It's a staple of almost every Mid-America Trucking Show: Jeff Bennett, vp-engineering for Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., opens his laptop to play the most recent video of the destructive testing his family's products must go through.
The test track Bennett designed literally tortures Utility trailers — from the dry vans and reefers to the flatbed and curtain-sided Tautliner units — to the point of failure.
A modified yard tractor pulls them around a quarter-mile track littered with bumps, ruts, swales, cobblestones, potholes and any number of rough-and-tumble obstacles, while weighted blocks within or on top of the trailers themselves stress the walls and decking to the extreme.
Bennett estimates that about 100 laps around the track is the equivalent of a year of trailer life on the road.
Digital video cameras and tachographs record all the action on two different levels. One documents the “visual” results, while the other records the physics of what's happening and how it impacts the unit for later analysis.
“Even with a high shutter speed camera, there are always things you can't see, such as how bulges that occur in the sidewalls of a trailer create waves of force that put stress on other components,” Bennett points out. “There are just thousands of little details to look at.”
Bennett goes over the battered wreckage with a fine-tooth comb to determine how those stresses and strains affect not only Utility's designs, but also the components it uses to build them.
“Destructive testing is critical in this business because it tells us how a trailer ages and what happens to all of its components over its expected life cycle,” he explains. “You can do some destructive testing in the lab, but that won't come close to replicating what a trailer experiences over its lifetime out on the road. You need to really twist and bang and vibrate those trailers under heavy loads so you can see how all of the forces involved affect the complete unit and its individual components.”
Utility puts its products through the torture procedures on the test track to find out more than just how far they have to go to make trailer components fail. More importantly, they want to find out how they fail. “We need to know the mode of failure for every piece on a trailer …Is it a catastrophic failure, the kind that causes the entire trailer to lose structural integrity? Or is the impact very minor?” Bennet asks. “It's a safety issue.”
“What I really like most about the destructive testing process is that it makes the invisible visible,” he points out. “It's like a time machine, allowing me to leap ahead 10 or 12 years into a product's lifespan and see how well the design and its components hold.”
“Because I am an owner in the company, I've had the unique opportunity to cross all the boundaries within our company, to work in almost all the departments, to get a better understanding about what we do and the customers we serve,” Bennett explains.
“That experience influences the testing process. I know how what we do on the test track influences all the other segments of our business and its connection with the customer,” he continues. “It's kind of like how all the components within a trailer affect its final shape and structure.”
The testing process itself is not static. Bennett is currently exploring the possibility of subjecting trailers to corrosion tests as they circle the torture track. “The wider use of magnesium chloride to clear snow and ice off the roads in the winter can really hit you upside the face in terms of trailer corrosion,” he points out. “So we're looking at ways to test the long-term impact of such chemical exposure out on the track, to see how that impacts component performance over time.”
Bennett isn't bashful about enjoying the torture tests he devises, but he's deadly serious about why it needs to get done, and done right, in the first place.
“You have to do your due diligence on every piece of material on that trailer before it goes out on the road, because it's going to be spending years rolling next to families heading out on vacation or commuters going to work every day,” Bennet emphasizes. “When something fails on a test track…it gives you a chance to see why and how it failed, so you can correct a potential issue before it ever gets near a highway.”