The long & short of it

What they lack in the glamour department, semi-trailers more than make up for in practicality. No one will ever brag about their horsepower or boast of their turning circle. Yet without trailers trucking would be all about playing not working with trucks.

What they lack in the glamour department, semi-trailers more than make up for in practicality. No one will ever brag about their horsepower or boast of their turning circle. Yet without trailers trucking would be all about playing — not working — with trucks.

There's no getting around these boxes on wheels are the business end of every rig. That's why fancy options seldom hold much appeal. But how long trailers last and how easy and inexpensive they are to maintain does matter greatly to fleet owners.

Reduced maintenance — which impacts both life-cycle cost and trade-in value and is itself influenced by reliability — is probably the central concern to most fleet operations.

Many trailers are seldom in the direct care of their owners. So the less maintenance they need, the better.

“There are three types of buyers,” says Brad Schultz, director of trailer sales for Reinke. “Price buyers, who are only interested in the price; value buyers, who research components and expected life cycle values to find the right fit for their business needs; and finally what I call the relationship buyer, who relies heavily on his trusted equipment dealer to guide decisions when making purchases.”

Schultz contends application and maintenance helps determine length of ownership as much as the type of trailer involved. He notes that value-added components that can extend life and reduce maintenance, such as full LED lighting packages and longer-warranted wheel end components, are gaining ground — presumably with value and relationship buyers alike.

Rod Erlich, CTO of Wabash, says “maintenance and reduced operating costs are, of course, a primary concern for customers” but he allows, “some companies do purchase on price.”

Erlich says Wabash is making inroads to lengthen trailer life and improve serviceability on the undercarriage.

“Our DuraPlate trailer has proven to last over 10 years,” he states. “Now, we're pursuing components and technologies that reduce or eliminate maintenance in the undercarriage for 10 years. From a component standpoint, lights and suspensions are undergoing a great deal of change currently.”

“We don't foresee any problems with regulatory issues upcoming,” Erlich continues. “The biggest challenge over the next five years will be developing technologies and components that eliminate or reduce trailer maintenance.”

Certainly, some fleets like to figure out what works best for them — from stem to stern in the case of P.A.M. Transport's trailers.

According to Carl Tapp, P.A.M.'s vp-maintenance, since 2001 the company's truckload trailer specs have benefited from trying out a few trailers loaded with the latest technologies. The fleet ran them long enough to determine which developments held the greatest promise and which were not worth the extra cost.

Tapp says a large part of the fleet's business is hauling automotive parts, which can be tough on van trailers. “We want equipment with long life but also want it to require less maintenance or at least longer maintenance intervals,” Tapp points out.

To that end, he initially spec'd out one “technology trailer” to try out various new features meant to boost life and/or reduce maintenance. Eventually, to broaden the sample size, a few more such trailers went into service as well.

Items that proved out on the tech trailers and have become P.A.M. standard specs include “the most advanced” Bridgestone radial tires, the Meritor Tire Inflation System by PSI, Accuride powder-coated wheels, LED lighting, a new type of plastic interior lining as well as composite door panels. P.A.M. also upgraded its Qualcomm system to include untethered trailer tracking.

Specs that did not make the final cut because the savings weren't substantial enough included brand switches on some components and a composite flooring that wasn't better than wood.

“We ran the trailers for about two years before considering the results,” Tapp notes. “If there was no distinct advantage from a spec, we did not adopt it.

“Some were no-brainers,” he continues, “like LED lighting, which is no longer cost-prohibitive.”

Other specs had to be seen in action to be appreciated. Among the winners were the composite door panels. For one thing, Tapp says the shop crew liked that these doors “did not triple in weight” [from water infusion] while in service. And these doors were hung with aluminum hinges that broke off “before the door itself could get mangled.”

Tapp says that P.A.M. runs some 4,500 trailers for its 1800 tractors and has purchased “close to 3,000” Great Dane or Wabash units boasting the various proven specs.

Mark Roush, director of engineering for Vanguard National Trailer Corp., says the OE “tries to galvanize as much of the steel on the trailer, vs. just painting it, as possible to help resist corrosion caused by the harsher winter-road chemicals now in wide use. The best approach is to ‘dip’ entire assemblies to protect areas that paint will not reach.”

Roush says another key choice for buyers is composite sidewalls. “These panels do not have to rely on posts for support so they can be thinner to increase interior capacity and they provide a very durable interior surface as well.”

According to Roush, tire inflation systems, which he says are dominated by one supplier, have reached about 30% penetration and continue to garner fleet attention.

Hank Prochazka, vp-fleet sales for Fontaine Trailer Co., a maker primarily of platforms and drop decks, also reports high demand for tire-inflation systems and says three suppliers hold the lead at Fontaine.

Prochazka says a popular approach is “to spec air ride in a buttoned-up package with tire inflation included. We can bolt it and then pass on that supplier's five-year warranty [on the tire inflation system].”

Down the road, Vanguard's Roush expects the “quest for new materials beyond aluminum and steel” will continue. “There are plenty of feasible materials but they are cost-prohibitive at this point.” He also sees adhesives gaining traction in limited areas vs. mechanical fasteners as “they won't corrode; they create a waterproof seal; and when used at a joint, they distribute the stress load more evenly” than rivets.

Fontaine's Prochazka expects to “see more movement to aluminum flooring on flatbeds vs. apitong wood.” He says apitong, excellent for “nailers as it is self-sealing,” is getting harder to get a hold of for trailer floors. And he contends the composite flooring that has come along remains too heavy to compete.

He notes Fontaine expects next year to roll out a new and exclusive all-aluminum floor boasting a versatile groove-and-clip system for securing loads in lieu of nailers — “it will work more like chocking.” Prochazka adds that aluminum flooring is close in cost to apitong.

HOLY GRAIL

According to Chuck Cole, manager of technical sales & product training for Utility, the “maintenance-free trailer remains kind of a holy grail. Reduced maintenance, yes, but there is still maintenance that must be done.

“To reduce maintenance, we're finding much focus is being directed at the wheel end,” he continues. “For example, we measure end play on every axle. And we're diligent about checking the lube level. We will not have a trailer leave [the plant] without the proper lube to ensure there are no wheel-offs.”

But the manufacturer can only do so much. “Fleets,” Cole says, “must spec the right system for their maintenance intervals. That may mean an annual inspection even though there is a five-year warranty.

“We're still looking fort the perfect wheel seal,” he adds, “but having less and less end play and the right lube can make a significant difference with wheel end performance.”

Tracey Maynor, vp-branch sales & operations for Great Dane, fully expects fleets to “see more answers on how to make trailers last longer and be easier to maintain” coming to market in the coming months. Among these will be improved lighting and electrical harnesses as well as special coatings and composite panels.

He says an example of a high-tech solution for cutting maintenance costs is Great Dane's PunctureGuard lining, which is constructed with a thermoplastic material that is moldable, and thus repairable, using heat. “It's more durable and easier to repair than other materials and it is even lighter than fiberglass,” he notes.

Maynor says that LED lighting, thanks to its high performance at a favorable price, is “here to stay. The majority of buyers prefer it especially as the price continues to fall even as the quality climbs. He notes that in addition to long, essentially maintenance-free life, LED lamps also “react more quickly than incandescent bulbs when power is put to them, to reach maximum brightness for safety's sake.

Maynor reveals that Great Dane will be introducing a new nose box developed with a harness provider that is designed to be “better sealed and more repair-friendly because it will be possible to replace sub-components as needed.”

Trailer makers are on task to provide products that are long-lived and maintenance friendly but they all stress that trailer buyers must also play their part.

“To get the most out of any trailer,” advises Utility's Cole, “there should be an intelligent conversation between the buyer and the salesperson. You just can't spec the right equipment without that.”

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