Trailers Get Lighter, More Aerodynamic

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


Cowan Systems LLC, a Baltimore-based truckload carrier, has worked hard to make its fleet of trucks lighter. The company operates 1,400 tractors and 2,600 trailers and recently finished converting 100 percent of its fleet over to lightweight equipment.

"One of the main things we did was to utilize the Super Single tires," says Joe Cowan, owner and CEO. "And if you do some other things you can reduce the weight of the trailer in the vicinity of 13,000-pounds."

The win for his customers is that they can load 4,000 to 5,000 more pounds per trailer load, which is an enormous savings. "You get one free load for every 10, a 10 percent rate reduction," says Cowan.

Durability Is Key

In the engineering world, creating lighter weight products often means that some durability must be sacrificed-a fact that the designers are well aware of.

"People don't have a lot of money to spend on capital equipment," says Adam Hill, director of customer technical services for Great Dane Trailer, the Savannah, GA-based trailer manufacturer. "That's why we're not prepared to give up durability."

"You have to know your designs will hold up, because most people equivocate lightweight with weakness" affirms Utility Trailer's Bennett. "So we have a major investment in R&D where we are able to test designs that are lighter weight and yet as strong as possible."

Bennett and other experts stress that durability is more important than ever, due to the deteriorating nature of the roads in the U.S. Trailers have to be more durable than ever.

This is why companies such as Wabash National, Lafayette, IN, are making their plate trailers with both durability and lighter weight in mind, composing their trailer walls out of grade 80 high strength steel, which is twice as strong as the mild steel some manufacturers use.

"When it's twice as strong it can be half as thick but still maintain that strength," explains Rod Ehrlich, chief technology officer for Wabash. "It saves you some weight also so it's a good bargain."

Lighter, But More Expensive

Creating lighter weight trailers is more expensive than building them out of traditional materials. According to the manufacturers it's easy to lighten a trailer. The hard part is to lighten it and not cause sticker shock for the trucking companies.

"We're working out a lot of the details in terms of dealing with composite materials," explains Great Dane's Hill. "Take the lamination process for example-natural materials are easy to glue, but with composite materials you have to pay more for the adhesives that are required to laminate them properly. It's a process that takes longer as well."

"Weight is a trade-off and there's a cost/add generally associated with eliminating it that you have to be aware of," adds Wabash's Ehrlich. "If the cost difference in weight is $1 a pound and I save 20 pounds, that's $20, which is very sellable. But if the 20 pound difference is costing me $5 a pound, it's not very sellable."

"The payback is not always there," agrees Trailmobile's Federhofer. "For example, you can save money by using lighter disc brakes, but no one wants to spend the money to do it."

Some companies continue to present the case for lighter trailers though. "We've gone the other way to trailers that may cost a little more initially but are better investments in the long run," explains Utility Trailer's Bennett.

He says lighter trailers end up generating more revenue for a company due to the fact that it's able to haul more payload each week. Trailers made of composite materials, which can weigh from 600 to 1,000 pounds less than a standard trailer, are able to hold more cargo before the 80,000 pound gross vehicle weight limit is reached. "The more cargo you can put in, the more the owner benefits and over the life of the product it becomes a better ROI."

The lighter trailer adherents maintain that the return on investment, which includes the initial price, the residual value, all the revenues of the product haul and the maintenance expense, more than make-up for the fact that their trailers cost more than heavier trailers.

Aerodynamics Take Off

In the past, aerodynamic devices for trailers have been greeted with a great deal of skepticism by trucking companies, due to the impracticality and fragility of the devices, as well as the expensive replacement costs. In addition, truckers historically do not like dealing with the devices.

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