A driving force

HL Smith Transmissons is a leading supplier of remanufactured commercial vehicle transmissions and an official rebuilder of Allison Transmissions. The company invited LAPV to take a tour of its Shropshire HQ to find out more about the process of rebuilding transmissions to original equipment standards.

On the outskirts of the picturesque Shropshire village of Albrighton is the four-acre site of HL Smith Transmissions. The business been offering drivetrain support to fleet operators since the 1950s, but you wouldn’t know it when you first arrive. Apart from the three flags of HL Smith, WABCO Reman Solutions, and Allison Transmissions, the premises don’t look like the site of a company that remanufactures heavy commercial transmissions on a large scale. It is clean and tidy and feels well organised and loved. There is a clear space in the main area of the yard for collections and deliveries and a large parking area for staff and visitors.

When we arrive, the place is a hive of activity. Automatic shutters are opening and closing, employees are going about their work while forklifts move around the work space.

This calm efficiency is an ethos that runs throughout the business. Heading inside the 85,000 sqft modern workshop, everything is clean and neat, and it is obvious that HL Smith employees take great pride in their workplace and the work they do. MD Russell Smith explains that these are principles that have been integral to the business since it was founded by Harold Smith in 1955.

LAPV spoke to Russell in June 2018 when the business was appointed as an authorised rebuilder for Allison Transmissions. Russell explained that the demand for automatic transmissions has increased significantly in the heavy commercial vehicle sector, particularly in municipal and PSV applications. ‘Allison Transmissions’ products really lead the field in this market and we are extremely pleased with this new formal association,’ he told LAPV at the time.

In fact, HL Smith has been remanufacturing and supplying automatic transmissions, including Allison Transmissions’ products, for around 25 years. Simon Williams, general manager of the automatic gearbox division, has been involved with heavy commercial automatic transmissions for the majority of this time and there aren’t many scenarios or faults he can’t diagnose over the phone.

‘I have worked on the manufacturing side for many years and spent many more years out on the road as a field support engineer,’ he explains. ‘And in those years I have encountered so many different automatic gearbox scenarios. The frontline for us now is telephone enquiries and we aim to diagnose fault codes and problems before we even see the gearbox. If we cannot solve the faults by way of diagnosis over the phone, we then work out whether we need to supply a remanufactured unit on service exchange or try to repair the customer’s own gearbox.’

HL Smith has a dedicated team of field engineers who can diagnose faults and, depending on the situation, fit gearboxes on-site at the customer’s premises. The business has recently appointed a business development manager, Peter Hooper, who can discuss all parts of the process with customers.

It is clear that Simon is a well-respected member of a busy team. As he shows us around the automatic gearbox workshop, question after question from other departments in the business keep coming through over his portable radio. This continues when we get back to the main HL Smith office, but this time it is phone calls from customers asking for technical advice. In most cases, Simon is able to solve their problems there and then from his vast store of knowledge and experience.

Rebuilt gearboxes are all tested to OE standards on HL Smith's test rig.

When asked about the future of HL Smith’s automatic gearbox division, Simon says: ‘We are lucky to have an established customer base that we have been working with for many years, and our recent association with Allison has already helped grow this customer base even further. As technology changes, we change with it, and we are excited and proud to be able to offer our continued support to fleet operators of all sizes.’

Heading into the workshops, we follow the neat yellow tramlines and footprints painted on the rubber-matted floor and it’s then that we realise the scale of the set up. We pass racks of finished stock, carefully shrink-wrapped on pallets and ready for dispatch. The large gearbox workshop is on the right, with its dedicated team following HL Smith’s strict remanufacturing process.

Each gearbox is stripped down to its individual components, which are then thoroughly cleaned. The components are then assessed and replaced with brand new original equipment parts where required before the precision task of rebuilding the gearbox to original equipment specification begins. Once rebuilt, each completed gearbox is loaded onto a state-of-the-art dynamometer to be load tested in all gear ranges. It will only be signed off by quality control once the gearbox meets the required OE standards. The test rig room sits across the corridor just opposite the manual gearbox workshop where HL Smith can test up to seven manual gearboxes simultaneously.

A little further along is the steering box shop. A similar process takes place here. Boxes are stripped, cleaned, parts are replaced, and then they are rebuilt and meticulously tested. Over the years, hundreds of variants of TRW and ZF steering boxes have passed through here.

Long-serving steering box general manager Steve Davies tells us: ‘All our steering boxes are rebuilt and tested to the manufacturers’ OE specifications and they are suitable for pretty much all heavy commercial vehicle applications that you see on the road today. We carry around 500 units in stock at any one time to ensure that we have the right steering box available for any enquiry.’

But that’s not all HL Smith has to show us. There are still two more dedicated workshops on site, the first of which is the differential shop where all types of differentials, driveheads, and axle assemblies follow the same remanufacturing process before they are added to stock ready for dispatch. Each remanufactured unit is reworked to the highest standard and undergoes several quality inspections before build and final test. There are around 800 to 1,000 differentials in stock at any one time, covering a broad spectrum of makes and variants.

Finally, there’s the propshaft shop. This is managed by Graham Hales who started his career with HL Smith in 1982. ‘There is not much that we cannot do with a propshaft,’ he says. ‘We can undertake all types of extensions and reductions as well as building to order. We also carry a stock of completed props ready for immediate dispatch. We have undertaken all kinds of projects and bespoke builds over the years and the demand for our propshafts is getting stronger year on year.’

HL Smith is also looking to the future and keeping pace with evolving technology to ensure the business can continue to meet the needs of the UK and Europe’s heavy commercial and municipal fleet operators. For example, the company is currently working with automated gearbox ECUs and actuators, and HL Smith is the exclusive distributor of these electronic control units for WABCO Remanufacturing solutions. The company also has its own dedicated team to diagnose fault codes and pattern the units up with the customer’s vehicle configurations.

After a fascinating tour of this site, we leave HL Smith with a better understanding of the effort and investment that has gone into the business to make it what it is today – an important aftermarket resource for many fleet operators within the municipal, PSV, and heavy commercial transport markets in the UK.

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