Equipment

How Low Can Flatbeds Go?

The challenge to design trailers with absolute minimal tare weight with the ability to haul such a wide array of loads under grueling conditions is daunting.

April 2018, TruckingInfo.com - Department

by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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While the flatbed market looks strong early in 2018, recent moves by the Trump administration could drive prices up and affect supply later in the year. Photo: East Manufacturing
While the flatbed market looks strong early in 2018, recent moves by the Trump administration could drive prices up and affect supply later in the year. Photo: East Manufacturing

It’s likely that the first-ever wagon invented by humans was a flatbed design. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but it stands to reason: A flatbed trailer is the very model of simplicity, flexibility and efficiency. And modern flatbeds today are stunning examples of modern design: No frills, functional, and tough.

But the true wonder in flatbeds has to be the delta between how incredibly light modern designs are and the payloads they haul. You’ll find heavy-duty flatbed trailers hauling everything from construction and mining machines that take up every inch of available deck space on the unit — and then some — down to steel coils that concentrate an enormous amount of weight into a very small area of the trailer. The challenge to design trailers with absolute minimal tare weight with the ability to haul such a wide array of loads under grueling conditions is daunting. But, doing so is a must, for weight-focused flatbed haulers nationwide.

A look at the flatbed market

And the demand for flatbeds is strong. Dave de Poincy, president of East Manufacturing, says his company is looking for a flatbed market of around 28,000 units this year. “Currently,” he says, “East has a record backlog, and we’ve experienced five record months of sales orders in a row. All the projections we’re hearing from our fleet customers are positive and they’re a good spring with regard to flatbed freight and high demand. So we are looking for these trends to generate both higher profits for fleets and nice orders for flatbed trailer suppliers.”

However, on the day Craig Bennett, senior vice president, sales and marketing for Utility Trailers, spoke to HDT for this story, President Trump had just announced new import tariffs on steel and aluminum coming into the United States, which he said could cool off the hot flatbed market. “This is just happening,” Bennett said, “so we’ll have to see how everything plays out. But this move could certainly drive the costs of the ingots of steel and aluminum coming into the country up. And it could make those resources more scarce. Obviously, both of those responses to the tariffs could cause price adjustments and availability issues with flatbed trailers the remainder of the year. It’s a situation that we manufacturers will have to monitor closely.”

Flatbed manufacturers have adopted many weight-saving features, including aluminum outer legs on landing gears, aluminum landing gear braces, and aluminum air tanks, which also often help prevent corrosion. Photo: Watkins Trucking
Flatbed manufacturers have adopted many weight-saving features, including aluminum outer legs on landing gears, aluminum landing gear braces, and aluminum air tanks, which also often help prevent corrosion. Photo: Watkins Trucking

The race to save weight

International economic intrigue aside, don’t look for flatbed fleets to stop running any time soon. Watkins Trucking is a specialized flatbed fleet running all 48 states out of Birmingham, Alabama. Founder and President Wayne Watkins says the diverse nature of his payloads means trailer tare weight is a major concern for him when updating his fleet. “We run about 85 tractors and 180 flatbed trailers — all Utility Trailers,” Watkins says. “And we haul everything from steel beams and rebar, to steel coils and construction machinery. So our trailers have to be both lightweight and durable.”

Watkins says his latest additions have been Utility’s newest 4000AE flatbed, a combination steel-aluminum design. He says the way he’s spec’ing them today, the new 53-foot trailers are about 800 pounds lighter than previous models, with the 48-foot units about 400 pounds lighter — comparable to all-aluminum designs. “Overall, I like the simplicity of the Utility design and its functionality. It’s an extremely lightweight flatbed, but there are still steel crossmembers that provide excellent durability — which matches our applications perfectly.”

Craig Bennett says Watkins’ comments are a validation of the marching orders Utility engineers received when they were given the go-ahead to start work on the 4000AE design. He says all Utility designs have to be at least as light, if not lighter, than the model they are intended to replace, which proved to be a challenge for the 4000AE’s design team. “We felt a combination aluminum-steel design made more sense, since we felt we could target the same weight as all-aluminum designs while retaining high strength. But it still took us four or five attempts to finally get there!”

These are tough trends for other trailer builders as well, says Bill Wallace, platform manager for East Manufacturing, who notes that everything from new de-icing agents used on highways today and changing market conditions are driving suppliers to more lightweight designs.

“Today, we’re designing our flatbed trailers with a whole host of weight-saving features, including aluminum outer legs on landing gears, aluminum landing gear braces, aluminum air tanks,” he says. “And these features are quickly becoming the new standards in the industry.”

The final 4000AE design, Bennett notes, cuts weight while coming in stronger than the previous Utility flatbed model, and includes a standard coil package and new LED lights, which Watkins also approves of. “I don’t like to see protruding lights,” he says, because they tend to get broken off or smashed when drivers throw straps across a load. But they’re also brighter and safer, which I like as well.

“Everybody makes a really good flatbed today,” Watkins says. “For me, it really comes down to how you spec them and all the little idiosyncrasies we all like to have on our equipment. I like a simple design and don’t really go wild on my specs, other than adding active tire pressure management systems. But all the suppliers are really focused on weight today. And that’s good. Because that is the most crucial design component there is, if you’re a flatbed fleet.” 

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