All geared up: HL Smith Transmissions

HL Smith Transmissions Ltd - probably Europe's largest heavy vehicle transmission refurbishment business - grew out of a familiar story in the road transport industry, one man’s quest to use the skills learned in military service to earn a living in peacetime. In 1947 Harold (HL) Smith returned home to the Albrighton area from seven years’ service in REME, mostly in Iraq, where the ability to keep trucks mobile with limited resources could literally be a matter of life or death. He initially started working locally as a mechanic before moving into CV dismantling, although there was no real concept of remanufacturing in those days. The US military left lots of Dodges which found their way into general haulage but there was no real backup for them. Seeing an opportunity, Harold entered into an alliance with Eaton to overhaul the 13.802 two-speed axle. This unofficial franchise led to repairing and rebuilding the Dodge axles, becoming the UK's first remanufacturer.

The company gradually expanded from this modest start, and today’s workforce numbers over 100, making it the largest commercial employer in Albrighton, although the Royal Air Force, whose RAF Cosford technical training centre is on the other side of the village, probably still employs a few more. The average length of service in the workforce is 32 years. Harold passed away in 1995, and today’s management team comprises his sons Russell and Alec, joint managing directors, and operations director Andy French. The third generation of Smiths is represented by Russell’s son Ben, who has been with the company for six years. Management all share the open plan sales office.

Originally a single bay, it now occupies 80,000sqft on a four-acre site which the company owns. It also has a warehouse in nearby Telford, with storage gradually moving there as demand for workshop space increases. Customer vehicles are repaired in a workshop at Albrighton, which has six bays which can accommodate eight-wheeled rigids, with a Mercedes-Benz Econic RCV and a DAF CF brewer’s dray awaiting their turn during our visit.

HL Smith covers the UK with its own fleet, comprising ten Mercedes-Benz Sprinters and a DAF LF 7.5-tonner, with various pallet networks and couriers handling the remainder. Its customer base is 80% to end users in road transport with fleets of three to 3,000 vehicles, either direct or via fleet maintenance companies, the remainder being to military and off-highway operators and some to franchised dealers, often in cases where warranty claims are turned down for reasons such as driver abuse. The MoD is a major client, to the extent that off the top of his head, Russell Smith knows the number of DAF DROPS vehicles still in service, 1,630. Other MoD work ranges from Land Rover axles to complete axle/suspension modules for current vehicles such as the Mastiff.

Around half of HL Smith’s business is manual gearboxes, ZF being the biggest single product. Another 20% is final drives and axles, the rest made up automatic transmissions, power steering boxes and propshafts. The majority of the autos are Allison, the firm being in the unique position of being an authorised Allison repairer, reporting directly to its UK head office. Some Volvo, Scania, Mercedes-Benz and ZF automated manuals also figure, though. Russell Smith notes how automated manuals have done a lot to protect the driveline from abuse. Propshaft work includes extending shafts for conversion, as well as the usual fitting of new joints and balancing, while power steering is a relatively new sector, part of HL Smith’s aim to supply all operator needs.

Components are not normally seen until they are four years old, initial problems having been sorted under warranty. Key to the business is the core stock of used units to be remanufactured for service exchange. Units typically have a three or four rebuild life, with diffs having the shortest life. Core stock is normally 5,000 units but has been double that. Unlike some businesses, the target is to build for stock as much as possible. The first stage in the remanufacturing process, of course, is a thorough clean. Every unit gets new bearings and seals automatically, and threads are cleaned or heli-coiled as required.

Then every component needed is replaced. A stock of small parts is stored upstairs but these are only for workshop use, the firm only supplying complete remanufactured units. Electronics is an increasing aspect which has required a lot of investment, and some core units come with their own matching ECUs. The biggest single workshop on site is the one for truck manual boxes.

Every unit is fully tested before being signed off. There’s a dedicated Allison dyno rig, plus another universal automatic rig, and a four-dyno bay for manuals. Manuals get 30 minutes of bench time, while autos get 90-120 minutes. Testing includes being filled with a special oil, which allows any leaks to be detected by the ultraviolet lamp on each test bench. On test during our visit were a ZF Ecolite and a Scania GR905. Finally, units are painted on their way to the goods-out department. Every one of the 10,000 units remanufactured each year has a unique “life ID”, which identifies who rebuilt it and when, parts used, where it came from and who has bought it. Every morning, Russell Smith gets a comprehensive report of the previous day’s jobs and their costs. He notes an increasing spend on parts to maintain a high level of core stock.

HL Smith has some smaller competitors but there’s no one in Europe of an equivalent size. It frequently exports to Europe, and occasionally to the US and Australia, although these create service exchange problems. HL Smith will sell outright but with a £300 to £2,000 surcharge. The most expensive products sold are normally Scania OptiCruise and Volvo I-Shift autos at around £4,500, although some of the less common off-highway units can be £40,000.

As to HL Smith’s future in a world where alternative drivelines are knocking on the door, Russell says “We’re always looking around the corner and evolve with the new technology. Trucks will always need some kind of transmission”.