A Storied History, Eyes to the Future
by Blake Desaulniers —
Miller Industries grows and innovates to meet new challenges.
2016, a milestone year for Miller Industries, saw the company embark on unprecedented expansion, encompassing all four U.S. production facilities. Quite a party, as Miller celebrated the 100th anniversary of towing.
In 1916, Ernest Holmes built the first tow truck in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by attaching a rigging system to a 1913 Cadillac, marking the birth of the towing and recovery industry. Holmes filed for a patent — the first of about a dozen — for his idea and subsequently built the Ernest Holmes Co. in Chattanooga to make and market his tow truck.
Today, the name Holmes lives on as part of Miller Industries' family of tow truck equipment. That family also includes the Century, Chevron, Vulcan, Boniface, and Jige brands.
The world’s largest manufacturer of towing and recovery equipment has now expanded all of its American production facilities, two of which are in Tennessee — one in Greeneville and the other at the company’s headquarters in Ooltewah — and two of which are in Pennsylvania.
Miller eschews classic corporate culture for more of a family environment sharply focused on customer service.
The Ooltewah facility is currently around 350,000 square feet, with an additional 100,000 square feet of space on Amnicola Highway for storage. Yet that may soon be too small.
"We've already outgrown our footprint here," said William Miller II, president of Miller Industries,
Miller said the Ooltewah plant alone has recently hired more than 100 new employees. "We are certainly busting at the seams with the current employees that we have,” he said.
The simultaneous expansion of all four Miller Industries' U.S. facilities is unprecedented for the company, and Miller has seen the need to grow coming out of the Great Recession, when business slowed down for the towing industry as a whole.
“I think a lot of it has to do with, in '08 and '09, our customers didn't buy a lot of new product,” Miller said, “so there's pent-up demand from needing to replace old product.”
To that end, Miller has a wide range of equipment designed and built to meet today’s towing industry.
“Towers can’t sit back and let the market come to them,” says John Hawkins, vice president of heavy duty wrecker sales for Miller Industries.
Miller is showing a range of innovations as the company continues to evolve state of the industry equipment for the 21st century.
In November, Miller introduced the Tandem-Tandem concept, shown off nicely in November 2016, on a Peterbilt 389 tricked out with a 9055 Century wrecker.
“The 9055 has been with us since 1993,” Hawkins says. “We’ve done a lot of upgrades, including a triple stage boom, an enhanced diagonal tailboard, and a low rider under-lift, but this is the first time we’ve taken the knowledge we have with our European brothers, Michael Boniface and Jige, and brought in that Tandem-Tandem concept.”
In doing so, Miller is taking the Tandem-Tandem concept and lightening the rear axle weight by eliminating the lift axle. The Tandem-Tandem incorporates a special frame RBM (resistance bending moment). Miller has invested in the tandem steer to benefit from much greater front axle weight. The Tandem-Tandem also gets four tires and brakes on the ground, and brakes upfront where needed. And Miller has included special tires to enhance turning.
“It was a unique process. Working with Boniface and taking the European cab-overs that we were doing with Mercedes, Volvo, and Scania, we were able to get a very good feel for what we wanted to do. We were really pleased with the way it worked, with this vehicle having only 21,000 lb. on the tandem steer and 24,000 lb. on the drives,” Hawkins says.
Hawkins notes that the 9055 was a vehicle that could step up as an integrated design and do the very heavy, front-axle, fixed-frame vehicles. “As we started to go to three axles and put in a tag axle, we took weight off the front. So here’s this vehicle that had the potentially higher capacity being limited on the chassis. Now we’re putting that axle constantly on the ground, so it’s safer for the tower.”
Miller has also enhanced maneuverability with 315 tires instead of 385, which Hawkins points out will make operations in tight, urban spaces go more smoothly.
Miller has also continued to improve their “Knee Boom” underlift.
The Knee Boom is currently available in both the standard “Street Low Rider” configuration and the upgraded “Coach Low Rider” configuration, which offers a 55,000 lb. towing capacity at the fully retracted length of 83.5 inches. The Knee Boom reach, with the Coach Low Rider, maxes out at 173 inches supporting 18,000 lbs. at full extension in the towing position, while the standard “Street Low Rider” configuration offers 16 inches less reach and overhang.
The Knee Boom is designed to provide an industry leading -23° to +16° tilt factor, providing for clearance versatility on extreme downhill or inclined surfaces. The options of 35,000 lb. and 50,000 lb. drag winches complement the already robust features of this Knee Boom.
The Knee Boom also leads the industry by boasting an impressive 45-inch max horizontal height. The new Knee Boom, at normal towing height, allows for the recovery boom to be lowered to 12 ft. 2 in. travel height with no contact to the elevated Knee Boom, making this a clear best for road travel and underpass clearance.
The new Knee Boom under-lift is available on the Century 1135 and 1140 rotators, as well as the revolutionary Century 1150 and Vulcan 950 series rotators with standard and RXP configurations.
According to Hawkins, “There has been no new product offering from Miller Industries like the introduction for domestic sales of the Knee Boom under-lift.”
The decades of product knowledge with Miller’s European partners and the detailed demands from a half dozen or more military contracts have resulted in a better lifting arc, reduced interference with the recovery boom, greater tilting capacity, a low profile with the Low Rider under-lift, a horizontal lift almost double that of the SDU, and little if any effects to the demands of the recovery boom. This option will not only maximize the truck’s ability to tow varying casualty vehicles, but will also provide towers with enhanced options as they configure their trucks to better serve their geographical area and terrain.
Miller’s 1150 and 950 rotators feature the new, patent-pending Raptor Wireless Proportional Control System, which includes an information screen with load-sensing functions. The Raptor provides real-time, visual feedback on boom angle, boom extension, boom rotation, and load currently on the boom. The system also provides truck data such as battery voltage, fuel level, coolant temperature, and hydraulic oil temperature.
The company continues to evolve state of the industry equipment for the 21st century.
The Raptor Control System controls every function and component on the rig, including under-lift, outriggers, and lights.
While Miller continues to innovate and provide the quality of equipment that has kept the company at the fore through good markets and bad, it is perhaps Miller’s culture that best explains its success. Its people are, at heart, towers who have worked their way along in the business. Miller eschews classic corporate culture for more of a family environment sharply focused on customer service.
“We deal with families, multi generational, and we have to constantly work with distributions for our end-users to keep the equipment front line and going forward,” says Hawkins.
Given Miller’s lineup of towing equipment, its longevity, and its remarkable growth and expansion, that strategy appears to be working quite nicely.
Blake Desaulniers is a digital media content producer, writer, photographer, videographer, and car guy based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be found on the web at blakedesaulniers.com.
This article originally appeared in the March-April 2017 issue of Tow Canada.