Not your father's box truck

Oct. 1, 2004
FOR many outside the industry, van bodies and trailers are simply boxes, something to put stuff in and haul somewhere. Whether they are van bodies or

FOR many outside the industry, van bodies and trailers are simply boxes, something to put stuff in and haul somewhere. Whether they are van bodies or trailers, they are described as “box trucks.”

AK Specialty Vehicles in suburban Chicago produces a far different type box — both in terms of how it is built and what it does. The reason is that the trailers that AK Specialty Vehicles produces generally are not designed to haul cargo. They are designed to transport expertise.

When the Democratic Party held its national convention in Boston in July, the Massachusetts State Police needed a mobile command center from which it could coordinate security. AK Specialty Vehicles built them a 53-ft expandable van that housed all the equipment — and provided the conference rooms — the state police required to handle command center communications in addition to 911 calls.

When the medical industry introduced new computerized tomography and positive emission tomography (PET) diagnostic equipment, AK Specialty Vehicles began building trailers with expandable sides to convert to mobile medical labs.

Or when television stations and networks need a way to produce remote broadcasts, they use mobile studios that AK Specialty Vehicles builds.

Yes, AK Specialty Vehicles builds vans. But these vans hardly can be called boxes.

“We build trailers and integrate the equipment,” says Michael Mitchell, marketing manager. “Not everyone in this market does that.”

Keeping things secure

The special trailer AK Specialty Vehicles completed for the Massachusetts State Police was the product of a compressed engineering and production schedule, but the trailer arrived in time to serve as the command center for security at the Democratic convention.

“It attracted a lot of media attention,” says Tony Brummel, director of engineering. “People kept asking what was inside, but the state police did not want to provide a lot of details, especially while the convention was going on.”

The trailer was equipped with the some of the latest communication technology, including satellite dish, cell antennas, VHF, UHF, and 800 MHz roof antennas, telephone and radio systems, a 42-inch plasma screen inside the trailer and another one outside, one 13-inch and three 20-inch monitors, two broadcast quality I/O patch panels, pan-and-tilt roof-mounted surveillance cameras, and a second surveillance camera mounted on a telescoping mast.

“You can patch any video input — DVD, broadcast television, computer data — into any or all of the screens,” Brummel says.

Calling the sheriff

The recent Massachusetts State Police project came about as the result of a satisfied customer a continent away, along with an Internet search.

“The Massachusetts State Police visited our Web site and saw what we produced earlier for the Orange County (California) Sheriff's Department,” Mitchell says. The Orange County project consisted of two trailers that duplicate the county's entire emergency operation center (EOC). The trailers enable the county to have emergency management capability even if an earthquake or other disaster knocks out the primary center.

The two Orange County trailers have distinct purposes. One handles the 911 system. The other serves as a command center, complete with 10 dispatch consoles. AK Specialty Vehicles delivered the trailers in October 2001. The mobile command and communications trailers soon went to work in the investigation of a high-profile murder case — Samantha Runyon, a six-year-old girl who was lured away from her backyard by a man who asked her to help him find his missing dog. The case affected sheriff's deputies so much that they named the two trailers after the young murder victim — Samantha I and Samantha II.

Completing the concept

After visiting Orange County and evaluating the trailers in person, representatives of the Massachusetts State Police concluded that a single trailer would work for their application.

They selected the company's Command 53X model, a 53-ft trailer with four 42-inch-deep expandable sections. Among the specs:

  • Pendant control for each of the four expandable sections.

  • Pendant control of the four electro-hydraulic landing legs

  • 120,000 BTU of air conditioning

  • 100,000 watts of generator power

  • 480 three-phase shore power

  • FM-200 fire suppression system

  • Redundant AC and DC power systems

  • 12-ft Corian conference table

  • Six-station kiosk for radio communications

  • 300-sq-ft command and control room

  • 250 square feet of underbody storage

  • 15 workstations throughout the trailer, equipped with phone, data, VGA, and power outlets

  • Two galleys equipped with microwaves, refrigerators, coffeemakers, and sinks.

  • Bathroom equipped with incinerator toilet

  • Red and white DC-powered “map” lighting

  • Pneumatic 54-ft mast equipped with surveillance camera and radio television antennas

  • 20-ft pneumatic mast with 300-watt light tower that can be tilted and panned.

  • External four-speaker public address system.

Keeping current

Homeland security is but one niche that AK Specialty Vehicles serves. Mobile broadcasting studios and mobile medical labs are two other larger markets the company serves. But if there is a common thread that unifies the markets, it is that they require substantial customization to allow them to house the latest equipment used in that particular industry.

“We design around the specifications of our customers,” Brummel says. “As the customer's technology changes, our designs have to change. For a company like ours that builds trailers and integrates the equipment housed in the trailers, that means many hours of meetings, teleconferencing with vendors, and pouring over the details of the project.”

That is particularly true in the medical field, an area where AK Specialty Vehicles first established itself. Over the years, the company has had to overcome a wide range of obstacles associated with magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) equipment. Some of these obstacles simply involve making a highly rigid structure that can support equipment that requires tolerances that are measured in millimeters. But the trailers also have to overcome some interesting side effects such as controlling the intense magnetic fields that the equipment generates.

Policy of containment

The solutions would be a nightmare for weight-conscious freight haulers — including extensive use of steel on the walls and doors of the trailers.

“When we began building our first MRI trailers, we could walk up to the outside of the trailer and stick a wrench on the side,” Brummel says. “We have spent countless hours over the years refining the way we magnetically shield the trailers.”

AK Specialty Vehicles trailers sometimes include special rooms where radioactive isotopes are mixed. Just the door to such rooms can weight 300 pounds because they are lined with a 1/4" sheet of lead.

Other rooms are lined with plates of a special steel alloy that contains the magnetic field. Through experimentation, the company has learned a lot about directing and containing magnetic fields.

There are plenty of reasons to isolate the magnetism, including the effect it has on the trailer.

“Magnetic fields may increase corrosion,” Brummel says. “We have had to be careful in how we paint our trailers.”

Built on chassis

AK Specialty Vehicles builds its trailers from the ground up. The company typically builds its own enclosure atop a chassis designed and engineered by AKSV but produced by another manufacturer. Landoll Corporation of Marysville, Kansas, supplies the company with steel chassis. Schien Equipment of Carlinville, Illinois, produces chassis when customers specify aluminum.

With that exception, AK Specialty Vehicles fabricates and assembles the trailers it sells. Trailer production begins at the AK Specialty Vehicles plant in Calumet City, Illinois, six miles from company headquarters in Harvey. Assembled trailers then go to the 80,000-sq-ft facility in Harvey for the installation of specialized equipment and for final finishing.

The Calumet plant has been under the control of AK Specialty Vehicles since the company acquired a major competitor, Calumet Coach, in 2001.

Going global

The Calumet Coach acquisition is one of several that AK Specialty Vehicles has completed in its 13-year history. In 2002, AK Specialty Vehicles acquired Frontline Communications Corp in Florida, a manufacturer of mobile television broadcast vehicles.

That same year, the company also acquired SMIT Mobile Equipment of Holland, providing AK Specialty Vehicles with a base from which it can produce mobile medical vehicles in Europe.

Last year, AK Specialty Vehicles acquired two more companies. One was Winemiller Communications of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Winemiller specializes in remanufacturing broadcast vehicles. The move complements the Frontline Communications product offerings and provides the company with a service center in the northeast.

AMPsystems of Riverside, California, was the other acquisition in 2003. AMP specializes in expandable van trailers for the communications, military, and exhibit/display markets. The acquisition also serves as a West Coast repair facility for AK Specialty Vehicles and Frontline Communications.

Selecting a direction

The company has grown quickly in recent years — but not without a plan.

“We encourage the generation of new products and new ideas,” Brummel says. “Our engineering group is constantly challenged in this area.”

As new ideas are generated, a team weighs them and grades them. Those that look promising are brought before a team of representatives from engineering, production, marketing, and purchasing. They add up the attributes of the different proposals and act on the ones that hold the most potential for success.

One of the most interesting concepts the brainstorming has produced is that of the “World Class” trailer. With operations in North America and Europe, it's not surprising that AK Specialty Vehicles is thinking globally.

“We have been getting our engineers together to brainstorm,” Brummel says. “Europeans are known for their engineering skills. Americans have a reputation for innovation and being able to manufacture a product efficiently. Taking the best from both cultures would be a strong combination.”

Getting started

AK Specialty Vehicles has come a long way since that day in 1991 when two veterans of the specialty vehicle manufacturing business formed AK Associates LLC to service trailers and install medical systems.

The initial response to the new company was positive, leading AK Associates to begin manufacturing its own mobile medical units in 1995.

The next year, AK moved into a 30,000 square foot manufacturing building in Mokena, Illinois.

In 1997, AK Associates sold 75% of the company to Prime Medical Services, Inc. Prime Medical is traded on the NASDAQ under the symbol “PMSI”.

With demand continuing to grow in 1998, AK purchased an 80,000 square foot manufacturing building on a 4.6-acre site in Harvey, Illinois.

In 2001, AK Associates made another major financial commitment, acquiring Calumet Coach Company and forming AK Specialty Vehicles.

“As we move into the 21st century, we will continue to listen and be responsive to our customers and medical equipment partners,” says Phillip Supple, president. “We will keep developing new ideas and innovations for our products — and not to forget how far we have come in such a short time.”