Fontaine sees R&D as success-builder

Oct. 16, 2009
Fifth wheel research looks to be taking a giant step forward at Fontaine Fifth Wheel thanks in part to a new 9,000 sq. ft. R & D center in the company’s new Trussville, AL, headquarters, just outside Birmingham

TRUSSVILLE, AL. Fifth wheel research looks to be taking a giant step forward at Fontaine Fifth Wheel thanks in part to a new 9,000 sq. ft. R & D center in the company’s new Trussville, AL, headquarters, just outside Birmingham. During a media event introducing the facility here yesterday , the company highlighted the benefits of the new center.

“We used to have three separate facilities in the Birmingham area, and when I came to Fifth Wheel, we were about to embark on our fourth facility, Parts Connection, and I thought it would be better if we were all under one roof and that would give sales interaction with engineering, operations interaction with the group,” president Henry Bell said.

The 50,000-sq- ft center houses corporate and sales offices for Fontaine Fifth Wheels plus its aftermarket company, Parts Connection, as well as a distribution center and the research & development center, which conducts testing in addition to new research.

“I felt like we had a really good corps of engineers that had done a really great job of developing products, but that we hadn’t done a really good job of launching products,” Bell said. “You can develop all the products you want, but if they’re not launched correctly, it’s not very filling for the company.”

During the tour of the facility, Fontaine executives pointed out the safety characteristics of its fifth wheels repeatedly, including a patented safety trigger they said prevents fault-hitching or high-hitching due to the kingpin coming in high.

“That cannot happen with the safety features we put in all our fifth wheels,” said Terry Mennen, vp of sales & marketing. “That is a significant safety feature that we put in all our fifth wheels and I think that is a major reason why we have 50% market share in North America today.”

Those safety features start with research & development. The center is headed by research & development manager Steve Mann and testing is conducted by Tom Moulton, test lab manager.

“Aside from safety, the second most important thing in our entire operation is research and development, and I wanted to dedicate a huge space to those guys for whatever they wanted to create,” said Bell. “And we’ve had to cut back significantly, like every business has, it’s not exclusive to the trucking industry, but one area that we didn’t decrease a penny was R &D, and we’re real proud of that; that’s our future.”

Under Moulton’s direction, Fontaine conducts separate laboratory tests on its fifth wheels, including a static load test, a two-axis test and a three-axis test. In additional, the products also receive track testing paired with an OEM and real-world road testing to identify potential problems that didn’t come up through the initial test phases.

“The static load test is evaluating two things,” Moulton said, “one thing is when you get permanent deformation in your assembly. There is some day-to-day functioning of a tractor-trailer running around the road, taking a corner and the trailer picks up and there is going to be some vertical load from time to time on a fifth wheel. It’s not all running down the road in a straight line. So we want to know at one point does it bend and another point we want to know is how much ultimate strength do we have; we want to hold onto a point well past that point of bending.”

There is also cyclical testing that takes place 24 hours a day over nine to ten days, and tests that involve the insertion and removal of the king pin over a 12-day period, close to 3,000 times a day.

Despite all this testing, though, one problem that does exist is that there are no U.S. standards for fifth wheels, Moulton said.

“Right now there is no standard,” he said. “There is absolutely none. We and the competition have all pretty much adopted the European standard, the European Commission directive. It’s a pretty robust test that we all use. A lot of the tests are based on that or we’ve taken that core and made it a more robust test.

“It’s a good starting point,” Moulton added, “and ultimately [if an] SAE standard [is written], what they’re probably going to end up doing is adopting the European standard, maybe modifying it slightly. Then the next step would be to flush that out and make it a more robust standard.”

The two European tests used by Fontaine are the static load test and the two-axis test, which measures strength of the fifth wheel on a fixed table. But, because road conditions create movement on truck frames, Fontaine has added a third test, the three-axis test, which measures the strength of the wheel while adding motion to the frame assembly. “We do not put out a fifth wheel without it clearly passing all the EC standards,” Moulton noted.

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