With the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and the distinct possibility of a “Roaring ’20s” style economic boom on the horizon, trailer orders have ticked upwards in the past few months. Fleets are not only trying to catch up from the replacement lag inflicted by the pandemic, but also in anticipation of busy times to come as the country regains its economic footing.
At the same time, trailer makers have been busy not only incorporating new technological concepts into their designs, but also expanding on traditional design characteristics, such as lighter weight and enhanced durability. The new generation of trailers is smarter, greener, more connected, and safer – but also as lightweight and as durable as possible.
“A recurring theme in the trailer market now is record demand,” says Troy Geisler, vice president of sales and marketing at Talbert Manufacturing. “From manufacturers to end users, businesses are being pushed to their limits to meet customer needs while also facing significant, pandemic-related challenges along the way. Staffing and supply line interruptions make production timelines a moving target, and we don’t expect this to change soon, making flexibility an important virtue for manufacturers, dealers and end users alike. At Talbert, we’ve had to adapt and evolve our processes and staffing on an almost daily basis, ensuring the health and safety of our employees while maintaining the high standards of quality and service our customers have come to expect.”
Increased demand, combined with other factors, is altering trailer life cycles in fleet operations, as well. Not that long ago, the 10-year trailer was a lofty goal. Today, the expected lifespan of a trailer at many fleets is as long as 12 or even 15 years.
“Trailer life cycles are extending, partly because many fleets cannot get the quantity of trailers they need with the over-demand for new trailers,” says David Giesen, VP of sales at Stoughton Trailers. “Age of fleet actually significantly improved in the last few years, so the industry is starting from a good position to run a little longer.”
Jon Karel, VP of national accounts at Strick Trailers, says the company is working with some customers to extend trailer life out even further.
“Strick Trailers does work with customers and fleets that seek to extend the life of their trailers to a 15- to 20-year lifespan,” he says. “We are able to achieve these longevity goals by including added extras like galvanizing and longer warranties on some components.”
Durability trends also apply to the inside of the trailer. Some trailer makers, for example, have implemented flush-mount logistics tracks in trailer walls to keep cargo and forklifts from snagging and potentially causing damage.
Talbert’s Geisler agrees that replacement cycle recommendations for over-the-road trailers are lengthening.
“Previously, it was a seven to 10-year cycle. Then manufacturers extended that based on better information. They are tracking mileage, maintenance, and how trailers are being used, incorporating all the data to extend the life of those types of trailers.”
He points out that lowboys have always offered a much longer lifecycle — several decades in some cases.
“That’s a long-term investment, which is why we always ask a lot of questions up front to make sure we’re providing a trailer that will grow with the customer,” Geisler says. “It’s important to know an operation’s coverage area, trailer usage, and how far they’re traveling with the load. Additionally, we want to discuss preventative maintenance practices and if they’re addressing issues on the spot, before they translate into more costly, dangerous repairs. Knowing these things helps us design and manufacture a trailer that will not only meet immediate hauling needs but also provide reliable service 20 years down the road.”
The war on weight
Balancing the need for long life with the need among many fleets for lighter-weight trailers is hardly a new design challenge, and it’s a battle that continues today. New lighter-weight materials made of cutting-edge composites, as well as new design philosophies, are helping to deliver the lightest, most durable trailers in history.
“The need to reduce weight for increased payload in addition to increased fuel economy is still a key issue with platform trailers,” says Mark Sabol, product manager for flatbed trailers at East Manufacturing. “Light weight is a portion of the benefit, as is development of better aerodynamics to increase fuel efficiency. Fuel efficiency is important not only when running loaded but also when one is in a deadhead operation between loads.”
For dry van and refrigerated trailers, lightweight composites are coming more into play.
Strick Trailers continues to explore new composite materials for use in development and design.
“Requests in 2021 for composite materials has increased as the fleets concentrate on added longevity by fighting corrosion, especially in the Great Lakes and Northeast [United States],” Karel says. “Increased concentration on lightweight dry vans continues to be an important issue for private fleets and carriers and will continue to be into the foreseeable future. The advancement of the EV tractor market with the increase in weight and additional power storage needs has helped to drive these added lightweight requirements in 2021.”
Wabash says its latest composite panels have been able to cut 300 pounds out of a dry van, according to Aaron Smith, dry vans product manager.
Weight will always be a discussion point when it comes to trailer purchase, design and manufacturing, Geisler says. “Equipment loads continue to get bigger, taller, wider and heavier. Trucks are evolving to meet stricter emission standards, as well, which increases weight. All of this comes at a cost to the trailer.”
When referencing the types of loads Talbert trailers are hauling, the weight-versus-strength equation has a different answer.
“You need steel to move steel,” Geisler says. “Without it, you can come to some unsafe practices. That’s why Talbert’s heavy-haul trailers are manufactured with 100,000-psi minimum yield steel, which allows the most capacity with the smallest impact on trailer weight.”
Lightweighting seems to be important for most fleets – but not in every circumstance, says Barry Personett, VP of product and sales engineering at Great Dane.
“We have some customers, particularly in beverage operations, who are looking to reduce weight as much as possible,” he explains. “In some cases, customers are interested in lightweighting for fuel economy, but generally it is to haul more freight. If they cube out before they weigh out, though, customers don’t seem too concerned about weight.”
Smarter, connected trailers
While much of the “smart trailer” discussion has revolved around van trailers, Ken Webb, vice president of dealer sales at Fontaine Trailer, says the company is carefully watching the development of “smart” technology, particularly as it relates to the flatbed industry. Fontaine Trailer is working with sister companies that have developed technology that will be offered in the industry soon, as well as working with vendors on developing other technologies.
“As ‘connected’ as company tractors are to their headquarters today, it’s only a matter of time before all the trailer-related data begins to be collected and distributed so the industry can begin to look at predictive maintenance and other operating factors,” Webb says.
At East Manufacturing, fleet customers are telling the company that it’s becoming more and more important to have remote access in real time to their trailers and monitor key operating features. This, says East’s
Sabol, includes increased use of GPS and similar tracking equipment by fleets, dovetailing with the use of smart technology in trailers.
“We expect that trailers will need more smart technology for the tractor-trailer to be completely monitored and for the trailer to communicate efficiency with the tractor,” Sabol says. “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, [and] harness or wiring failure.”
Strick has had some requests from customers to implement smart trailer technology or components on groups of trailers, and interest is growing.
“Many fleets continue to look at smart trailers for the future,” Karel adds. “But we are seeing more and more technology finding its way onto trailers,” he notes. This year, for example, the company has been installing an increased number of backup cameras on dry van trailers.
With the rise of automated, “smart” warehouses, the vehicles operating during the deliveries are also going to need to be “smart,” said Chris Hoyt, FleetPulse product manager at Great Dane, in a company blog. “You’ll want to avoid breakdowns in the chain; you want to know if it’s full, if it’s broken down, etc. You can think of the trailers as mini-warehouses on wheels; they’re part of that whole autonomous, smart system.”
Beginning later this year, and ramping up in intensity through 2025, are a new round of regulations from the California Air Resource Board targeting emissions from transport refrigeration units. Among them are stringent new anti-idling laws that will severely limit diesel-powered refrigeration units on new trailers. But that’s not all that’s on the table. And as the old saying goes, when it comes to emissions, as goes California, so goes the rest of the country.
“If GHG2 is resurrected or CARB GHG and ECCC (Canada) GHG become effective, these will require changes in design across the board,” Karel explains. “Currently, aero devices, tire inflation systems and low-rolling-resistance tires are considered ‘options’ for many fleets.”
Strick’s understanding is that the next round of CARB regulations will affect refrigeration units rather than dry van trailers. And, Karel notes, while trailer OEMs do install these, it is the TRU suppliers that will need to make certain their units are in compliance.
There are other regulations besides emissions-related ones that fleets need to be aware of.
Some conversations continue regarding side underride guards, for example, which could reduce cargo capacity due to added weight, Karel says.
Strengthened rear underride guards have also been a topic of proposed legislation, although major trailer makers have already been providing guards that exceed legal requirements. In 2018, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded its top underride guard rating to Great Dane, Hyundai Translead, Manac, Stoughton Trailers, Strick Trailers, Utility Trailer Manufacturing, Vanguard National Trailer, and Wabash National, representing 80% of trailers on the road. And earlier this year, Utility encouraged customers who own trailers produced after 2002 to retrofit with the company’s standard 7-inch-deep horizontal rear underride guard in order to exceed all rear trailer guard safety regulations.
In the heavy-haul arena, Geisler says, Talbert doesn’t see any new regulations that will affect new-trailer specs. “However, with the recent focus on infrastructure and bridges in particular, we are closely monitoring discussions that might impact our customers.”
The Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association is advocating for more standardization in bridge regulations across the country, he says.
“They are working with officials, legislators and other organizations in an attempt to bring state and federal regulations more in line with one another so operators can move from coast-to-coast more easily,” he says. “If states do change their bridge law requirements, that would definitely drive design changes for Talbert and other heavy-haul trailer manufacturers.”
With the economy opening back up, trailer OEMs – like pretty much any other manufacturing in the country – are struggling to obtain many of the critical components needed to maintain efficient production schedules at a time when demand for trailers is spiking. They caution fleets to take this production crunch into consideration when ordering or waiting for new trailers.
“Component and material shortages, along with shipping delays, will adversely affect production for many months to come,” Stoughton’s Giesen says.
Fontaine’s Webb confirms. “The supply chain is a daily concern for production,” he says. “Components are promised, but delivery is intermittent at times as a result of suppliers not receiving their material or issues with freight deliveries. Availability of the necessary manpower to be able to ramp up production [also] seems to be an issue across the board up and down the supply chain.”
Component shortages are affecting production on an almost hourly basis, Talbert’s Geisler adds.
“There’s a never-ending series of delays from our suppliers to their suppliers and throughout the entire supply chain,” he says. “Thankfully, we’ve been able to adjust our process to accommodate these challenges and haven’t had to hold up production completely. Last year we were able to build over 1,200 trailers, and demand has remained strong so far in 2021.”
This article originally appear in the July 2021 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking. Includes additional reporting from Deborah Lockridge.