Tremcar Revels In Complexities Of Design

AT TREMCAR INC, complex projects are not viewed as complex problems. They are embraced as opportunities to showcase mechanical ingenuity.

Because in Canada, simplicity is not an option in the trailer-building industry. Complexity is, in the words of Tremcar owner Jacques Tremblay, “our culture.” There are 10 provinces, each with widely disparate regulations on truck and trailer specifications.

It took years for Quebec and Ontario to narrow the gap to the point where on Jan 1, 2001, they finally shared the same regulations on quad axles. Quebec will now be limited to 74,986 lb on the four trailer axles — an increase of 4,486 lb — and the GVW in both provinces will be 126,765 lb. Self-steering axles will be required for the single-axle position (fixed tridem 72" and 72" spread with single-axle, self-steering forward at 98½") for trailers delivered in 2003 and later — which is expected to improve weight distribution and reduce road wear.

“The quad axle semi-trailer is a popular configuration in these provinces,” says Allan Paaren, Tremcar's engineering and warranty manager for Ontario and western Canada. “Existing Tremcar designs are being updated to take advantage of this change in regulation.”

And it's not just a matter of regulations. The forces of nature — the rugged terrain and fierce weather — demand that Tremcar remains flexible in designing and manufacturing its stainless-steel tank trailers used for transport of chemical and agrifood products, as well as farm pick-up, sanitary, truck mounts of 10 and 12 wheels, non-coded, A-, B-, and C-trains, DOT407 and DOT412, multi-compartments, multi-axles, and vacuum trailers.

North of the 5,526-mile border is the second-largest land mass of any country in the world, behind only Russia.

Southern Quebec and Ontario are the industrial heartland of Canada, with the two largest cities (Montreal and Toronto) accounting for 50% of the population and 70% of the manufactured goods. But the country is geographically diverse and climatically harsh.

Tremcar's trailers don't absorb just the normal wear and tear of freeway driving. They're traversing tough mountain roads — with steep grades and sharp curves — and going to remote areas where access is somewhat limited.

“Engineering is the hub of the wheel for us,” Tremblay says. “We have to provide a lot of options and work closely with our customers to be sure we build exactly what a customer needs. We are very open-minded about that. That's what makes the difference between Tremcar and the rest of the market. We have to build a lot of special trailers just because of the needs in this environment here.”

Tremcar built a sophisticated B train to haul chemical products for 600 to 700 miles each day on the rough gravel roads in northern Saskatchewan. All the wiring is protected in a stainless-steel tube. All the air conduits going to the axle are protected.

“You have to be prepared for that because it cannot last if it's not designed for that kind of operation,” Tremblay says.

Says his son, Daniel, the vice-president of operations: “They said they have found big rocks in the steel box at the top of the trailer. That gives you an idea that there are rocks going everywhere.”

Tremcar has to make modifications on its Canadian trailers that it wouldn't have to on the ones it ships to its US market. Compare the GVW of a quad-axle trailer in Canada to the GVW on a five-axle configuration in the US (80,000).

“If you build it the same as for the US, it will not last, that's for sure,” Daniel says. “There are some tough, hilly rural roads in northern Quebec. A trailer that's operating in the mountains there is not the same as one operating in Southern Quebec or in the Midwest of the US.”

In 1999 and 2000, Tremcar designed and built four 44-foot trailers for Toronto Tank Lines of Hamilton, Ontario, that are used to haul hot wax melt from Toronto to Mexico, where it's used for coating truck chassis.

From the outside, the wax hauler looks a lot like Tremcar's DOT407 chemical trailer with a large cabinet, and its tank-shell thickness is 3/16" instead of 10 gauge. But inside, there's a genset that provides the source to heat the tank and keep the wax at a steady temperature — 320°F, with a design ambient temperature of — 32°F and a wind velocity of 90 mph — which is a challenge during the winter.

Temperature Maintained

The material is loaded hot and the temperature is maintained by an onboard electrical heating system powered by a 20-kw Onan diesel genset. The vessel is heated by 16 Accutron MI heater cables, each installed longitudinally the full length of the tank shell, with heat transfer cement captive in a stainless-steel channel.

The system controls are split into four zones, each with high and low temperature sensors and programmable controller. Monitor lights indicate system status, and a system alarm will advise system malfunction. A surge-suppression device is included to ensure a clean power supply to the controls.

It took nine months from the time the idea was sketched into a design to the time the first trailer was completed. The building time was 750 hours, instead of the normal 250 for a DOT407 trailer.

“It's part of Tremcar's culture — very special, customized work for special needs,” Jacques says.

Two years ago, Tremcar began building B trains, with a payload of 140,000 lb.

“We think this product will bring us a lot of business,” Jacques says. “It's doing very well. In Canada, it's more and more popular, because you can haul 140,000 lb over long distances and make the trip more profitable. But they don't allow it in the US, except in Michigan, New York, and the northwestern states.”

The company has not ignored the US market, which Jacques says accounts for 35% to 40% of its trailer production. Because the Canadian market features the more expensive quad-axle and B trains, it actually accounts for nearly 70% of the sales volume. That US market includes an eight-axle trailer for a company in Michigan that hauls 12,000 gallons of water. In the past five years, the lines have been split almost evenly between foodgrade and chemical trailers, including a sophisticated unit to haul hydrogen peroxide.

Mechanical Complexities

This is what Daniel envisioned when he joined the company in 1992 after obtaining his master's degree in economics at the University of Montreal. He had always been fascinated by the mechanical side of trailers, and not particularly enamored with the family's cement-industry roots. In 1953, Jacques' father started Tremca Group Inc, which produced cement products such as paving stone, sewer pipes, and construction blocks. Jacques bought it in 1966 and sold it to his partner five years ago.

“It's pretty simple: You have the mold and the mix, and you know what to do with it,” Daniel says. “It's replicated as fast as you can and with the best quality you can. But on the mechanical side (with Tremcar), there's always something new. There's always going to be something new every day in the evolution of the product. That's what brought me here — the challenge and all the new ideas.”

Jacques also has a unique view of the industry. He spent four years (1985-89) in Quebec's Parliament before deciding to “get back into the real world” by buying Tremcar in 1989.

“I have a great respect for these politicians, because it is not very easy,” he says. “You have as many ideas as you have people. It's not easy to get that focus and make things happen.

“It's not like this business, where you make a decision this morning and you will see the results maybe next week. In politics, it's talk, talk, talk, and sometimes you think, ‘We've got it,’ and then something happens to change everything after six months of work.”

The Legacy of Growth

The growth of the company has been steady and formidable: It was founded in 1962 under the name A&L Tougas. In 1990, the name was changed to Tremcar Inc. At that time, the company was making tank trailers and stainless steel equipment and repairing tankers — mostly with a Quebec clientele.

In 1992, in an attempt to increase production of tank trailers, Tremcar acquired a majority in Technova Inc, its main competitor in Quebec (and now named Tremcar Drummond Inc). This plant, located in Drummondville, 80 miles northeast of Montreal, manufactures aluminum tank trailers for the transportation of dry bulk products such as sugar, powder cement, and other dry materials distributed to Canadian and American markets.

After that acquisition, the company added a new line of products and began testing and inspecting all code tank trailers per HM-183. Then, in April 1994, Tremcar capitalized on its interest in increasing its presence in Ontario, acquiring Riexinger Tankers Ltd, which specialized in stainless steel tank trailer repair. The company became JC's Tanks & Repairs Inc, now located in Cambridge, a suburb of Ontario.

Tremcar started penetrating the Canadian market and turned to the American market, using a network of strategically chosen distributors.

After buying a new building in Iberville, 40 miles southeast of Montreal, in November 1994, the company moved its stainless steel tank trailer repair facilities there and opened Citernes Hebert & Fils Inc, a second workshop dedicated to after-sale service and repairs.

Eighteen months later, another new company was established in St-Cesaire, 15 miles northeast of Iberville. Raynox Inc's mandate was to manufacture the components of a tank trailer.

The next month, Tremcar opened a new office at the site of a former Fruehauf plant in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to house the engineering staff, which offers technical support to all the US sales representatives and help the company broaden its product line by offering a variety of complex tank trailers.

“Everyone who calls from the US calls there,” Jacques says. “And from there, we ship parts next-day UPS. So it's closer to the customers, and we also have trailers on lease for special needs to ship everywhere on the short term.”

In 1999, just across the Canadian border in Champlain, New York, Tremcar opened a manufacturing plant, taking advantage of relatively low property taxes. But with the trailer market weakening, Tremcar closed it last November and focused all of its production at the plants in Iberville and Drummondville.

“The market was so good for us for so many years,” Tremblay says. “We feel the market could be slower for a few years. We cannot justify, with that kind of market, a third plant. We invested a lot of money in it and still own the building and property.

“Our strategic plan is to see what will happen in the market. I have opinions. I don't have any crystal ball. But my feeling is that we could have about the same market, probably a bit lower, this year. It could be about the same for the next two years. I don't think it will grow this year. I could be wrong. I hope I'm wrong.”

Tremcar has a production capacity of 1,000 trailers a year. After manufacturing 608 last year, it will scale down to between 500 and 550 this year.

“We are all in competition,” Jacques says. “Everyone wants to keep his share of the market. That's part of the game. It's not easy to increase in that kind of a market.”

Jacques says there were natural “growing pains” when the company went from producing 40 trailers a year in 1989 to over 600 last year. But he feels the key was to choose the right team to execute the plan. He believes people are the integral factor. Tremcar's workforce of 200 includes four engineers in Canada and two more in the US.

Tremcar has the space — 42,000 sq ft for the finishing line in Iberville and 65,000 in Drummondville for the first two stages — and it also has the equipment: a 25-ft computer-controlled plasma seamwelder, 20-ft shears, and a press that makes head pieces. Jacques says the “high level of technology enables us to produce a product distinguished through its quality and durability.”

Describing the skirting at the bottom of the trailers, Daniel says: “Normally, people take this sheet and weld. We do a 180-degree bend. Then there is another 180-degree piece inside that we pull on. No rivets, no bolts, never comes loose. And it looks nice.”

Because the plant in Drummondville handles the first two stages of production, Tremcar is able to fully utilize its 42,000 sq ft in Iberville. It handles up to 30 trailers at one time, prompting Daniel to say, “There is no space lost.”

Petroleum Options Explored

What does the future hold? Jacques says Tremcar currently is investigating the purchase of a company that produces petroleum tankers. That's critical to Tremcar, he feels, because it is the only tanker the company does not produce.

“When we offer tanks to customers, we would like to offer the full line,” he says. “It's not a rush for tomorrow morning. We are looking at a purchase in the long term.

“We are very close to the Northeast of the US. For us, our strategy will involve exploring the market there first. We are looking at companies that are for sale. We are looking and still talking to people and hopefully will be fortunate enough to buy a company that will give us more strength in the US market. We're talking with some people in Mexico City for the Mexican market. We'd prefer to buy a company rather than to make it on our own. If we have no choice, we'll probably start our own facility in the States.

“We are very happy with what we've accomplished in the last five years. Down the road, the market should come back again, and we'll expand even more.”

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