Trailer trends

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.

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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.

Utility Trailer’s most popular dry van is the 4000D-X, which accounted for nearly half the company’s dry van output in 2005. The van uses an aluminum exterior skin with steel interior panels separated by a plastic core. Its white galvanized high-strength interior lining panels have smooth surfaces to prevent snags.

The plywood/steel wall segment is shrinking, says Brett Olsen of Utility Trailer. Plywood walls tend to puncture easily, leaving splinters on the floor of the trailer and in loads, he says. The “thin wall” design soon will be standard on Utility trailers, Olsen says.

Great Dane Trailers has PunctureGuard , a thin wall plastic liner that falls in line with the tough but lightweight market. It has sold 7 million square feet of the product as lining and scuffboard material, since its inception.

Since refrigeration units require fuel, energy efficiency can matter more than height and weight factors in specing. If a reefer is not well insulated, fuel costs per mile will be miserable as the reefer engine runs ragged to cool the trailer. Foam insulation is commonly used in reefer fans, but the results have been shaky. There have been occasions where some foams absorbed water and lost much of their insulating ability, or their closed-cell bubbles burst, leaking inert gas.

Tom Rodak of Wabash says the ArticLite uses a computer-controlled foaming process that blows the insulating chemical horizontally into all areas of the skin, thus eliminating voids where air can circulate and transfer heat into the interior. ArticLite has exclusive use of SolarGuard, a fiberglass reinforced material used as the roof of the trailer rather than aluminum. Rodak says the technology saves energy because the roof does not absorb solar UV rays as would a metal-based roof. Wabash has used the product since 1998.

Additionally, Wabash and other makers use a plastic-based Bulitex subpan as a floor to not only reduce weight but to protect the floor and insulation from moisture damage.

Great Dane’s most popular refrigerated trailer is the SuperSeal Reefer, known for light weight and structural integrity, the company says. Options include a stainless steel exterior that helps prevent sidewall punctures.

In 2005, Great Dane introduced ThermoGuard, a moldable plastic liner designed to extend the life of the trailer by cutting the thermal degradation within the trailer’s insulation. The company has produced more than 1,000 refers with the lining, an offshoot of PunctureGuard.

Maynor says clients within the food service industry prefer ThermoGuard moreso than truckload carriers. “Their primary concern is food product,” he says, adding that his reefer’s temperature control is very precise.

Chad Lee of Walker’s Trailer Sales in Monroe, La., specializes in flatbeds, lowboys and drop decks, along with log trucks and dumps, and business has been brisk, Lee says. With its sister location in Tennessee, the store sells Transcraft, Sturdy-Lite and Doonan trailers, among others.

Tankers, too, are selling well, thanks to oil companies scrambling to move crude oil to refineries, says Vieth of A.C.T. Research.

Walker’s main customers are owner-operators, many of whom want some zing with their choice. Customers request extra lights, tie-downs, aluminum wheels, chrome siding and souped-up rear panels over lights.

“They want to make it stand out,” Lee says. “The more it shines, and the more it flashes, the more they like it.”

Prices vary widely, from $20,000 for a bare-bones trailer to $250,000 for a unit that can haul more than 200 tons. “We don’t get too many of those,” Lee says.

In a growing economy, platform trailers haul the construction equipment and heavy materials needed for manufacturing, buildings and roads.

Fontaine Trailers added to this market in 2005 with the introduction of its Phantom all-aluminum flatbed. The trailer’s bottom flange and web are single-piece extrusion, thus eliminating welding. Added was a 12-inch flange said to eliminate side-to-side sway. The Phantom X is beam-rated at 110,000 pounds.

Fontaine’s Infinity AX, which debuted two years ago, relies heavily on weight-saving aluminum parts. Fontaine spokesmen Toby Harris and Buck Buchanan say the company will introduce trailers in 2007 that will “revolutionize” the marketplace, but they declined to elaborate.