It started, as have most product innovations in Peterbilt history, with the voice of the customer.

The result is a spacious, new, high-roof, integral cab-sleeper, the Peterbilt Model 579 UltraLoft. The first prototype Model 579 UltraLofts are already in the field, ensuring that every customer-requested feature and benefit engineered into this innovative new product results in optimal customer satisfaction. Another round of validation units will reach the field this spring, and full production is scheduled to begin in summer of 2018.

Jim Gossard, Peterbilt’s Product Planning Director, reports that the bar was set at best-in-class for virtually every feature early in the development process of the new UltraLoft. And the voice of the customer was what helped him and a group of Peterbilt team members identify those standards.

“Our process started with Human-Centered Design (HCD), a design framework that develops solutions by inviting the human perspective,” says Gossard. “And what that uncovered was the need for an enhanced team and trainer sleeper for some of our biggest fleet customers.

“HCD extends the classic type of investigations we have used at Peterbilt and PACCAR over the years. It starts with truck stop interviews, talking to drivers, and talking to dealers, and we couple it all with customer experiences from other industries.

“In other words, we’re stepping out of our known universe. It’s proven to be a powerful approach for developing new products.”

Product development included the “Book of Wishes” that would define the Model 579 UltraLoft. However, like any new product, it also had to be embodied in a practical design iteration that could ultimately be produced on the Peterbilt factory floor in Denton, Texas, and be successfully brought to market.

Three options

In 2014, product planning was at a crossroads, with three alternatives ahead of engineers. One would be an update of the Model 587 integral cab, a design rooted in the 1999 launch of the then-groundbreaking Model 387 integrated cab-sleeper. Another would be modifications of the popular Model 579 that would include making the sleeper-cab opening larger. And the third would be a new integral sleeper mated to the Model 579 “as a true integral,” according to Gossard.

The third option would have to include best-in-class roominess, best-in-class storage and improved aerodynamics.

While the Model 587 remains a proven performer, engineers recognized an opportunity to further maximize aerodynamics with a narrower chassis than that of the 587. Of the two Model 579 alternatives, the latter “break-the-mold” approach appeared to give the team a better opportunity to provide the attributes customers had requested.

So the UltraLoft, with a new 80-inch-long integral sleeper, was born, at least as a design concept and a “Book of Wishes”. The work was far from over, but it was now time to bring in Design,  Engineering, and Manufacturing to vet the features, benefits and design elements and ensure they could be produced.

Product description book

John Towne is a Peterbilt Engineering Section Manager and was heavily involved in design engineering of the Model 579 UltraLoft. While his group was well aware of the product planning under way, he wasn’t fully engaged until presented with a Book of Wishes for the new sleeper. Towne’s job was to ensure that as many wishes as possible came true for the design team while still developing a product that could be practically delivered.

“Drivers want certain things; owners want certain things,” says Towne. “We must make choices. It’s a balance. We don’t always agree but ultimately we come to a decision on how to achieve the best outcome.”

At this point, a true model didn’t yet exist. But engineers were starting to define the look of the Model 579 UltraLoft. And a product description book soon took the place of the Book of Wishes.

“Our styling team gets involved and we start to get an idea of what it’s going to look like,” says Towne. “This is when we truly get involved in the design phase of the project.”

Soon computer models were developed, which allowed computational fluid dynamic tests to validate aerodynamics of the design.

“Aerodynamic optimization is such a big component in this project,” says Towne. “So as we got surfaces from the styling team we would turn them into models and do some analysis to see if we were meeting our aerodynamic performance targets.

“An integral sleeper really provides us an opportunity to advance the aerodynamic  benefits we can offer customers. The integral design allows us to make one continuous surface from front to back, creating an uninterrupted air flow. That’s especially important, given that this is the tallest sleeper we’ve ever built. So we morphed surfaces around quite a bit in order to meet our aerodynamic goals.”

Customers were engaged in this part of the process as well, according to Towne, ensuring that the product design stayed true to mission.

“At this point their input was more about the interior configuration,” Towne says. “For example, we really dialed in on positioning of the upper bunk, how much headroom exists on the lower bunk, what is too high, what is too low.

“Customers also asked for better access into the top bunk, so we developed a ladder to go from floor level to the upper bunk. Traditionally you’d have to climb up the lower bunk and clear a cabinet to get there. Developing this ladder was one of the things that they told us they really needed.”

As design teams began zeroing in on a final iteration of the UltraLoft, it became time to truly engage yet another group that would ensure its successful launch: those who would build it.

Manufacturing UltraLoft

Chris Davis is the Plant Manager at Peterbilt’s Denton manufacturing facility. While Davis’s team may have had few early details on exactly what they’d be building, they had an ear in on planning.

“We’re engaged from the time Jim’s group gives us the scope of the project,” says Davis. “So we start to consider, ‘What impact will this have on the factory?’ We’re responsible for the plan required to bring the factory up to make this product. So that’s everything from robots, racks, hand tools, carts and rearrangement of the assembly line. As the design evolves from initial concept to design two, three and four, we need to make decisions on how we’ll assemble the product.”

Davis also has a Book of Wishes, at least as how it applies to assembling the new product.

“All our manufacturing initiatives are included, anything we can do to minimize parts, reduce noise in the plant, improve safety, improve the ergonomics of the line and anything that will simplify the assembly process.”

With the taller, larger UltraLoft sleeper, it became apparent that the plant would require a new robotic build cell. Expansion of the Denton plant in 2016 helped provide space in the existing plant that Davis could dedicate to the new build cell. Installation   began over the Christmas plant shutdown
in December 2017.

“We needed to make some other changes to our paint booth line to accommodate the new sleeper, and change some clearances throughout the factory to allow it to move through the factory,” says Davis. “It’s much taller than previous products we’ve built.”

Construction will employ some tried-and-true techniques, according to Davis.

“This cab utilizes the same construction as our other 2.1-meter cabs in that it’s henrobbed together,” he says. “Plus, we’ll be utilizing robots to assemble the entire cab.”

With a product design and the means to produce it, the job of bringing the innovative new cab-sleeper to the people who requested it returns to one of the people who first helped understand what those customers wanted.

To market

Wesley Slavin, Peterbilt’s On-Highway Marketing Manager, was there when truck stop customers talked to the Peterbilt team about their needs for an integral cab. Now, it’s time to deliver.

“The design is done, all the parts are tested and proven. We’ll be validating the production process so that when we run at rate, all the tools are where they need to be and all parts are delivered to the line appropriately,” he says. “This summer, we’ll turn the production line on and start ramping up.”

Slavin is confident that customers will notice the best-in-class storage, or simply the ease with which a team or even a single taller driver can find comfort in the Model 579 UltraLoft. But it’s some of the little things that he hopes make an impression with customers as well.

“Any truck you look at today has a TV, refrigerator and microwave, but how big should they be to be functional for someone out on the road today?” says Slavin. “A small microwave is often impractical to properly cook many of the meals our customers prepare for themselves.

“We wanted to make sure you have the cubby space to put a large enough microwave to cook whatever you want, and that it will cook evenly just like it would at home. So that 1.1 cubic feet of microwave space may not sound significantly larger than the 0.7 or 0.9 cubic feet others may give you, but it will make a simple difference in a driver’s quality of life.

“It’s the kind of level of detail we got down to. We applied that degree of analysis to every feature and benefit of the Model 579 UltraLoft, and the result is a product that demonstrates real awareness of the customer experience.”

For Peterbilt Chief Engineer Scott Newhouse, whose overview of the entire development process helped shape the final product, the Model 579 UltraLoft is true to its original mission.

“The benchmark question that guided us was, ‘What will help our customers live and work most comfortably?’

“We believe we’ve delivered a powerful response.”

Women in Trucking Helped Shape UltraLoft

Peterbilt product planning teams sought the input of hundreds of customers including counsel groups, fleet managers, fleet owners and drivers from several market segments. Perhaps some of the most interesting insights came from the women who participated, according to Peterbilt Product Planning Director Jim Gossard.

Gossard said members of the Women in Trucking Association, which focuses on the employment of women in the trucking industry, were key participants in an ergonomic study conducted at the PACCAR Technical Center in Mt. Vernon, Wash., and in the “Drive to Denton”, in which drivers tested a prototype Model 579 UltraLoft on an extended road trip.

“What we had them do was unpack the truck, then repack it the way they wanted to have it and give us detailed input into why they wanted it that way. They helped us define the room we needed, including the height and storage necessary.

“The Women in Trucking people came in with notebooks, they gave us extensive interviews and they were very prepared,” Gossard says. “Their input was fantastic, and really helped shape the product that we’ll bring to market, particularly as it relates to storage.”