It’s been nearly three years since Wabash National Corp. displayed the first trailer made of its proprietary molded structural composite – MSC for short, or “plastic,” as I called it when I reported on it at that time. As officials promised during a press conference during a TMC show, copies of the trailer and a similarly constructed truck body have slowly emerged from the company’s plant in Lafayette, Indiana, and placed with partner fleets for testing.
It’s evidently a slow and deliberate process, because last week Wabash announced that it has produced its 100th trailer and 100th truck body, both called Cold Chain because they are designed for refrigerated service with insulated walls, floors and ceilings.
That trailer was built for K&B Transport, one of Wabash National’s launch partners, and delivered through Wick’s Truck Trailers Inc. Wick’s has locations in Nebraska and Missouri, while K&B, a perishables carrier, is headquartered in South Sioux City in the Corn Husker state. The 100th MSC truck body was placed with an unnamed carrier that specializes in deliveries of perishable food products.
Wabash said that in April 2017, it opened a facility in Little Falls, Minnesota, to produce MSC panels for truck bodies and trailers as long as 53 feet. That tells me it’s pretty serious about the MSC venture and rather confidant in the viability of this futuristic material.
But in my mind it’s back to the future, for back in the 1980s there was another series of plastic trailers, flatbeds made by Trail King. The first concept trailer was shown to wide-eyed attendees at a truck show in California. Colored bright yellow and with a swoopy underbody, it looked like a cigarette speed boat. It drew a lot of attention and many snide remarks from truckers who pointed out that a forklift couldn’t get close enough to put a load aboard.
They missed the point, which was the vehicle’s composite plastic construction: It was lighter than steel or even aluminum and impervious to road salts, the company said. Normal-looking flatbeds could be had with all-composite construction including main beams, except of course the metal upper coupler and running and landing gear; or with steel main beams encased in composites. Alas, it didn’t last long on the market because this construction was radically different, and there were questions about who could repair the unusual material. Therefore, few fleets bought the trailers and Trail King dropped the products.
Here’s another flashback: Looking at today’s Wabash MSC side panels reminds me of FRP-plywood trailers and truck bodies from the 1970s and ‘80s. FRP means fiberglass-reinforced plastic, which had a gel coated surface like MSC. The plywood inside the FRP was cheap, strong and stiff, and the interior walls were smooth to resist scuffing. For a while they were popular as dry vans. However, the plywood was heavy and when scraped and punctured, walls required special materials and techniques to repair. FRP plywood is still used today, but mostly in truck bodies.
From what Wabash National engineers say, molded structural composite is far more advanced than FRP; among other things, MSC is lighter than conventional construction with metal main frames, and MSC effectively encapsulates foam insulation in the panels so inside temperatures are efficiently maintained. As to repairability from everyday whacking, we’ll have to see.