Flatbed innovation

Feb. 11, 2009
“We’re all in a tough market right now – everyone is just trying to survive. That’s why we’re trying to come up with new ways to build platform trailers; not just to tweak their design, but to find a whole new way to do things.” –Buck Buchanan, ...

We’re all in a tough market right now – everyone is just trying to survive. That’s why we’re trying to come up with new ways to build platform trailers; not just to tweak their design, but to find a whole new way to do things.” –Buck Buchanan, VP-marketing, Fontaine Trailer Company

You know, all of the trailer manufacturers serving this industry are bringing new innovations to the table for dry van, refrigerated, and tanker designs, just to name a few. But about the very last place I ever expected to hear the term “friction stir welding” used was by a flatbed OEM.

The term is familiar to me from my days covering the air cargo market, as it’s how airplane manufacturers weld metal together. Actually, the term is a misnomer of sorts, because it’s not really “welding” in the traditional sense. What happens is a high speed drill literally “softens” two pieces of metal using friction instead of direct heat from a welder’s torch to the point where molecules of the two metals literally get “stirred” together and then re-harden – creating much neater and more consistent bond.

So it came as a surprise to find that Alabama-based Fontaine Trailer Company is using what is literally an aerospace manufacturing process to build flatbed trailers. It just goes to show you that in this day and age, even when it comes to some of the most fundamental components of the trucking business, expect to see – and keep seeing – big changes.

“Why do we need lighter yet stronger trailers? Because fleets need to haul more payload to make money, but also to compensate for tractors that are getting heavier due to the addition al of emission control technology,” explained Buck Buchanan, the company’s VP-marketing. “It also helps us drive cost and complexity out of the manufacturing process for us.”

During a press conference here at the Technology & Maintenance Council’s annual meeting in Orlando, Buchanan broke it down this way. The typical 48-foot flatbed weighs in at 10,000 pounds and requires 1,400 screws, 44 steel I-beams, eight wing braces, plus wood and aluminum strips for the flooring – a total of 3,700 parts. The screwed-in floor can lead to “wracking” under load, making the trailer develop a “wiggle” for lack of a better term over time, causing loads to shift and tires to wear unevenly.

Buchanan then pointed to how new techniques such as stir welding help Fontaine’s all-aluminum weigh in at 8,000 pounds, with its Revolution H (a steel/aluminum hybrid design) coming in at 9,000 pounds. The floor of the trailers themselves are now made in honeycombed “blocks” stir-welded together that not only eliminates the need for screws but also act as internal cross members for far more trailer rigidity – and thus eliminating the need for standard cross members. That change alone helped cut the parts required for the Revolution flatbed line down to 1,500.

[Allen Peacock, Fontaine’s engineering manager, explains some of the design features in more detail below.]

That’s not all, of course. The top of the floor itself is covered evenly in metal traction points along with grooves designed in for a set of removable chain tie downs – giving flatbed fleets a lot more flexibility in where they want to locate tie-down points without cutting holes in the flooring. Then there’s the side rails – long, extruded pieces of aluminum that have holes cut in for load straps that are not built by welding metal together. This creates a far stronger rail – 12 times stronger than traditionally-built rails actually – one that can absorb forklift impacts with no damage.

In another neat bit of thinking, all the air and electrical lines are run right down the middle of the trailer’s underside in a protected channel – reducing exposure to harsh road chemicals while making it easy for technicians to get in and make repairs, instead of chasing connections all over the unit. Fontaine partnered with Grote to use LED [light emitting diode] lights for the Revolution line, which are not only brighter than incandescent lights but reduce electrical connections by 60%.

Now, Buchanan readily admits that despite the labor savings, the Revolution trailers cost more than the comparable standard 48-foot models available today – by as much as a couple thousand dollars. The difference between the all-aluminum Revolution and steel/aluminum hybrid Revolution H is even more steep – a $3,000 difference. But the payback is there for flatbed fleets – usually as fast as a year, said Buchanan.

He noted the savings come from several areas – a lighter trailer offers the ability to haul more freight and thus generate more revenue while helping improve fuel economy. Less wracking result in longer tire life – 200,000 miles on the tandem axle tires as opposed to the typical 125,000 mile life expectancy, with wide base tires lasting 100,000 miles as opposed to 60,000.

The result of four years worth of research and design, Buchanan (at left) noted Fontaine is still trying to make the Revolution trailer family even more fuel friendly, looking to take the standard underside storage boxes and create more aerodynamic shapes for them so they act as fairings to reduce drag.

Like I said, it’s unexpected to see this kind of innovation going on in flatbed trailers today – and more importantly fleets are seeing the benefit of it. “In a down economy, we’re still selling these,” said Buchanan.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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