Fifth wheels often get taken for granted.
But think about what they have to do: Clamp on to a relatively small metal pin and stay clamped on through all sorts of conditions, even a rollover. If a fifth wheel lets loose of a 60,000-pound loaded trailer going down the highway, you're looking at an expensive mishap at best, if not a fatal tragedy.

"Failure is not an option," says Henry Bell, president of Fontaine Fifth Wheel.

That's why Fontaine Fifth Wheel takes fifth wheel research, development and testing very seriously. The company's new state-of-the-art headquarters in Trussville, Ala., features a 9,000-square-foot R&D lab, which the company says is the largest facility in the world dedicated to research and development of fifth wheels.

Like nearly every company during the recession, Fontaine has had to make significant cutbacks in the last two years, Bell says. "But the one area we didn't decrease a penny was R&D - that's our future."

Testing, Testing

Fontaine conducts extensive testing on its own new and existing fifth wheels and components, and performs benchmark testing on competitors' products. Engineers conduct life-cycle, strength, wear, vibration, environmental and corrosion tests. Testing equipment includes dynamic test stands, a static load test frame, a single-axis shaker table, lock cycle test stand, and corrosion and environmental chambers.

Customers can watch testing from the comfort of a control room, which overlooks the lab from behind shatterproof glass, while a static load test is conducted. In this test, a hydraulic arm, fitted with an extra-strong kingpin that is locked into the fifth wheel, bends the fifth wheel. This tests at what point you get "permanent deformation" and also the fifth wheel's ultimate strength (at what point does it break). It's pretty impressive to watch.

Setting Standards

Fontaine engineers are involved in a committee of the Society of Automotive Engineers to develop U.S. testing standards for fifth wheels. Right now, they said, there is no standard. Most companies have adopted the European standard, and truck makers have their own performance tests, but there is no legal standard in this country.

Fontaine engineers are particularly proud of a unique test stand they've developed, which builds on one of the European tests. In the European test, a two-axis dynamic test, the fifth wheel is moved up and down and backwards and forwards. This simulates the abuse fifth wheels get in a typical over the road application.

However, Fontaine engineers say, if you are looking at an off-road situation, you need a third axis, or lateral movement. Fontaine developed the test based on the stresses and strains put on fifth wheels in one of the toughest applications they could find, a Canadian oil patch. The test will run a million cycles, which takes 10 to 12 days.

Who Needs Ink?

The R&D lab at Fontaine also features a 3D printer, which allows prototypes to be "printed," using a special fine starch powder and glue instead of ink, directly from computer-aided design programs. The lets Fontaine make its own casting patterns for new products, reducing lead times to get prototype castings made.

The 3D printer also comes in handy for making miniature demonstration models for salespeople to take to customers. (I'd hate to see the extra baggage charge for a full-size fifth wheel.)