Electronics and the integration of undercarriage components are working to push trailer productivity up to new levels

Trailers have been largely exempt from the "systems" thinking that is transforming trucks and tractors, fleet operations, and even cross-enterprise business processes. Carrying freight up and down the increasingly complex and sophisticated supply chain, trailers themselves have remained generally untouched by the logistics turmoil swirling around them. Until now.

Two technologies, electronics and the integration of undercarriage components, are converging at the trailer in a true "from the ground up" equipment revolution. "The undercarriage is the point where complexity is focused on a trailer, where most of the moving parts are," observes Jeff Davis, marketing manager for Hendrickson Trailer Suspensions. "ABS, EBS, and tractor-trailer communications all belong on the bogie. Undercarriage component integration coupled with communication capabilities will create new ways for fleets to add value and control operating costs."

Integrating components Hendrickson's integrated suspensions - InTraax, introduced in 1994, and the later VanTraax - are a case in point. "We originally developed the InTraax, with its integrated axle, air suspension, and brake system, as a way to add content and value to our product," says Davis. "VanTraax added the K-2 Slider and other product variations to accommodate it. Integrated undercarriages are the standard in most of the rest of the world, and for good reason.

"Component manufacturers are in the best position to create truly integrated systems cost-effectively, and it's a win for everyone," says Davis. "Trailer manufacturers have greatly reduced ordering, purchasing, and inventory complexity; improved manufacturing efficiency; and reduced product liability.

"Fleets see equipment improvements such as reduced weight and enhanced durability, and the modularity makes parts sourcing and maintenance easier. Many fleets buy trailers from multiple manufacturers to meet regional needs," he adds. "Consistency of undercarriage design across various trailer makes is another plus."

"Let me give you an example," offers Curt Wagner, marketing manager for Hendrickson Trailer Suspensions with responsibility for the ready-to-roll, complete bogie. "Our optional longitudinal air tank is designed specifically for the K-2 Slider, and it fits only with our slider. However, in exchange for that system's exclusivity, customers get more volume, more durability, a cleaner installation, and shorter brake hoses for improved braking performance. By focusing on the whole integrated system, we are able to design-in efficiencies and innovations that are simply not possible otherwise."

Synergies "There are synergies you can't get any other way except through integration," agrees Bob Zirlin, director of marketing for the Worldwide Trailer Products business for Meritor Automotive. Meritor's RHP Highway Parallelogram, introduced in 1997, features a tandem air suspension with integrated slider, trailer axles, and brakes.

"We believe that you can optimize performance by having design control," he explains. "The RHP system, for example, is a sliding tandem system centered around a single, unified frame bracket, rather than two separate trailing arm suspensions on a frame. This results in a very compact suspension, and since the upper and lower control arms are parallel to each other, dock walk is eliminated," Zirlin says.

"With the air springs directly over the axles rather than behind, the RHP also provides a very smooth ride for cargo and drivers, and all system components are easy to access. In other words, taking an integrated approach allowed us to revolutionize the whole 'package' of components to provide a lighter weight, easier to service undercarriage, with enhanced performance characteristics," he notes.

"Apart from the system benefits that can be designed in, there are other benefits," Zirlin explains, "such as one-stop shopping for OEMs and simplified service for fleets. To be honest, in the past there could be some finger pointing between component manufacturers when something went wrong. It was easier to say, 'That's not my component's fault.' With an integrated system, there's no passing the buck.

"Of course, there will be differences between suppliers in terms of aftermarket parts and service support, and fleets are right to be asking tough questions about it," he adds. "As an industry, we are also used to the flexibility of buying individual components, and that won't disappear right away. However, as fleets have the chance to experience the benefits of integrated trailer suspension systems for themselves, we believe they will become the standard here just as they have been for some time in Europe."

Serviceability Good field serviceability was also one of the guiding principles behind the development of Holland Neway's (formerly Neway Anchorlok International, now a part of the Holland Group) integrated air suspension, axle, and brake system, according to Bill Wakefield, director of the Trailer Strategic Business Unit for Neway. "Fleets expect maintenance costs for integrated systems to be as good or better than their current costs for separate components," says Wakefield, "and that was a very critical design concern for us.

"We also felt it was important to bring some new technology, some new advantage to the integrated suspension arena. The iPAC air suspension, axle, and brake package with its unique 'NEWeld' clamped attachment of the suspension to the axle, is designed to merge new technology with the ease of service customers require," he adds.

"The clamped axle connection eliminates the weakest link, which was the weld. This allows use of thinner-walled axles and shorter camshafts, as well as making maintenance easier. The entire system does not have to be replaced if the axle or the suspension is damaged," Wakefield continues, "and the individual components are all familiar to the technician. The only new element is the clamped connection."

Four iPAC models will be available, beginning with the 22,500-lb. and 25,000-lb.-capacity rated models in both top-mount and underslung designs. Later i n the year, Neway plans to introduce an integrated system specifically for the van trailer market that will incorporate the vPAC slider suspension, according to Wakefield. The iPAC system is available only with Spicer axles, but Neway is working with other OEMs to get the NEWeld clamped connection approved for their axles. "The technology is designed to fit on any commercially available axle, regardless of axle design or type," Wakefield notes.

One such supplier, of course, is Holland Binkley, also a part of The Holland Group. "Holland's acquisition of Neway brings some very interesting opportunities for us with their ProPar axles," observes Russ Franks, commercial manager, trailer suspensions, for Neway. "It opens a whole new door."

"There are some obvious synergies and opportunities for collaboration," agrees Larry Stevenson, Holland's marketing manager, suspensions. "We believe there's a strong future for integrated undercarriage systems; the benefits are all there."

"We see the current trend toward integration of trailer undercarriage components as a good thing for fleets," concurs Steve Zaborowski, vp-operations at Xtra Lease. "Besides the enhancements and efficiencies possible from an equipment design perspective, there are benefits on the business side, such as having a single warranty for all the undercarriage components. At Xtra Lease, we view a trailer as a 'freight envelope' so anything that makes that envelope easier and safer to load, less prone to damage, less costly to maintain, and longer-lasting is a benefit to our customers and to us. Integration has the potential to deliver benefits in all these areas."

Smart systems Axles, suspensions, brakes, and sliders are not only coalescing into integrated systems, they're beginning to get "smart" as well, thanks to a parallel revolution taking place in trailer electronics. "The antilock brakes mandate really drove the first trailer electronics stake in the ground," observes Frank Maly, product manager for suspensions at Meritor. "Now there's untethered trailer tracking. Since trailers are really the revenue generators for a fleet, we expect to see this electronics revolution only continue to gain momentum."

"We are confident that systems will continue to evolve, to become more complex in order to add value," agrees Curt Wagner of Hendrickson. "With Control Link (the Air Weigh system), for instance, we can already control four points on the trailer and send back four points of information to the tractor. There's an almost limitless list of things a fleet might want to monitor electronically, such as lining wear, bearing temperature, or tire pressure."

"Fleets are looking to trailer electronics to help them increase their revenue per trailer, not to reduce their trailer-to-tractor ratio," offers Donald Thoma, general manager for Vantage Tracking Solutions. "That's certainly the thinking behind our untethered trailer tracking system. It's also behind the similar electronics revolution going on under the trailer, where manufacturers are moving beyond capturing only 'cargo-centric' information to monitoring various equipment systems on the trailer itself, and to integrating that information with the trailer tracking system.

"As this takes place, fleets will be able to proactively gather and process real information about their trailers that can be used to plan maintenance, improve trailer life, and maximize utilization. Compare this scenario to today, where trailers have often been deployed into a fleet's system without much incoming data about their location, status, or maintenance and repair requirements.

"In order to fully realize this productivity potential, however, we'll need to see a movement toward standards for two-way communications on the trailer side. Think about the progress tractor systems made with a standard data bus, " Thoma adds. "The same thing will happen with trailers.

"As trailer manufacturers and their component suppliers continue to implement and integrate trailer electronics, we'll find new ways to serve our customers, and the uses for our communications channels will grow," he notes. "Eventually, there will be an end-to-end trailer management solution. We're on that launching pad together now with trailer tracking and 'smart' integrated undercarriage systems."

CFI considers trailer equipment trends

As options like integrated undercarriages, untethered trailer tracking systems, and perhaps even 57-ft. trailers become available, fleet owners and managers are asking tough questions. After all, sooner or later, they're going to have to bet more than just equipment capital on staying with the status quo or trying something new. Herb Schmidt, senior vp-sales and marketing for Contract Freighters Inc. (CFI), has become an expert at asking the right questions. His thoughts reflect those of many other fleets as they consider emerging trailer equipment trends:

What are the important issues regarding integrated trailer undercarriage systems?

>From a quality and functionality standpoint, the integration of trailer axles, suspensions, brakes, and sliders can be very good news for fleets. Our questions are about service and cost. Right now, we deal with lots of vendors, and there are lots of aftermarket parts from which to choose. What will the parts and service support be for the various single-source systems? Will we end up waiting for parts and then having to pay expensive experts to install them? The answers, of course, will vary vendor to vendor. At John Deere, for example, they have successfully addressed this issue for the agriculture market with an elaborate parts and service support network. Solving the problem took lots of work, time, money, and coordination, but they did it.

Have you been looking at untethered trailer tracking systems?

We are currently testing both the Vantage and ARINC systems, and we'll look at the HighwayMaster solution when it becomes available. CFI has 2,300 to 2,400 trailers in Mexico on a daily basis, not including the units sitting on the U.S. side of the border with export freight. Almost half our trailer assets are committed to Mexico.

Because of the infrastructure and other factors in Mexico, it is tougher to know exactly where your trailers are, and turn times tend to be longer. If we could improve our turn time by two or three days in Mexico, it would be a huge advantage.

Our biggest question is, "How are we going to utilize the untethered trailer tracking capability in order to gain enough efficiencies to pay for the systems? How are we going to use the information?" Adding value and holding costs for our customers is the best possible scenario.

We're also asking things like, "Are the units durable? Theft proof? Do they hold up to extremes of weather and temperature? Will the batteries really deliver eight to ten weeks of power in the untethered mode? How well do they recharge? And how long do the batteries last?" It is a due diligence process. We have to prove to ourselves that we can convert technology to revenue.

What has your experience been with trailer air suspensions? They are making fast marketshare gains, even on dry vans.

To my knowledge, we were the first 100% trailer air ride fleet. That was about nine years ago. Back then, the issue was cargo damage. Our damage frequency was virtually eliminated when we went to air ride suspensions.

There were other benefits, too, however. Drivers loved the ride, maintenance costs dropped, and trailer life improved. Today there's no question about whether or not we're going to spec air ride suspensions for our trailers.

What trailer equipment trends would you like to see?

Anything that enhances trailer strength and reduces weight. Let me give you an example. In plate-type van trailers, loads of tires are laced in rather than on pallets. Over time, the tires tend to settle and push out the sides of the trailer. Rolls of carpet can do much the same thing. By the time the driver makes a carpet delivery, the trailer may have actually "expanded" beyond the legal 102-in.-width limit.

Trailers, like all other parts of the trucking business, are constantly evolving. For fleets, that means there are always new questions, too. Asking good questions is just a part of the carrier's job.