Trailers Get Lighter, More Aerodynamic

Soaring fuel costs drive demand for new types of trailer body construction.


The trucking industry is in a state of crisis. Companies are reeling from the skyrocketing cost of diesel fuel, which is edging closer to $5 a gallon and shows no signs of relenting.

"There's been about four times the number of trucking company bankruptcies this year, as opposed to last year," says Craig Bennett, vice president of sales and marketing for trailer maker Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., City of Industry, CA. "A large reason is the cost of fuel. As a result, the emphasis is on anything that would reduce fuel consumption."

Utility Trailer and other trailer manufacturers are finding new ways to make trailers lighter and more aerodynamic to help their customers decrease the amount of fuel their tractors have to expend.

In the past few years, manufacturers have been experimenting with constructing trailer bodies out of a wide range of materials including plastics, polyurethane and even recycled materials. However, the type of material that seems to have offered the most weight savings are new types of composite blends that weigh less than traditional materials.

"Composite materials-a lot of plastics mostly-are here to stay," says David Dorsey general manager for Dorsey Trailer in Elba, AL. "We're using them in the springs, in the axles, in the hubs on the drums, as well as in side walls and doors."

Utility Trailer has released its latest dry van trailer, which is SmartWay certified by the EPA and features a low tare weight. Its composite walls feature a patented sheet and post panel design and incorporate a high-density polyurethane foam construction.

"Part of the secret of making the trailer lighter is that we're able to bond the inner and outer skins of the walls together in such a way with the polyurethane foam core that gives us strength and actually saves a few pounds," explains Utility's Bennett. "We blend two elements together and the polyurethane expands to six times its original size. It fills the entire cavity. Then it's put together in a press and becomes a composite panel."

One of Utility Trailer's dealers recently had a 40 trailer group sale to Kellogg's in Omaha, NE. Outbound shipments weren't affected by using the lighter weight trailers due to the fact that the company is shipping cereal, but on inbound loads, where ingredients are being shipped back, the trailers-50 to 60 a day-could fit an extra 600-pounds on them thanks to their lower tare weight. This benefitted Kellogg's with a greater opportunity for additional profit on backhauls to the factory.

Trailer floors, however, remain a problem. Aluminum floors, which would be lighter than typical wood floors, present challenges.

"You can't nail wood down on them to prevent your goods from shifting," says Gene Federhofer, executive salesman for Trailmobile in Lake Forest, IL. "Plus there's no insulating factor. You end up getting frost on them."

Some companies, such as Dorsey Trailer, have experimented with new materials, using recycled plastic for floor stringers or cross members and nylon board that replace the wood. In general, flooring continues to be composed of oak and oak wood blends.

"People are afraid to embrace new floors because of the heavy fork lift traffic that truck floors see," notes Dorsey.

One way to reduce a trailer's weight, according to Trailmobile's Federhofer, is through the use of wide-base or Super Single tires, along with the use of aluminum wheels instead of steel. By moving from eight to four tires on the trailer, companies reduce the weight of the trailer, as well as the drag on the pavement, which will increase fuel mileage.

The time is right to reconsider these tires because more manufacturers are now offering the tire, including Michelin, making it easier and less expensive to use the Super Singles. In addition, manufacturers are working on pressure monitoring systems that will monitor tire pressures-very critical when using the Super Singles.

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