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Box on wheels, no more

TORONTO, Ont. - The trailer business, says Conny Weyers, president of Trailers Canada, hasn't been a whole lot of fun over the past few years.


TORONTO, Ont. – The trailer business, says Conny Weyers, president of Trailers Canada, hasn’t been a whole lot of fun over the past few years.

“What we’ve seen since the early 2000s is that it became ‘How big is it and how cheap is it?’ and that was the extent of the conversation. There was no spec’ing. A trailer was a trailer and nobody cared. It became a very unglamorous place to be,” laments the industry veteran. However, he says there’s reason to be optimistic as the industry emerges from recession and fleet owners and asset managers begin to take a fresh look at the lowly van trailer with an eye on lowering operating costs through proper spec’ing.

“We’ve seen a lot of owners getting back into the spec’ing of trailers,” Weyers says. “They’re taking out asset teams and accountants and we’re actually spec’ing trailers again. The customer sees there are benefits to spec’ing a unit rather than just buying a unit. It has actually been a little bit of fun over the last year or so.”

So, what has changed to suddenly earn the van trailer some newfound respect in the eyes of fleet managers? For one, savvy fleet operators have turned their attention to the trailer after squeezing every ounce of productivity possible out of the power unit. The advent of new technologies like side fairings and wide-base singles has proven to fleet managers that not all trailers are created equal and purchase price and load capacity are not the only considerations when looking to maximize their return on investment.

“They’re looking at it as a centre where they can possibly save dollars,” Weyers says. “In the past, (trailers) were a load-carrying agent. Now they’re possibly a cost saving centre, which is great.”

George Cobham Jr., vice-president of sales and marketing with Glasvan Great Dane and his co-hort Mike Hignett, who oversees new and used equipment sales for the same company, have noticed the trend as well.

“We’re finding that fleet managers are highly-researched these days. They’re spending more time looking at the spec’ and considering all the options,” Cobham says. “In the last six to eight months, I’ve found that people have given us their ear a little more when talking about our products and they’re willing to talk about some of the problems that they’ve had.”
There’s nothing more disheartening, adds Hignett, than providing a customer with a five-page quote only to see them turn to the final page and retort that the price is too high.

“There’s a reason why Brand A is higher than Brand B – and it’s not just because we’re trying to make more money than somebody else,” Hignett says. “Thicker aluminum costs more than thinner aluminum, better grade stainless steel costs more than muffler grade stainless steel.”

Another reason fleets may be taking a closer look at trailer spec’ing is that the industry lost a major Canadian manufacturer during the recession and there are a lot of fleets sitting on massive trailer pools for which they may now have trouble finding proprietary parts – not to mention support.

“I think some fleet managers are taking a harder look at where they’re buying their equipment from,” says Cobham.
So now that fleets are spending more time spec’ing trailers, what are some of the things they’re looking at?

Aluminum roofs

The industry’s love affair with translucent roofs, as torrid as it once was, seems to have lost its sizzle. Between the mid-90s and about 2006, Weyers says about 95% of the trailers his company sold had translucent roofs. Today, it’s come full circle with only about 3-5% of customers requesting translucent roofs.

“Heat is a problem with translucent roofs,” he explains. “The trailers run hotter and there can be some discolouration of the product because of the sun’s UV rays coming through.”

Sky lights along the top edge of the trailer wall have become a popular option, allowing some daylight into the trailer without any of the side-effects inherent with translucent roofs. But Glasvan’s Cobham contends there’s still a place for translucent roofs, which have improved in recent years.

“There are still people who want it,” he says. “More on the small fleet and owner/operator side, where they can control how their trailers are loaded.”

Damage is another issue with translucent roofs. Repairing them is tricky and the result is unsightly, while aluminum roofs can be easily patched, good as new.

Bye-bye, plywood
Like the poor translucent roof, plywood is also on the outs with truckers and trailer manufacturers.

“Five years ago, 75% of our inventory was plywood-lined trailers with logistics posts,” Hignett says. “Now, it’s probably reversed.”

Plywood is heavy, retains water and is difficult to repair, causing it to be gradually displaced by more plastic composite materials.

“Plywood is almost a thing of the past,” Weyers agrees. “We’re seeing plastic become a major part of the trailer with wood becoming almost non-existent.”

Brakes and tires
Disc brakes were gaining a lot of momentum with trailer customers. Then the economy crashed, abruptly halting any progress. Disc brakes are a costly spec’, but the investment can often be justified since the brakes require less maintenance than drums and can improve safety by providing greater stopping power. And as disc brakes increased in popularity, the costs have come down.

Weyers predicts disc brakes will become a common spec’ within the next six years.

“I think the economic slowdown of the last two years has stopped that from happening but now we have more people coming back into that,” he says. Glasvan’s Cobham agrees, noting disc brakes come up in more conversations with customers. “People are still standoff-ish,” he says.

Wide-base tires are another option that’s getting a lot of attention, but so far reviews are mixed.

“We had a lot of customers try them between 2006 and 2008 and a good number of them switched back to duals,” Cobham says. “They didn’t necessarily have a great experience.”

But that’s not to say they don’t work. Wide-base tires have been proven to deliver substantial fuel savings – when properly used.

“A lot of fleets are getting several hundred thousand kilometres out of their super-single tires and they have very careful tire maintenance systems in place,” Cobham says, noting some major fleets have installed nitrogen inflation systems in their facilities to help keep tire pressures constant. “You definitely can’t just put the tires on and check the pressures once every three months, it requires more attention than that.”

Weyers also has seen issues such as irregular wear, especially on the inner and outer edges of the tire.

“We’ve been told it’s tire pressures (causing the problems) but we don’t have enough facts on that yet,” he says. Still, about half of the trailers he sells are now being spec’d with wide-base single tires.

To LCV or not to LCV?
Fleets participating in Ontario’s long combination vehicle (LCV) pilot project may currently be limited to just two permits. But that’s not stopping them from making every new trailer they order LCV-compatible.

“Companies that have two permits will put these systems on over 50 trailers,” Cobham notes. “Some companies this year that I know of have purchased more than 100 trailers, all set up for LCVs.”

It seems like a big leap of faith for a program that has yet to receive any public acknowledgment from the Ministry of Transportation that it will be expanded beyond its current ‘pilot’ status. But Weyers says for fleets looking to run LCVs, it’s a gamble worth taking since it costs twice as much to make a trailer LCV-compatible in the aftermarket.

Flooring
Even trailer flooring has evolved in recent years. Weyers says most floors now feature composite materials laid underneath the hardwood, to prevent moisture from seeping up and rotting the wood su
rface.

Great Dane offers Prolam flooring, which is fitted together in a unique way that the company says makes it stronger and longer-lasting. The rear section of the trailer floor then receives a special coating, giving it added protection where forklifts will do most of their damage.

Other add-ons
Trailer side fairings are now being installed by many large, long-haul fleets and even smaller fleets and owner/operators are now inquiring about the fuel-saving devices.

“We’re getting more and more people every day ordering them,” Hignett says. “Nearly half of the trailers in our yard have some kind of side skirt on them.”

Glasvan Great Dane is doing about five to 10 side skirt installations a week, Cobham estimates, compared to about one a month just two-and-a-half years ago.

Side skirts are another item Weyers is taking a wait-and-see approach to.

“For the long-distance guys, yes, they work,” he says. “Customers that are running them seem to see savings but fleets are not coming back with any specifics yet.”

For a piece of equipment that’s often unfairly labeled as a simple box on wheels, there’s a lot going on in the dry van marketplace. Glasvan’s Cobham says as customers finally begin replenishing their trailer fleets after two years of keeping their wallets locked tight, flexibility is the ultimate objective.

“Customers want their trailers to be more flexible now,” he contends. “Customers are sacrificing weight so their trailer can deck freight and at the same time be LCV-ready. Your LCV-ready trailer weights 500-700 lbs more than a standard trailer and now maybe you’re spec’ing a reefer with vertical logistics in it, adding another 1,000 lbs to the trailer. They want that trailer to be able to do everything so they can go after different freight and be more flexible.”

So as the dry van industry experiences a revival, it may be prudent for fleets to begin locking in their orders before capacity is eaten up and the inevitable pricing pressure takes hold. After all, Weyers points out a dry van cost about 20-30% more in the late 90s than it does today.

“We haven’t been able to get pricing back up at all,” he says. “Back in 1998 or 1999, it would be nothing to pay $28,000-$29,000 for a new trailer. Today, we’re down in that $24,000-$25,000 range.”

With some manufacturers wiped from the landscape by the recession and others shuttering factories, there’s some question on whether the industry will be able to keep up with demand. The current lead-time for a new dry van is about 90 days, Cobham says.

But according to industry analyst ACT Research’s latest State of the Industry: US Trailers report, net orders for dry vans were up 215% year-over-year in November. Senior analyst Kenny Vieth said the trailer industry is entering an upcycle that should last two to three years.

With that in mind, you can’t accuse Weyers of being entirely self-serving when he urges truck fleets to get their orders in soon.

“Sooner or later, there will be big demand and no supply,” he warns. “I think that may happen next year or in 2012, where a demand bubble will be created and the manufacturing sector right now has backed itself off so much that it won’t be able to catch up with the demand. Once the large fleets start buying, it’ll gobble up all the production for quite a while and we could be back to where we were in 1998 with a 12- to 14-month lead-time.”


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