Body manufacturer turns supplier

March 1, 2006
THINK ABOUT what happens when you step on a piece of gum. The shape of the gum on your shoe is the same shape as the gum on the sidewalk with a big flexible

THINK ABOUT what happens when you step on a piece of gum.

The shape of the gum on your shoe is the same shape as the gum on the sidewalk — with a big flexible mess in between.

A veteran truck body manufacturer, however, is using a highly engineered version of this process to produce composite panels that are strong, lightweight, and not subject to corrosion.

Truck body manufacturing is in Ralph Haire's blood. His father started A M Haire, a truck body manufacturer in Thomasville, North Carolina, more than 30 years ago. Most of his adult life, Haire worked with the family truck body business. But since 1999, he has been on his own, working with his own company, Millennium/AR Haire, to produce specialized van bodies. Most recently, he has joined a new company called Transportation Systems Solutions LLC, to produce the composite panels that Millennium/AR Haire assembled into van bodies.

Millennium/AR Haire, he says, was established to prove the viability of plastic van bodies.

“It's okay with us to call these plastic panels. “Years ago I told my mother that I was going to build a plastic truck. She told me I couldn't possibly do that, but I said, ‘Mom, of course I can.’ It wasn't until she had an accident in her Buick that she realized how much plastic is being used in the automotive business. The panels we make are highly engineered, but, yes, they are made of plastic. It is what it is.”

Millennium/AR Haire has built 350 van bodies using these panels.

“Of the 350 we built, five had problems,” Haire says. “Those five all operated up north under extremely cold temperatures, and they developed hairline cracks around the fasteners. We were through-bolting the panels to the top and bottom rails. Our solution to the hairline cracks was to drill larger holes and use an insert in order to accommodate for the difference in expansion between the panels and the fasteners. Ultimately, the solution is to use structural adhesives in place of fasteners.”

Whereas Millennium/AR Haire was formed to build bodies with these panels, Transportation Systems Solutions focuses on building the panels.

“The idea behind Transportation Systems Solutions LLC is for it to be a supplier rather than a manufacturer of truck and trailer bodies,” Haire says. “We want to supply the components truck body manufacturers need to produce an all-bonded body that does not contain fasteners. Like the name implies, our goal is to solve transportation problems.”

Some of those problems include reducing the weight of the van body and improving its durability through impact resistance, structural integrity, and corrosion resistance.

Corrosion resistance in particular has become a major concern in recent years — and not just as a result of more aggressive road chemicals for snow and ice control. Environmental regulations have forced changes in how wood product manufacturers combat decay.

“They have switched to high copper content for treated wood,” Haire says. “Plywood is soaked in this solution to help the wood resist rot, but the solution accelerates the corrosion of metal. Typically fasteners are the first to go.”

Weight reduction is another factor. A panel made from CoreTough ST material typically is one to 1½ pounds per square foot lighter than a comparable sheet of plywood, Haire says. He sees this as an advantage in medium-duty applications where customers want to maximize cargo capacity without having to hire drivers with commercial driver licenses. He also sees opportunities where the customer's application is close to requiring a Class 8 truck. Saving body weight could enable to customer to buy a Class 7 and stay below the 33,000-pound GVWR triggering point for federal excise tax.

How it works

The strength of the panels is its core, a specially designed honeycomb produced from a single sheet of plastic. Transportation Systems Solutions LLC uses several types of plastic, depending upon the application. But the typical van body would start with a sheet of .125-inch-thick high-impact polystyrene (HIPS) heated and pulled to the desired thickness, usually one inch thick for truck bodies. Other materials also can be used, including polypropylene and polycarbonate.

With the core produced, multiple skins are optional, including steel, aluminum, and ABS plastic.

“The standard choice for truck bodies is HIPS core with ABS skins,” Haire says. “ABS is a really versatile material now. You can get it with a UV cap extruded into the material.”

Once produced, they can be inserted into extrusions. A bead of structural adhesive running the length of each extrusion bonds the panels in place.

According to Haire, the panels will require a 15-20% price premium up front. At least part of that cost, Haire says, can be recouped in the form of labor savings. Assembling van bodies with this approach eliminates drilling and riveting that sheet-and-post construction requires.

Producing the panels

Transportation Systems Solutions has three specially designed presses to produce the cores. Like a 4-ft × 10-ft waffle iron, the press is equipped with a pair of steel plates, and the sheet of plastic is inserted between them. The steel plates are heated sufficiently so that when they press the plastic sheet top and bottom, the sheet is heated to its forming temperature.

The top and bottom plates then are gradually pulled apart, the plastic sticking to both plates. Unlike the process of stepping on chewing gum, the press precisely controls the shape of the material as it stretches. Both plates have holes that cause the material to transition from a circle on one side to a triangle on the other.

“That's what gives the core its strength,” Haire says. “You wind up with a truss that, regardless of the direction of the load, is placed in compression.”

When the process is over, a 1/8-inch thick solid sheet of HIPS is transformed into a honeycomb panel measuring an inch thick. The process can also produce panels for insulated vans. In those cases, the press stretches the sheet to 3¼ inches thick.

“The thicker you pull them, the stiffer the panels get,” Haire says. “Plus, we trap a lot of air. Trapped air has a K factor of .16. By comparison, the K factor of urethane is .17"

New plant

To produce these composite panels, Transportation Systems Solutions moved into a new 93,000-sq-ft plant in High Point, North Carolina, last year.

The facility provides the company with ample offices — including engineering. It also offers plenty of space for panel production and some assembly.

Although Transportation Systems Solutions LLC plans to be a van body supplier — not a manufacturer — the plant does have room to assemble completed products. Befitting a company whose management has roots in the van body business, Transportation Systems Solutions LLC is using its composite panels to produce mobile storage units. Essentially panels bonded to aluminum extrusions, these units share a remarkable resemblance in size and design to van bodies. Perhaps the biggest distinction — forklift pockets instead of a chassis beneath them.

“We didn't start this company with the idea that we would be the manufacturer of a finished product,” Haire says. “We see this more as a matter of perfecting our manufacturing process.”

New company

Transportation Systems Solutions has a management team that is well experienced in manufacturing transportation equipment. President and CEO is Larry Lansford, former chief operating officer for Thomas Built Buses in neighboring High Point, North Carolina.

Haire serves as vice-president of research and development. He is the founder and former owner of AM Haire Body Company in Thomasville.

Ron Hughes, director of new business development, served as director of customer support at Thomas Built and is a former national accounts fleet service manager. He also has experience with Thomas Built and with Ford Motor Company.

The company sees applications beyond insulated and dry-freight vans. Other uses being considered are as a material for motorcycle trailers, and as trailers for pontoon boats and bicycles. But Haire still sees the panels as transportation solutions. He quotes the transportation director of Wal-Mart as saying the goal of the fleet is to double its fuel economy in 10 years.

“You aren't going to do that with engine improvements alone,” Haire says. It's going to take a lot of incremental changes to powertrains, chassis, bodies, equipment, and trailers.”

Another advantage of this material, as yet untapped, is its compatibility with radio frequency identification tags. Fleets anticipate a significant increase in these tags that enable management to know the location of individual boxes inside the truck body or trailer. Plastics, Haire points out, do not affect the performance of RFIDs.

“Whether it's the growth of RFIDs, weight savings, or corrosion resistance, we are convinced that this type of material is the next step in the evolution of truck body materials,” Haire says.