Trailer trends

| December 12, 2008

Dry vans, reefers and flatbeds continue to evolve as lighter materials make way for heavier loads and better revenue.

As prices of fuel and raw materials rise again, trailer makers have more incentive than ever to reduce weight without compromising strength and durability. New plastics, creative designs and lightweight aluminum are enabling customers to hold down fuel costs and maximize payloads.

aluminum are enabling customers to hold down fuel costs and maximize payloads.

A new product from Transcraft demonstrates the industry’s ongoing efforts to pare weight from its products. Transcraft’s three-axle revamp of its D-Eagle drop deck steel/aluminum combo allows a driver to add 2,000 more pounds of cargo than the trailer’s previous incarnation.

The trailer has a base weight of 12,900 pounds; spec it with all-steel features and a wooden floor, and you’re looking at 14,400 pounds. But if you order an aluminum floor, side rails, front and rear plates and cross members, you cut the weight to 11,400 pounds. Spec’ing aluminum wheels and Centrifuse drums drops another 600 pounds.

Another equipment choice that reduces fuel costs by saving weight and reducing friction is the use of wide single tires instead of duals. Singles have been making inroads for years within the trailer industry, says Tracey Maynor, vice president of branch sales and operations at Great Dane. Still, singles are “a long way from being standard,” he says.

Unfortunately, the same materials that cut weight and conserve fuel are becoming more expensive. Aluminum is in high demand, and parts that are petroleum-based, such as the synthetic rubber seals that keep reefers airtight, are subject to volatile oil prices.

“Costs have gone up considerably,” says Transcraft spokesman David DePoincy, adding that rising prices for materials have added an average $1,300 per trailer in the past year.

The growing U.S. economy, though, means trailer sales will hit at least 260,000 units this year, with higher numbers expected in 2007, says Ken Vieth of A.C.T. Research in Indiana, which tracks the trucking industry. Those figures are up from the roughly 250,000 trailers sold in 2005 but don’t come near the record 307,000 units sold in 1999.

A.C.T. says manufacturers shipped 61,616 trailers during the first quarter of 2006, up 3 percent from the same period in 2005. More than 7,150 of those were flatbeds, an 18 percent jump from the previous year.

Here are some of the recent innovations in the major trailer segments.

Dry vans and reefers make up as much as 70 percent of the trailer market, the rest being flatbeds, tankers, dumps and other specialty trailers.

Wabash National shook up the dry van market 10 years ago with its DuraPlate trailers that use a composite panel system made of steel skins bonded to a high-density plastic core. The market has since expanded as other companies followed with similar designs. Still, one in every three dry vans sold in the United States is a DuraPlate, according to Tom Rodak of Wabash.

In 2003, Wabash introduced the DuraPlate HD, which added a heavy-duty base plate at the bottom of the walls. The additional layer helps prevent punctures from forklifts on the interior and from sideswipes on the exterior.

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