Trailerbodybuilders 264 Lead Feature Astoria

Green glass service bodies

Aug. 1, 2007
Here's another inconvenient truth: some of the very properties that make fiberglass a desirable material for service body manufacturing are causing environmentalists

Here's another inconvenient truth: some of the very properties that make fiberglass a desirable material for service body manufacturing are causing environmentalists to raise objections to it.

Fiberglass doesn't rot. It doesn't rust. Bury it in a landfill, and it just sits there. You can throw fiberglass away, but actually getting rid of it is something else again.

Some nations have made it illegal to put fiberglass in a landfill, leaving composite manufacturers across the U.S. to wonder how long before our country follows suit.

All of which presents a challenge — present and future. That's because fiberglass service body manufacturers generate a lot of scrap fiberglass in the manufacturing process. It is scrap that has been left behind after the bodies leave the plant. And it's a material that customers need to dispose of once the fairly long life of a fiberglass service body is finally over.

“Landfills frown upon the disposal of fiberglass,” says Scott Metzger, sales manager, Astoria Industries of Iowa Inc, a fiberglass service body manufacturer that recently moved to a new, larger plant in Osceola, Iowa.

The open-mold process that fiberglass service body manufacturers traditionally have used generates a considerable amount of fiberglass scrap through door openings and wheel well cutouts, as well as overspray and flange trimmings. Normally, the material that is trimmed away is also thrown away.

Recently Astoria found a solution to the obvious: Why not convert the fiberglass scrap into a product people can use?

Astoria has done just that. The company has begun to use what it previously threw away, converting scrap fiberglass into panels that can be used to reinforce service bodies. The folks who generate the scrap now use the scrap as a substitute for foam, plywood, OSB, and balsa wood.

Fiberglass service body manufacturers have used these materials (and others) to form the core of the bodies. The cores in turn are encapsulated in fiberglass to form service body sidepacks.

But Astoria has developed a patent-pending process to produce panels that replace traditional cores in the body. After trimming the scrap from the sidepacks, the company cuts it into strips. The strips are then ground into 3/4" fibrous strands. The strands are then compression molded into panels sized for use in service body sidepacks.

“Other than the hardware that the bodies require, Astoria is the only service body manufacturer that produces service body compartments comprised of 100% fiberglass,” Metzger says. “We aren't sending the scrap to the landfill anymore. Plus, the recycled fiberglass panels that this process produces are stronger and lighter than traditional fiberglass cored bodies. The Astoria body is now manufactured with approximately 50% recycled fiberglass”

But does it work?

That's all fine, but what about performance? That's fine, too, according to test results on Astoria's new recycled core.

The company sent the recycled panels to Winona State, a university that offers undergraduate degrees in composite materials engineering. Using the school's testing equipment, Astoria found that (compared with the materials the company had been using) the composite panels showed a 40% improvement in tensile strength, a 27% improvement in flexural strength (the materials resistance to bending failure), an 87% gain in shear strength, and a 35% increase in tensile elongation (the percentage that material will stretch before breaking). All of this is accomplished with material that is 100% resistant to water penetration.

Tests compared the composite panels against 7/16" OSB chipboard, one of the company's previously used core materials. Astoria concluded from these test results and previous tests performed comparing OSB to foam that the new recycled material is the strongest core the company has used to date.

“The thing about wood or foam core is that you have to completely encapsulate it,” says Matt DeCann, composites engineer. That makes it heavier. Recycled material does not need to be encapsulated because of its physical properties and appearance.”

The process also enables the company to produce service bodies more quickly.

“We have been making bodies with recycled panels for months now,” DeCann says. “We have noticed that it takes us less time to produce a service body with composite panels than it does for traditional cores. With our reduction in labor costs, Astoria is able to pass on cost savings, making us more price competitive in the industry than we have been before.”

Metzger cites several advantages of the fiberglass when compared with steel, including corrosion resistance, dent resistance, and weight savings.

A gel coat finish on a fiberglass body is five times thicker than paint. It resists ultraviolet radiation, scratching, chipping, and peeling more effectively than paint, he says.

Astoria has recently began to offer a high pressure polyurea spray-on liner inside its sidepack compartments. This gives the compartments a clean, textured look that also reduces cargo shifting.

Astoria has a standard five-year warranty on labor and workmanship. “Customers can expect a 15-year service life of an Astoria body,” Metzger says.

Rigid, yet flexible

Astoria has developed a spring-based body mounting system to help keep torsion load out of the body.

“If you rigidly mount a body, the twist that the truck encounters goes right into the service body,” DeCann says. “Our mounting system allows the front to move. The back two mounting points are rigid. It does a good job of reducing the torsional stress that service bodies experience.”

Astoria's mounting system allows the service body to do what it was designed to do — be rigid — while simultaneously allowing the truck suspensions and frames to do what they are designed to do — carry loads over irregular roads.

“Stepping is accomplished primarily by spring deflection in the suspensions, and by torsional deflection in the frame,” DeCann says. “Because the load is asymmetric to the axis of the frame, the frame twists torsionally. The frame is designed by the manufacturer to withstand the resulting torsional deflection, without being over-stressed.”

DeCann points out that the torsional stiffness of the truck frame increases when a service body is rigidly attached to the frame. This forces the body to absorb part of the torsional load to which the frame is being subjected.

The mounting system Astoria designed tends to isolate the body from the torsional loads of the truck, leaving the truck frame free to twist as it was designed to do while helping the body to remain rigid.

Another shade of green

Astoria also is developing another way of producing fiberglass service bodies with less environmental impact. Rather than using an open mold system in which fiberglass and resin are sprayed into a mold, the company is beginning to use a closed mold system.

In a closed mold system, resin is either infused or drawn throughout the glass reinforcement. Astoria uses a process called closed-cavity bag molding, which utilizes a reusable vacuum bag to distribute the resin throughout the glass.

“Other than the emissions from the gel coat, closed molding allows us to produce service bodies with very little emissions,” Metzger says

DeCann also likes the quality. He says the process provides uniform material thickness and an improved strength-to-weight ratio.

“We can reduce the weight of our body by up to 25% and still retain the same strength,” DeCann says.

A third advantage of closed molding is a reduction in material waste. The resin is injected into the mold, rather than sprayed, and the vacuum forces the resin uniformly throughout the glass mat.

The injection of resin is tightly controlled. The operator simply enters the number of resin strokes desired into the machine's controller. Astoria plans to use this process increasingly to produce standard service bodies.

Adjustable molds

Astoria has developed manufacturing techniques with an adjustable molding system to provide a wide range of sizes and customer specifications. With its adjustable molds, sidepacks can be built with a wide range of lengths (up to 250") and with compartment depths ranging from 12" to 24" in one-inch increments. Compartment heights can be either 39" or 48".

“We offer a lot of compartment layouts,” Metzger says. “The adjustable mold system makes it easy for us to build to customer spec.”

All of these changes are being made within the company's new plant in Osceola, Iowa.

New plant

The company moved into the building — formerly the home of an electrical components manufacturer — in May. The 148,000-sq-ft building offers significantly more space than the company's previous location in Chariton, Iowa.

Astoria is taking advantage of the increased space to increase production capacity. For example, Astoria had only one gel coat booth and one chop booth (where resin and chopped fiberglass are sprayed) in the Chariton plant. The new facility has six.

“With a much larger capacity, our delivery times have gone down,” Metzger says. “And we just installed equipment so that we can offer a high-pressure spray-on lining inside the compartments as standard.”

One new feature of the Osceola plant is a new ventilation system. The system was built by Frees Inc of Shreveport, Louisiana. It is designed to reduce ambient levels of styrene in the atmosphere to below the 50 ppm limit specified by those involved in the composite industry, including the American Composites Manufacturers Association.

According to the American Composites Manufacturers Association, there is evidence that overexposure to styrene can cause certain temporary adverse health effects. The onset of these effects can be seen at exposures of 100 ppm and higher. OSHA and industry agreed in a 1989 rulemaking that 50 ppm protected workers from these health concerns and offered an appropriate safety margin.

Styrene often has a distinctive smell in manufacturing plants, but it is hardly noticeable in the new Astoria plant, the result of the company's ventilation system.

Getting started

Astoria helped pioneer the concept of manufacturing service bodies with fiberglass. Established in Astoria, Illinois, in the early 1960s, the company's fiberglass products included service bodies and truck caps.

Following a merger with Glasstite, Astoria retained its brand name, but the company moved its production to the Glasstite plant in Jackson, Minnesota.

In 1995, the president of another fiberglass service body manufacturer purchased Astoria from Raven Industries and moved the company to Chariton. The buyer, Robert Wolf, served as president of Northwest Bodies for 10 ten years prior to acquiring Astoria Industries.

The company is optimistic about the future.

“We have about 80 employees right now, but we have plans to increase that to 200,” Metzger says. “We really believe we are on to something with our recycled core fiberglass bodies. Companies who buy our bodies promote ‘green power’ and the concept of recycling. What better way for them to show their conviction to the concept than by using bodies that contain approximately 50% recycled fiberglass material and also provide them with other benefits. The more we have told our customers about this, the more we realize that the entire concept is bigger than we had imagined.”

“We also are trying to stay ahead of the curve,” DeCann says. ”We know that EPA regulations are coming. But beyond that, we want to continually improve the products we offer.”