Trailers in transition

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These are challenging times in this industry. I spend most of my time on airplanes, trying to find people willing to buy equipment. There‘s a lot of hesitation in the dry freight sector - and uncertainty freezes buying. That‘s why trailers must be more economical than ever - to be lighter yet withstand abuse is critical.” -Craig Bennett, senior vice president-sales and marketing, Utility Trailer Manufacturing Company


Times are tough all around in trucking, no doubt about it. The combination of high fuel prices, higher equipment costs (due to costly emission reduction mandates) and slumping freight volume is taking a horrendous toll on truckers large and small. According to recent data, some 1,900 trucking operations shut down in the first six months of this year due to the caustic business environment we‘re in.


So what‘s an equipment manufacturer to do? Well, if you make trailers for a living, it seems you boil your strategy down largely to one word: innovation.


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(Hyundai's new HT Composite XT trailer.)


That‘s what I‘ve seeing of late in the trailer market, anyways: a steady stream of new products and features designed to make trailers lighter, last longer, offer the potential for fuel economy improvements, and in general offer more value for the money.


Let‘s start with Hyundai Translead‘s newest product, the HT Composite XT trailer. One of its key new features is an extended scuff rail to prevent forklift damage, so if a forklift happens to hit the lower inside wall of the trailer known as the “damage zone,” the forklift will hit the extended extra tough aluminum bottom rail, not the composite sidewall panels, Stuart James, Hyundai‘s vice president if sales, told me at the Great American Truck Show last week.


[James explains this in the video below - it‘s much easier to show how this benefits fleets rather than try to describe it with words.]




The rail also includes a centrally located external rib for increased stiffness and scrape resistance, with the bottom rail and extended scuff both having interior and exterior ribs for greater protection to the fasteners while adding strength and rigidity, James said. He also noted that HT Composite XT also comes standard with Hyundai‘s HT Corrosion Resistance Package, mainly to help resist the damage caused by long exposure to de-icing chemicals used on the highways in winter.


“Forklift damage is overcome with this product, giving peace of mind to purchasers that their trailers can be used to maximum efficiency, with corrosion protection in place as well,” he said. All achieved while maintaining a full 101.5-inch panel-to-panel interior width, so the composite design provides a larger cubic capacity resulting in increased productivity, revenue and ensuring a faster return on investment. “This results in less downtime, increased utilization, and greater profits,” said James.


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(Hyundai also offers a completely tricked out "SmartWay" trailer, designed to help fleets maximize fuel economy and obtain SmartWay certification from the Environmental Protection Agency.)


Finally, to make its products even more cost effective for customers, Hyundai offers a standard five-year warranty and a 10-year limited warranty on the composite sidewall panels. Not a bad deal for fleets looking to maximize the usable life of their trailers.


Fellow Californian Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co. is following the same “life cycle value” path with the launch of its 4000 D-X Composite trailer, slated begin production in January 2009 at the company‘s manufacturing facilities in Paragould, Ark., and Glade Spring, Va.


Craig Bennett, Utility‘s senior vice president-sales & marketing, explained during a press conference at the show last week that the side walls of the 4000 D-X Composite offer the same durability traits of a common plate trailer, plus added performance characteristics such as more payload capability, load securement versatility and longer life expectancy.


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(The new 4000 D-X Composite trailer.)


Utility built it‘s own research and development center in Southern California for some $15 million, complete with a brutal figure-eight test track designed to torture trailers to failure (that‘s the responsibility of Craig‘s engineering genius relative Jeff Bennett). Those tests assured Utility that though its new composite dry van trailer may offer lower tare weight - some 500 to 1,000 pounds compared to a plate trailer - it can withstand the same level of workday punishment, lasting some 20 years, according to their destructive test results.


“You need to be light today,” Craig Bennett explained. “You‘re dragging weight around behind the tractor, whether empty or loaded. So the lower weight of the 4000 D-X Composite translates either into 0.2% fuel economy improvement or the opportunity to haul more revenue-generating freight.”


The key to that light weight is the bonded construction of the composite side, combining a sheet and post design with a polyurethane foam core that structurally bonds the interior lining panels to the outside skin panels providing side wall durability, strength and lower tare weight. The primary advantage in Utility‘s polyurethane foam core over the polyethylene core found in common plate trailers is that polyurethane has a much lower density - thus translating to a lower weight trailer.


All this while maintaining the 101-inch side-to-side width for maximum cube, said Bennett. “Cube is what it is all about today,” he said. “You have to get it in to haul it. If fleets can‘t get the freight into the trailer, they don‘t like that.”


Great Dane Trailers out of Savannah, GA, has also followed the innovation path these last few years, rolling out a steady stream of new features to help fleets reduce fuel and maintenance costs.


The company showed off its most popular platform trailer, the Freedom, at the Great American Trucking Show - a trailer equipped with ArvinMeritor‘s RSS (Roll Stability Support) to help reduce the occurrence of rollovers. It also features CorroGuard, a spray-in-place thermoplastic elastomer coating applied to suspensions and support gear to offer long-term protection from road abrasion and corrosion.


Great Dane noted that the 48-foot Freedom -- specifically designed for the company‘s “in stock” program - is a combination steel and aluminum trailer that offers the advantage of getting competitive weight and price without sacrificing strength and durability. The rear crossmember is constructed of extruded aluminum to save weight and reduce maintenance costs, while reinforcements in critical stress areas provide additional strength without adding unnecessary weight to the trailer design as a whole.


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(The Super Seal, built by Great Dane.)


The company also showed off one of its 53-foot Super Seal trailers, featuring not only CorroGuard but Great Dane‘s ThermoGuard thermoplastic interior lining. Developed several years ago, this liner material helps maximize the usefulness of the trailer by reducing the thermal degradation that occurs with conventional reefer linings - allowing the insulation to perform effectively year after year, extending productivity and the trailer‘s useful lifecycle, the company noted. It also helps lower operational costs as the cooling unit will run less, thus consuming less fuel and requiring less maintenance.


It all goes to show that trailer makers are noting standing still - they continue to push the envelope, to find new ways to increase the value their products can bring to customers larger and small. The real question is, can they keep doing it in the face of high commodity costs and the downturn in trucking?


“My heart tells me next year will be better - but then my head tells me there‘s still a lot of uncertainty,” Utility‘s Craig Bennett said. “We hope commodity prices will lower, with high steel and aluminum costs leveling out next year. Those commodity costs have continued to accelerate and that makes it tough on manufacturers.”


Indeed - but it doesn‘t seem to be slowing them down in terms of product development. That‘s a good thing for truckers.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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