The last few months have thrown the manufacturing world a barrage of curve balls. Trailer makers have seen orders dip, as many fleets have been fiscally cautious in the light of the COVID-19 economic impact. The sudden and fast-moving pandemic affected not only how companies fill orders, but also how they are thinking about the future.
“Currently, inventory on dealer lots is higher than usual,” says Kevin Page, senior vice president of customer value creation at Wabash National, saying the company is working closely with its dealer network. “While customers are managing their capital expenditures closely at the moment, we believe they still want to maintain average equipment ages at reasonable levels to ensure operating efficiency and attract driver talent.”
Adapting to the Pandemic
The pandemic shut down a number of manufacturing facilities, many of which had only started opening up at the time of this writing. With reopenings come changes in how companies must do business.
“We have had to adapt, like many companies, so that we can continue serving our customers,” says David Giesen, vice president of sales at Stoughton Trailers.
But not all plants closed, since the federal definition of essential businesses allowed many manufacturers to remain open.
“Production has declined to one-third of what it was in early March,” says Ken Webb, vice president of dealer sales and marketing at Fontaine Trailer. “We’ve been able to continue manufacturing throughout the entire period.”
Fontaine has been closely following recommendations from its corporate management team, as well as constant updates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and local agencies. The company has limited travel, restricted all non-essential access to its facilities, increased sanitation efforts, and implemented procedures to protect its production team.
When you have multiple manufacturing facilities in different areas throughout North America, the logistics of ensuring cautionary compliance is even more difficult.
Manac Trailers, for instance, has production facilities in Quebec, British Columbia, and Missouri. “We proactively formed a COVID-19 response team within our senior management team to ensure the continuity of our operations while adapting our operations to provide the highest level of safety for our employees,” says Tom Ramsden, vice president of sales. “We have made significant investments in modifying our production and service facilities to be able to implement the various recommendations provided to us from local, provincial/state, and federal health organizations.”
High-Tech, Longer Life, Lower Costs
Carriers are and will be looking for more ways to cut costs, especially with the industry trying to bounce back from the global pandemic. Trailers are no exception, whether that’s saving money with better fuel economy, making trailers last longer with fewer repairs, or operating trailers more efficiently through connectivity and telematics.
Connectivity seems to be a common thread in the trailer community, with buzzwords like “smart trailers” beginning to gain popularity, according to Manac’s Ramsden.
“Our research and development team is working with several key stakeholders and suppliers in the industry to come up with a solution that will provide carriers with trailer-specific information that will help maximize safety and productivity of the equipment,” he says.
“It’s not just GPS, which is really the prior generation of technology,” says Chris Hammond, executive vice president of sales at Great Dane. “Customers want to know more than where the equipment is. They want to know if it’s loaded and with what, is the trailer healthy and ready for dispatch. What’s the real data on my fleet usage and why? The list goes on, and each fleet has their own specific needs for this technology.”
And with more technology comes more data, which can be useful in not only tracking the equipment, but its components as well.
“It’s more and more important to provide fleets remote access in real time to their trailers and monitor key operating features,” says Chris Cooler, product manager of dump trailers at East Manufacturing. “In addition to trailer tracking, these new systems can monitor tire pressure, wheel-end and brake temperatures, lift axles up or down, landing gear up or down, lighting, harness or wiring failure, and, of course, trailer tracking.”
Cooler expects that trailers will need more smart technology in order for the tractor-trailer to be completely monitored, which is a continuing effort for East and its OEM partners.
Utility continues to monitor advances in telematics, and is looking for key component suppliers to embrace a common platform.
“The challenge still is to pull that information on one platform and get it on one bus,” said Craig Bennett, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Utility, at February’s Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting “We’re really watching and seeing what the users are wanting, and they haven’t really coalesced around one thing.”
Aside from the new “connected” trends, the team at Strick Trailers has noticed an increased interest and added preference for van longevity and ease of maintenance.
“The little added extras that mean long-term longevity is something Strick has always taken a great deal of pride in, and this focus has recently increased even more,” says Susan Marvel, vice president of sales and marketing at Strick.
She adds that the autonomous truck focus will also affect trailer development in the future. “It is likely that autonomy within the power unit will require both a smarter trailer — to communicate with the self-operated truck — and fewer trailers in whole.”
New for 2020
Here are some examples of how trailer makers are addressing these demands with their latest trailers:
Strick Trailers introduced the Elevator Trailer at the ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council meeting in February. A combined effort with Mike Palmer, Estes vice president of fleet services and an HDT Truck Fleet Innovator, the Strick Elevator Trailer increases cargo-carrying capacity by 25%.
“The annual cost savings this trailer provides to fleets [provides a return on investment] after only one year,” says Strick’s Marvel. “It will specifically benefit the less-than-truckload carrier and those private fleets that cube out before they weigh out.”
East’s new Narrow Spec Dump Trailer, the NST, is designed for hauling sand and gravel or heavy commodity loads.
“The NST maximizes payload with lighter weight components while still delivering strength and durability to meet the needs of specialized, heavy, dense hauling where you don’t need the cubic capacity,” says Cooler.
The narrow spec dump trailer provides up to one-half ton additional payload compared to a standard aluminum dump trailer, according to the company. When compared to a standard 96-inch-wide dump trailer, it is lighter weight, depending on the options and features.
“We incorporate lightweight and longer-lasting components, and use high-quality premium aluminum alloy in its composition,” adds Cooler.
Fontaine’s latest feature helps reduce downtime and will be available this year.
“Downtime related to rear-end collisions is a fairly common problem for fleets, especially as they operate in heavy traffic,” says Fontaine’s Webb. “Even a minor incident can take a trailer off the road and into the shop for repairs.”
Fontaine engineers developed an aluminum bolt-on bumper for the company’s flagship aluminum trailer, the Fontaine Revolution. The previous bumper design was welded to the trailer structure, making repair times more extensive — the damaged bumper had to be cut off, and a new bumper had to be welded into place.
The new Revolution bumper design bolts in place in minutes and meets current FMVSS/CMVSS standards. Another important feature on the Revolution that helps prevent downtime is the patented RASR Routed Aluminum Side Rail, which withstands impacts 12 times better than the previous industry-standard design, according to the manufacturer.
At Great Dane, the team has focused on future technologies and continues to add to its recent introduction of FleetPulse, the company’s telematics solution.
“We firmly believe this will be the driving force for future success for fleets,” says Hammond, adding that the solution provides “real-time data across a myriad of aspects of the equipment with a long list of future features to come.”
Mac Trailer went lightweight with its all-aluminum, low-profile MLP 8 Mac Flatbed trailer, a low-profile engineered to provide more capacity for general building materials, pipe and palleted general freight loads, allowing for a 101-inch rear door opening when using a curtain side kit. Additionally, the Mac Western Lightweight Dump Trailer was engineered for aggregate haulers, weighing as little as 9,400 pounds at 39 feet. “The Western Lightweight is built in the West, for the West, with customer-specific needs in mind,” says Bill McKenzie, president of sales at Mac Trailer. He also singles out the simple design of the Mac 1000 Cube Two Hopper targeted toward the dense powder industry.
Mac’s Double Drop Tipper was designed for haulers looking to maximize cubic yard capacities, for recyclables, and lightweight commodities.
For 2020, Manac added a new equipment-hauling trailer to its lineup of open deck trailers. “At first glance the trailer resembles that of a traditional step deck trailer,” says Manac’s Ramsden, highlighting the 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating, 36-inch lower deck height, and availability of both painted and fully galvanized finishes.
Wabash’s new product line includes a number of new options, from dry vans to reefers. The MSC Reefer Trailer, short for molded structural composite, yields up to 30% better thermal efficiency, is lighter weight, and has 50% more floor rating, according to the manufacturer.
“Our new product portfolio focuses on addressing the needs of our customers by providing engineered solutions,” says Page. “Our focus on design has been, and will continue to be, lightweight and durable with the lowest total cost of ownership to deliver the highest value.”
Building on the MSC technology, Wabash also introduced the MSC Solar Electric Reefer, powered by eNow Rayfrigeration technology. By partnering with eNow and Carrier, Wabash can now offer a zero-emission reefer with that is both energy- and fuel-efficient.
The push for more fuel-efficient trailers was also advanced by Utility Trailers, with its decision to produce its own aerodynamic devices rather than relying on third-party suppliers.
“We can be sure the life cycle of the products is tested, so we know the products are going to last as long as the trailer lasts,” said Bennett at TMC, referring to the company’s side skirts and recently introduced aerodynamic tail. “The devices have to be durable and yet flexible, and that’s the trick.”
Its side skirts, for example, will flex 45 degrees, and are held in place by a bolted spring-shaped bracket. The Utility Aerodynamic Tail that runs along the trailer wall and roof will open and close automatically with the trailer doors.