Today's product is lighter, easier to maintain, and safer to operate
Fifth wheel manufacturers are responding to fleet demands for lighter vehicles, reduced maintenance costs, less downtime, and a safer driver environment. They've redesigned products to make them lighter, safer for drivers to work with, and improved the durability and reliability needed to decrease vehicle downtime.
Fontaine Fifth Wheel's most recent effort in the weight-reduction arena is the development of its No-Slack II (Series 6000) fifth wheel. Available for standard-duty service, the No-Slack II is not only lighter in weight than previous units (it weighs in at 218 lb.), but has more surface contact area for increased stability and durability. Load-bearing areas have been reinforced in strategic locations for enhanced strength.
Designed for over-the-road applications, Fontaine's No-Slack II features a self-adjusting locking mechanism that eliminates slack automatically; a positive secondary lock releases only when the handle is pulled. False couplings are prevented altogether by the presence of a safety trigger in the new design. The wheel can be opened with a pull force of only 65 lb.
Fontaine currently offers fifth wheels for standard-duty, heavy-duty (logging, chip hauling, end dump trailers), extra-heavy-duty, and custom-duty (car hauling) applications. More product innovations are on the Fontaine drawing boards, but the company is not ready to make them public just yet.
American Steel Foundries' (ASF) Simplex Lite model addresses the issue of lighter weight through a top-plate redesign that takes 46 lb. off the weight of the fifth wheel. Like the Simplex II, the Simplex Lite is slack-free and features greaseless cushioned mounts.
Polyurethane components in the bracket pockets (pads and shoes) make this part of the component lube-free, thus contributing to reduced maintenance costs. Although a lube-free fifth wheel is an industry-wide R&D goal, the problem of lock-pocket lubrication still needs to be solved before this can become a reality.
According to Jack Higgins, general manager of industrial products at ASF, OEMs must also address the fairly general practice of fleets putting excessive amounts of grease on top of their fifth wheels. Categorizing lubrication as an environmental as well as a maintenance issue, Higgins says ASF is working on a number of alternatives, including attaching pads and using different coatings.
Polyurethane components have also improved the reliability and durability of fifth wheels.
Sam Martin, exec. vp-engineering, Holland Hitch Co., says the OEM plans to introduce a low-lube fifth wheel this fall, where 90% of the component will be lube-free. Replaceable top-plate inserts, made of non-abrasive urethane, will need no lubrication. These top plates will maintain constant lubrication between the fifth wheel and the upper coupler; only the locking mechanism will need lubrication. Initially, this low-lube fifth wheel will be available as a fleet spec for standard on-highway applications with a GCVW of up to 95,000 lb. and a maximum of five axles.
Martin's long-term vision includes a no-lube fifth wheel some day, and eventually one that is completely maintenance-free, where not even inspections and adjustments will be required.
Designing fifth wheels that are easier to use is one way to make the driver's job safer and thus help reduce worker's comp costs. According to Martin, for example, the powered-release option does just this by reducing driver "handling effort."
Holland is looking at electronic lock indicators as a way to improve safety and to more accurately verify the condition of the fifth wheel. "Some exciting steps are taking place in this area that could make this a reliable and cost-effective item for fleets," says Martin.
Alignment and positioning aids to "facilitate the coupling and uncoupling process" are also in the Holland think tank. Coupling can be a difficult task because it's so hard for drivers to see the exact spot where the pin should be attached/located.
Engineers at Holland Hitch are thinking even further outside the box by looking at the fifth wheel as a type of "data source" that could enhance the overall operation of the vehicle. According to Martin, one approach is to place weight and force sensors in the fifth wheel to provide data output in "real time" to be used by trucks' other electronic systems such as weigh-in-motion, brake-by-wire, and rollover warnings for drivers.
Holland's current product lineup reflects the OEM's emphasis on matching fifth wheels to specific applications. In addition to traditional stationary units for standard-, moderate-, and severe-duty applications, Holland Hitch offers a variety of specialty models including Kompensator, sliding, oscillating, yard spotter, no-tilt, and Mov-On elevating fifth wheels.
Time saving is the major benefit offered by Bartlett Lifting Devices' hydraulic, high-lifting fifth wheels. The Snorkle, Skylift, and Starlift units, with lifting heights from 14 ft. 8 in. to 19 ft. 6 in., and rated capacities of 80,000 lb., raise semi-trailers for rapid unloading, especially the more difficult commodities from longer trailers. These wheels can also be used for yard-spotting duties.