Building tank trailers vertically

“SPECIAL” is a very defining word for Feldbinder Spezialfahrzeugwerke GmbH. The company name says it is a manufacturer of special vehicles. Besides specializing in tank trailers and other tank-type bulk haulers, the company further specializes in custom-designed vehicles, not standard production units.

Feldbinder, also known as FFB, specialized even further when it was formed in 1975. For the first 10 years, it produced only aluminum dry bulk trailers, and non-tipping ones at that. FFB has a 65% share of the German market for powder (dry bulk) trailers, and a 45% share of the European market. Although it didn't build its first liquid tank trailer until 1993, it now has a 35% share of the European market for liquid tank trailers.

$150 million sales

When it was founded in the North German port city of Hamburg 30 years ago, Feldbinder had only three employees. When it moved to nearby Winsen/Luhe five years later, the company had 20 employees and produced 120 units per year. Today it has 950 employees and produces 1,700 custom-built units per year. Annual sales including the aftermarket total 125 million euros ($150 million). It still is operated by the same two founders, Otto Feldbinder and Jan-Dirk Beckmann, joint business partners and managing directors.

The biggest physical growth at Feldbinder came at the end of 1991 and the beginning of 1992. That's when the headquarters plant in Winsen was enlarged greatly and a modern office building constructed there. After German reunification, FFB purchased a large stationary tank manufacturing plant in the former East German city of Wittenberg, the city of Martin Luther.

Located 70 kilometers (44 miles) south of Berlin, addition of this large factory allowed Feldbinder to enter the market for liquid tankers and stainless steel units. It seemed like an enormous undertaking at the time, especially with the addition of 300 workers who came with the plant. However, in the next 10 years Feldbinder doubled the size of the plant while modernizing it. The plant covers 115,000 square meters (28.4 acres), and it has 21,000 m2 (226,000 sq ft) of the production area covered by overhead cranes.

Third plant in England

The next big leap came in 1997 when Otto FeldBinder and Jan-Dirk Beckmann turned to the broader European market. In England, they purchased the dry bulk vehicle manufacturer Metalair-Filliat of Sutton Bridge, now Feldbinder (UK) Ltd. This also put the company in the tank container business. The UK is FFB's strongest market outside Germany.

At the same time in France near Lyon they acquired the former Filliat, a sales and repair outlet for all liquid and dry bulk highway and rail tanks. It operates under the name Feldbinder France SARL. Another sales and service outlet, Feldbinder Iberica SL, was set up in Madrid for marketing FFB tankers in Spain and Portugal.

Feldbinder Austria was started later in Gunskirchen near Wels as a sales and service depot. Within Germany three company-owned service depots and the two production plants in Winsen and Wittenberg provide repair facilities for all makes of tanks. Sales outlets are set up in major markets throughout Europe and extend to the Orient and Australia. About 60% of FFB tanks are sold outside Germany.

What makes a Feldbinder tank so special that it can propel such fast company growth? Olaf Feldbinder, commercial director of the Wittenberg plant, says that it starts with custom designing each order for the precise job the customer wants. This often results in a lighter weight because the vehicle is not over-engineered. The Wittenberg plant has a staff of 12 engineers and two assistants drawing up production plans to reflect customer specifications. Yet custom engineering and manufacturing costs are controlled by using modularization techniques.

One big advantage of tanks produced at the Wittenberg plant, says Olaf Feldbinder, is electropolishing to achieve a smoother finish. The process provides faster clean-out and easier clean-up, especially for such loads as food products, chemicals, and plastic beads.

Electropolishing

Electropolishing microscopically “shaves the peaks” of the stainless steel surface. The process involves filling the completely welded tank with a solution and then applying an electrostatic charge. The process also is applied to small parts and subassemblies by submerging them in large electrostatic dip tanks. Feldbinder also electropolishes stainless steel frame and suspension parts that are not to be painted in customer colors.

The Feldbinder plant is highly automated. The company installed its first three robotic welding arms in 1998 and will be adding a second generation of robots soon.

Building a tower

One of the innovations at the Wittenberg plant is vertical assembly of cylindrical vessels. The idea is to reduce the stress on the metal during the circumferential welding process. The roof of the plant had to be raised in that immediate area where hoists suspend the tank by means of lugs welded on the tank head.

The vessel manufacturing process starts conventionally with stainless steel being decoiled, plasma-cut into sheets, and then seam-welded into individual “cans.” With the first can suspended by a cable, a new can is placed at floor level immediately beneath the first and circumferentially welded. The assembly is raised and the process repeated until the vessel is the desired length.

The welding machines that perform the circumferential welding are mounted on air pallets so that they ride on a film of air as they are floated into place under the suspended shell. Hanging from a single cable, the tank can turn easily as it passes through the welding heads and then is squeezed between two compression rollers that apply 120 bar (1,740 psi) pressure to the hot weld.

After the shell is welded completely as a vertical tower, it is lowered to a horizontal position and equipped with the turning mechanism to rotate the barrel during welding of hat-section stiffening rings, heat panels, manholes, mounting pads, insulation and jacketing, if specified.

Feldbinder fabricates the heads that are welded to the shells. The company added a hall to its Wittenberg plant in 2001 and installed the equipment the company needs to dish and flange tank heads up to a diameter of 4000 mm (157 inches).

Tank railcars

An aggressive building program in 2001 opened up new space in Wittenberg for building aluminum dry bulk railcars. The bogies are supplied by other companies in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Feldbinder plant builds and mounts the aluminum tanks.

Container production at the Feldbinder UK facility in Sutton Bridge also is very specialized. The typical dry bulk container in a 40-ft length is of aluminum with an aluminum frame. With a capacity of 59 cubic meters (2,100 cubic feet), it has a tare weight of only 2,500 kg (5,500 Ib). The Sutton Bridge plant has three production lines for tank containers, plus production of bulk feed vehicles for agricultural use.

To give some perspective to the escalating growth at Feldbinder, consider that the Wittenberg plant celebrated the manufacture of its 250th liquid tank trailer in 1998 after liquid tank start-up in 1992. Another seven years later, FFB builds more than 250 liquid tank trailers each year. Total company production of all three plants is about 1,700 liquid and dry bulk vehicles each year. That consists of about five to six stainless steel tanks for liquids each week and about 12 to 14 aluminum tanks for powders and granulates, plus varying numbers of dry bulk containers for the fluctuating intermodal market.

Worldwide sales

Feldbinder continues on a path to guarantee its future by expanding its specialized vehicle concept at home and abroad. Of the 950 employees at FFB, 850 are in Germany. Of these, 70 are trainees working under Germany's formal apprenticeship program. Apprentices are on a four-year program of school study and in-plant experience and training. At the end of the apprenticeship, most are hired to continue working in the company.

In the export market outside Germany and Europe, Feldbinder is building alliances to offer worldwide sales and service, and production in some cases. FFB is well established in the Asian market, as represented by sales over the past 10 years to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. Licensing agreements to enable local production of FFB vehicles have been completed with THT Yangzhou Tonghua Ltd in China (now part of the huge CIMC group), TEE in South Africa, and International Industrial in Egypt, and more are in the pipeline for other countries not readily accessible.

Even so, it is company policy to sell quality products and top technology made in Germany, not prices. The company motto remains to build “The most lightweight commercial vehicles with the greatest possible volume and a long working life, highest quality, certified according to ISO 9001.”

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