Safety is still the most important goal in fifth wheel operation, and designers of fifth wheels have invested a lot of time and money over recent years to be able to offer fleets improved safety options. They have introduced new products designed to reduce maintenance costs and increase productivity.
Jost International's Rich Carroll, vp sales and marketing, says many new trends are emerging in the industry, but the focus at Jost remains on the safety and reliability of the fifth wheel's locking mechanism.
Building on that foundation, Carroll notes the first trend he sees the industry moving toward is the “automation of the coupling process through the use of cab-actuated air release locking mechanisms.” According to Carroll, the move to air release is significant as it takes “the manual operation of the fifth wheel release handle out of the driver's hands and brings significant gains by eliminating this function as a contributor to workmen's compensation and insurance claims.”
Fleets have been a little slow to accept air release locking mechanisms because of a misconception that accidentally flipping the switch could release the fifth wheel while the truck is in motion, Carroll explains. In fact, the only way to get air to the cylinder is when the vehicle is in park with the emergency brake engaged, so air release mechanisms are very safe, he advises.
In tandem with air release, Carroll also mentions “the use of sensors to monitor for safe couplings and provide that assurance to the operator.” As far as visual inspections of the fifth wheel locking mechanism, he explains that one of the problems is that there are so many different products in the marketplace, each with its own unique locking operation, that knowing what to check for can be confusing for drivers. Jost's solution is “the use of a very simple, economical sensor device (called LockTronic) that's located directly on the fifth wheel top plate at the release handle slot. The sensor indicates a safe coupling by emitting a bright flashing light once the release handle is safely locked into position.”
Carroll points out two other key features of Jost fifth wheel designed to assist fleets in reducing maintenance costs. One is the design of the locking mechanism that enables technicians to “rebuild the product in 30 minutes or less without the need to remove the top plate from the tractor. Another consideration is the ability to adjust the locking mechanism, the key being what we call ‘infinite’ adjustment.” Smaller adjustment increments, he explains, help decrease component wear.
Mike Ginocchio, fifth wheel product manager at SAF-Holland, says that with safety in mind, his company has introduced “electronic sensor systems that monitor the locked/unlocked condition of the fifth wheel and display [the status] in the vehicle dash.” The fifth wheel manufacturer also offers fleets an air release system that allows drivers “to push a button to release the fifth wheel and eliminate any risk of injury in manually pulling a release handle,” he explains.
SAF-Holland notes that after safety, maintenance costs are likely a fleet's biggest concern. Reducing or eliminating lubrication requirements is an obvious cost and time saver, Ginocchio points out, stating that with the Holland FW31 NoLube fifth wheel “the only contact necessary is pulling a handle or pushing a button to open it, routine visual inspections, and the occasional lock adjustment.”
For many fleets, weight is also a key issue. “Weight savings has become critical with increased vehicle weights resulting from additional emissions control components required to meet the 2007 EPA standards,” Ginocchio advises.
In recent years, SAF-Holland has introduced several products to help offset increased vehicle weight, including the FW17 lightweight fifth wheel with cast-steel top plate and the ILS (Integrated, Low-weight Slider) system, which combined with the FW17 can result in savings of over 100 lb., according to Ginocchio.
At the Mid-America Trucking Show, the company introduced the Holland FWAL, its lightest fifth wheel to date. Designed in collaboration with Alcoa company, the FWAL (with forged aluminum top plate) is up to 115 lb. lighter than a comparable product, Ginocchio reports. “Combine the FWAL with an ILS Slider System and weight savings can easily exceed 200 lb.”
At Fontaine International, safety is also a major focus. The 3000 Series fifth wheel features the company's TechLock locking mechanism, which includes a patented kingpin height sensor that acts as a safety trigger to prevent false trailer couplings. Another product — the C7000 Series Clean-Connect fifth wheel — provides fleets with the advantages of Fontaine's No-Slack II locking technology, plus a grease-free top plate surface for easier maintenance.
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