Easy on, easy off

Jan. 1, 2007
Is the United States ready to embrace the idea of demountable truck bodies? The concept has been used far more widely in Europe but seems to be just a

Is the United States ready to embrace the idea of demountable truck bodies?

The concept has been used far more widely in Europe but seems to be just a small niche here. But that may be changing, according to Demountable Concepts Inc of Glassboro, New Jersey.

Demand for the company's system of interchangeable truck bodies has grown to the point that the company built a new, larger manufacturing plant in Glassboro, New Jersey, the company's first new facility in almost 20 years of operation.

What is behind the growing demand? A significant factor has been the fact that the driver shortage is limiting fleets' ability to expand. If it is difficult to hire and retain the drivers needed to staff a larger number of trucks, it becomes more important than ever to get the most out of the trucks the fleet already has.

That's where Demountable Concepts has come in. Founder Frank Fisher and his company have been showing that truck bodies can achieve logistics efficiencies just like trailers when truck bodies can be unhooked and dropped. Fleets can expand the number of truck bodies they operate without having to add trucks or truck drivers. And by operating single-axle straight trucks, they do not need to hire that endangered species — a driver with a commercial driver's license.

“Commercial driver license regulations have made products like ours much more appealing,” says Rustin Cassway, president. “When you can drop off one truck body and pick up another, you can deliver twice the cargo as before. And when you do that with a single-axle straight truck, you can do that with drivers who do not have a CDL. Companies are buying six bodies and three trucks, for example. They are doubling their fleet capacity without having to double the number of trucks — or truck drivers. That's because the driver can deliver a loaded truck body, typically to a distribution center, and pick up an empty one. The driver's time isn't spent waiting to unload. He can spend his time driving.”

Not a competitor

Although Demountable Concepts builds an occasional platform body and offers its own custom trailer design for transporting demountable bodies, the company primarily is in the business of producing and selling the specialized components that enable truck bodies to be hooked and unhooked from truck chassis and trailers.

During the first few years of its existence, Demountable Concepts was in partnership with Ray Smith Demountables, a British company, with extensive experience selling the idea in Europe. One of the first things Fisher learned from Smith was to stay out of the truck body manufacturing business.

“We learned from the beginning how important it is not to compete with truck body manufacturers,” Cassway says. “We have to be an ally, not a competitor.”

Leasing companies are a major source of sales.

“Large leasing companies buy from major van body manufacturers like Morgan and Supreme,” Cassway says. “They aren't going to buy a demountable van body if it means having to buy van bodies from a small company like us. We can't compete against major van body manufacturers — and we don't want to. Instead, we have designed our system so that it integrates easily with the bodies other companies produce.”

Getting it together

Rather than building complete van bodies, Demountable Concepts has developed kits for most van body manufacturers. The primary interface between Demountable Concepts' lift system and the third-party van body is a steel frame on top of which the van body manufacturer assembles the body. The demountable base frame, which takes the place of the truck body's understructure, consists of a steel perimeter and crossmembers typically mounted on 12" centers. The truck body manufacturer's standard bottom rails overlap the steel perimeter and are fastened to it. The customer's choice of flooring is secured to the crossmembers of the base frame.

“For some manufacturers, we may need to produce only two base frames — one for 96" bodies and another for 102" widths,” Cassway says. “For others, we produce twice that number because the manufacturer builds FRP models as well as sheet-and-post construction.”

The base frames also include pockets on each corner in which steel legs are stored. The legs are pulled from their pockets and pinned into place, enabling them to remain at loading dock height after the chassis is driven away.

Providing a lift

The base frame makes the truck body ready for quick mounting and dismounting. A second Demountable Concepts component — the chassis lift — is bolted to the chassis. It performs two main purposes — secure the body to the chassis as well as to raise and lower it.

The electric/hydraulic power system energizes two hydraulic cylinders to provide enough vertical lift to enable the body to clear the chassis. The power pack is enclosed in a toolbox built specifically for Demountable Concepts to protect the electrical components from the weather.

Demountable Concepts produces the chassis lift as a kit that body builders and truck equipment distributors can install locally. The company also installs the kit and ships the completed chassis lift to the location designated by the body company.

“We still do most of the trucks here,” Cassway says, “but we are shipping more and more kits to body builders and distributors because we have been changing things so that it is easier for local companies to install the chassis lift.”

In addition to straight-truck designs, Demountable Concepts also has designed a trailer-mounted system. Rather than use hydraulic power, the system uses a Hendrickson air suspension to raise and lower the trailer. Existing air generates enough height variation to enable the trailer to back under the bodies and be raised sufficiently for the legs to be unpinned and stored inside the pockets of the base frame.

The trailer — essentially a 53-foot I-beam model that resembles a container chassis — is designed to carry multiple demountable bodies — typically two to four. Demountable Concepts calls it the Warehouse on Wheels because some customers have been able to use the system instead of a warehouse. The trailer transports the bodies from a central location to a regional operating point. Loaded bodies are removed for local drivers to use in making deliveries. Empty bodies are placed back on the trailer for a return trip to the company's central location.

Expanding production

Increased demand for the systems led Demountable Concepts to move into a new plant last year.

The new 50,000-sq-ft building, completed in May, is a far cry from Frank Fisher's garage — or even the company's previous location. It is expandable to 120,000 square feet.

“Our old plant started as a 10,000-sq-ft building,” Cassway says. “We expanded it several times until it was 17,000 square feet. It was pretty inefficient.”

That's all behind them now. Demountable Concepts recently built a new 50,000-sq-ft manufacturing plant to produce its line of truck body and trailer mounting systems.

“All those years of wishing finally paid off.” Fisher says. “Fortunately, we were able to start with a clean slate and build the kind of plant we always wanted. We designed a building that fit the kind of product we manufacture.”

While 50,000 square feet may not sound big to a major truck body manufacturer, it's important to realize that Demountable Concepts does not manufacture van bodies.

Fisher says productivity has improved 30% since the company moved, the result of getting all operations under one roof and reducing wasted motion — particularly in the chassis prep and mounting area where the company installs the chassis lift kit. Six mounting bays now make it possible for chassis to be prepped and the lift kit installed without moving the truck. Limited access in the old facility required one or more trucks to be moved so that completed trucks could leave the building.

But that is only part of the improvements. Unencumbered material flow, combined with new fixtures and equipment also have made the company more productive.

To help management visualize what a new plant would look like, the footprint of every component of production was created in Auto-Cad then pasted onto a magnet and placed on a sheet of steel. The components included bundles of raw materials, jigs and fixtures, machine tools, paint booth, and finished goods. The magnetically held components could be repositioned on the sheet as many times as needed until management was satisfied.

“We got a good idea of what we needed,” Fisher says. “Those requirements determined the footprint of the building. We gave that to an architect.”

Fisher says the input management gave the architect did not take long to create.

“We were starting with a clean slate, but we had 30 years of wishing to help us know what we wanted the plant to be like.”

Engineering director Albert Perry fine-tuned the design with the company's CAD program.

Equipping the plant

Because of space limitations, Demountable Concepts always had to outsource its fabrication. That is changing as the new plant continues to ramp up production.

A 250-ton Accurpress press brake is scheduled to arrive shortly, along with a 12-ft shear capable of cutting 1/4" steel. The press brake will be equipped with CNC controls and automated backgauge.

“We are spending $150,000 on these two machines, but they will pay for themselves within a year,” Cassway says. “And that payback is based only on the cost of producing three high-volume parts.”

Like the fleets who buy demountable truck body systems, Demountable Concepts is buying automated equipment because of the tight labor market.

“We are buying the technology that comes with these machine tools,” Cassway says. “In today's world, you can't assume that you are going to be able to hire skilled craftsmen. In the past, we have had to turn down jobs that we could not produce. The new machine tools will open up new opportunities for us.”

Beyond the machine tools, Demountable Concepts invested in a series of welding platens.

“Nobody works on the floor,” Cassway says. “That's a rule.”

Grass roots marketing

Demountable Concepts uses what Cassway calls “grass roots marketing” to sell its products.

“We work closely with the body companies, but their sales guys are too busy selling their own stuff,” Cassway says. “So we have to explain the concept to end users. We do a lot of mailings of maybe 5,000-10,000 copies to furniture companies and other fleets that are good fits for this concept. Plus, we demonstrate the idea to major customers like Ryder and Penske.

“When a leasing company wants a demountable system, they call their body manufacturer — they typically don't call us. But because we have worked with the body manufacturers, they know what the customer is talking about. They know the customer isn't asking for something off the wall. Their customer is asking them about something that has been designed to integrate with the bodies they manufacture. For this to work, we have to have everyone onboard.”

It sounds like a lot of selling, but only two people work fulltime in sales. “We want to expand our sales staff, especially on the West Coast,” Cassway says.

The company uses a sales partner, G D Transport, to sell throughout Mexico. Because full-length double trailers are legal in Mexico, fleets can pull four 20-ft demountable bodies at a time.

“We have a customer down there — a large furniture company — that has been using this system as a mobile warehouse,” Cassway says. “Down there, labor does not cost much, but warehousing is expensive. Demountable bodies can reduce that warehousing cost. Plus, security is an issue. Armed guards escort their delivery trucks. They follow in cars ahead of and behind the truck as it travels. So if this company can transport four truck bodies instead of one, it can reduce its security expense.”

Getting started

When Frank Fisher started Demountable Concepts almost 20 years ago, he already had 18 years experience producing demountable truck body systems.

The former Fruehauf mechanic had been employed by a company called Truck Container Systems. Shortly after the death of the owner, the company failed. At age 48, Fisher could either find other employment or…

…or start his own company. Committed to the concept of demountable truck bodies, Fisher started Demountable Concepts in 1989. In doing so, he looked to a partner in the United Kingdom for help in getting the company going in the right direction.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Flush with cash — a $50 contribution from his wife — Fisher launched Demountable Concepts in his garage. Fisher quickly outgrew the garage, however, when a customer provided enough business that the company rented a building big enough to meet demand.

Through it all, Fisher's faith in the concept remained strong.

“We did what we had to do to stay in business,” Fisher says, “but we always kept the focus on demountable truck bodies.”

How to make a quick getaway

Trailers increasingly have been used in “drop and hook” operations in which loaded trailers are dropped at a particular site and empties taken back.

Here's how Demountable Concepts is doing the same basic idea using straight trucks:

  1. The van body rests on retractable legs as a chassis is backed beneath it. The chassis is equipped with a special lifting frame that provides the body with enough vertical movement for the legs to be put in place.

  2. Special long sills on the body guide the chassis as it backs up.

  3. A close-up shows some of the key components of the system. The legs are pinned into place when not stored within the floor of the body. The van body is built atop a steel substructure. The perimeter of this substructure is pre-punched to accept the bolts required for the truck body manufacturer to secure it to the body.

  4. The chassis lift raises the body, enabling the pins to be pulled from the legs.

  5. With the weight of the body now on the chassis, the legs can be returned to their pockets for storage. The chassis lift is lowered and the hooks that hold the body on the chassis lift are locked in place.