels. The company hopes that the lightweight body will offer big enough improvements in fuel economy to win over new customers. But, as with the van, making such a radical change to a mainstay product can raise concerns with loyal buyers.

Ford engineer, and Strager’s co-inventor of Boxlink Adrian Aguirre, says with so many changes, truck buyers made one thing clear.

“[They] told us not to touch the box,” Aguirre says. Offering an overly complicated storage management system that tried to predict how each customer wanted to store his gear would have been a mistake. “They want to tailor it to their unique needs.”

Ford Motor Co.