Closer look at Fontaine's Kenworth upfitting facility
In the quiet southern Ohio town of Chillicothe, there’s a lively stretch of road lined with lots full of bright and shiny new Class 8 Kenworth trucks — mostly T680 tractors, with some T880s and W990s scattered about. They come from the half-million square-foot Kenworth truck assembly plant sprawling across the rural landscape. The trucks, which will soon include the T680 Next Generation, are mostly complete when they roll off the line, but rarely are two fleets or truckers exactly alike, so sometimes additional equipment and technology are added on a few hundred yards north at upfitter Fontaine Modification.
“The niche we fill is anything that the customer needs and the OEM does not provide,” explained Don Philyaw, Fontaine’s VP of business development, during a FleetOwner site visit in late February.
This typically means smaller HVAC and power components such as bunk heaters and auxiliary power units, which would typically slow down production for the OEM. It also includes hydraulic kits and pumps for vocational trucks, as well as CNG systems rail-mounted on the back of the cab. The alterations can range from graphics stuck to the cab to lift axles and roll-off and hook-lift bodies. Fontaine also exclusively installs dual-drive conversions for Kenworth, allowing street sweeper drivers to sit closer to the curb. Sometimes, fleets will also send trucks from outside Ohio to get worked on there, due to Fontaine's expertise.
For an in-depth look, take a look at the video below.
Philyaw noted that the Kenworth plant, which opened in 1974, has spawned generations of natural truck enthusiasts, making the search for quality talent easier than in a large metropolitan area.
Overall, the 10 employees at the 30,000 sq.-ft. facility, acquired from Pro Built in 2019, work on about 700 trucks a year. This represents just a small fraction of Fontaine Modification’s overall footprint. In total, the division of Marmon Holdings (which itself is owned by Berkshire Hathaway) processes 36,000 trucks annually at 11 locations. They are all strategically positioned at leading OEMs from Detroit for Ford to Dublin, Va., for Volvo. Ohio has two additional sites: one for Ford in Avon Lake and another for Navistar in Springfield.
Engineering is another big part of the business, and Fontaine has quietly been on the leading edge of the zero-emission trucking movement. This includes Hyzon Motors, a fuel cell electric truck hopeful that is deploying now in Europe and slated to begin testing its hydrogen-powered haulers in California this fall.
“We’re helping them package that and do the engineering work to get it into the chassis of a big Class 8 truck so it can run cross-country,” Philyaw said. “Hopefully we’ll get to install it later on once it becomes proven.”
Fontaine also helped Hyliion with early engineering and parts retrofitting on its Hypertruck ERX, which uses onboard CNG/RNG generators to charge the battery and expects to reach range parity with diesel trucks at about 1,000 miles per fuel up.
In this respect, upfitters such as Fontaine have a vital role in accelerating the development of real, practical alternative vehicles that will comply with stricter environmental standards, while not totally disrupting the way fleets operate, move goods, and perform work.
“When the path forward may not be totally clear, different paths are being explored, and we’re helping those companies do that,” Philyaw said.
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