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Driving a Kenworth Drives a Better Product

Kenworth Engineers Get Behind the Wheel in Drive and Sleep Program

It’s been said that to truly understand a person, you have to walk a mile in their shoes.

That’s not a concept lost on engineers at Kenworth. When Kenworth designed its flagship truck, the T680, it received feedback from more than 850 drivers to help develop the model into a driver friendly truck that would become an industry standard.

Behind the scenes, Kenworth engineers have been living in the shoes of its customers – quietly driving the T680s themselves, learning first-hand what their customers are experiencing. “Kenworth is always looking for new ways to improve our trucks,” explained Patrick Dean, Kenworth chief engineer. “To do so, Kenworth engineers, and many in our marketing group, often grab keys to a Kenworth T680 and travel the state, getting the personal feel for what our customers experience. They also talk with truck drivers at truck stops, and fueling stations — taking in what drivers like about the truck they drive, and what they’d like to see improved.”

From left, Patrick Dean, Kenworth chief engineer; and Lizbeth Davern, Kenworth engineering manager for the cab/sleeper/HVAC group; are shown with a Kenworth T680 76-inch sleeper.

Through Kenworth’s “Drive and Sleep” program, Kenworth engineers are encouraged to get a CDL, so that they can personally drive the trucks they design. It’s also a staple program for new engineers at Kenworth. “Within the first three to six months, we want to get our new engineers out on the road, and we do that through this program,” said Lizbeth Davern, Kenworth’s engineering manager for the company’s cab/sleeper/HVAC group. “They’ll accompany one of our CDL engineers to experience life on the road, talk with drivers at truck stops, and sleep in one of the bunks.”

The beauty of the program, according to Davern, is the new perspective that engineers gain about the trucks they design. “It’s one thing to conceptualize what changes should be made while in the office, but getting behind the wheel to see what it’s like for a driver…that’s the next level. And, it’s a key in our effort to keep improving.”

Kenworth T680 76-inch Diamond VIT Sleeper

The program officially started in 2007, although employees from the company have been earning CDLs and driving Kenworth trucks since the company’s founding in 1923. “Engineers in trucks is really a long-standing part of Kenworth’s heritage,” said Kenworth’s Dean. “If you look back to the early years, there was a saying that Kenworth engineers wore muddy boots. That was in reference to how they would go to the job site – often times in the woods with our logging trucks -- and really understand how the equipment was being used. Personally understanding the voice of the customer – through meeting with them, or in this case, emulating what they do -- pays off in a better Kenworth product.”

For many of the Drive and Sleep trips, engineers will drive out to the Gearjammer truck plaza near Yakima -- about three hours east of Kenworth’s headquarters in Kirkland, Washington. Once they arrive, engineers spend time at the truck stop and interact with drivers.

Kenworth T680 76-inch Sleeper

“The Drive and Sleep program is a very rewarding experience, and it never gets old,” said Brian Langhans, who has been a Kenworth engineer with the interior group the past 11 years. “It gives us a chance to get out from behind our desks and see what it was like to be out on the open road. These trips allow us to empathize with drivers and what they go through and take what we learned back to the office designing new parts, components or systems. It’s a much different experience designing on a computer versus actually interacting with drivers in real life to see how a driver could put a new idea to work.”

Kenworth T680 76-inch Sleeper

What’s learned on the road is making a difference when it comes to T680 modifications. “We’re always looking at ways to get better, from both large product development programs to small refinements,” said Dean. “Drivers live and work inside our trucks, so even small issues can become annoyances.”

Case in point was when Langhans was at a truck stop, talking with some drivers about storage space under the lower bunk. “The drivers were large men, so it was difficult for them to access all the storage space the 76-inch sleeper had to offer,” he said. “We took that back with us and redesigned the lower bunk to have a 90-degree opening for easier access. It was a great solution.”

“When we talk with drivers at truck stops, they think it’s pretty cool that we’re out here and looking for insight from them,” added Davern. “The feedback we get definitely influences our future modifications and helps us build a better product. Everyone benefits from this program.”

Kenworth T680 76-inch Diamond VIT Sleeper

“Exactly,” concluded Dean. “The Drive and Sleep program is a key component in Kenworth’s focus on making the World’s Best trucks. We’re always learning, always improving and wanting to make a more driver friendly truck. The more time Kenworth engineers spend on the road and talk with professional drivers, the more our trucks will continue to evolve with driver comfort and performance in mind.”

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