Editorial

Photo Album Shows Growing Family WORKING in an industry like ours is a lot like having kids in the family. Living with them each day, you don't notice them growing up nearly to the extent that a distant relative can who only sees them once every few years.

So when we at Trailer/Body Builders observed our 40th anniversary last month, we decided to see how much our "family" has changed by getting out our "photo album" and looking closely at one issue every ten years. Last month on this page we touched on some of the changes that the truck equipment industry has made since we published our first issue of Trailer/Body Builders in November 1959.

Because this month is our Fabrication Issue, we focused on how truck body and trailer manufacturing has changed in 40 years. Here is what we found: November 1959. Just like today, engineers were striving to produce designs that enable their customers to get the most productivity out of their trucks and trailers. Our first issue carried two feature stories on improving payload by reducing tare weight-one using redesigned aluminum castings, the other a platform trailer that had fabricated main beams produced from high-strength steel. Both materials are industry standards today. However, our first issue also carried comments from an industry convention speaker who talked about using wood as a structural material in truck body construction. The design involved U-shaped frame members covered with skins of red oak plywood inside and outside.

Compared with the 1990s, the trailer manufacturing industry was far smaller. For all of 1959, manufacturers produced 71,594 trailers. At today's production rate, the industry manufactures that many in three months or less.

November 1969. We begin to see the seeds of what will become today's sophisticated CNC equipment. Our November issue 1969 featured a trailer manufacturer that installed a computer-controlled press brake to punch a row of rivet holes in one stroke. The Strippitt press brake was operated by feeding a punched tape read through a Hughes controller. Engineers punched the tape with a Teletype machine that was linked to a Houdaille Industries computer. The company also planned to begin using a computer to "speed some of the office and accounting work."

The industry needed the additional efficiencies that automated equipment provided. Demand for trailers was more than twice that of 1959. Manufacturers shipped 171,679 trailers the last year of the 1960s-up almost 140% from the close of the 1950s. Unfortunately, trailer shipments dropped 23% the next year, followed by another down year in 1971. A turbulent decade for trailer manufacturers had begun.

November 1979. Engineers were still designing for reduced tare weight. The Budd Company announced a new 45-ft van trailer that weighed 758 pounds less than its predecessor. Meanwhile, computer technology had become more accepted, albeit with some apprehension as indicated by the Truck Body & Equipment Association convention presentation titled "That Damn Computer: What It Can Do for You."

Manufacturers closed out the decade after riding the boom and bust cycle twice. The industry overcame a slow start in the 1970s. Trailer manufacturers enjoyed a record year in 1974-only to see shipments plummet more than 60% the next year. The bust, however, simply marked the beginning of a new boom period that peaked at the end of the decade.

November 1989. A truck and trailer concept developed by Freightliner and Heil addressed two key issues-the importance of highway safety and innovative ways to improve productivity of the equipment. Similar cooperative projects during the 1990s have enabled companies to tackle major issues pertaining to truck and trailer safety and the development of a standard electrical connector linking tractors and trailers. Having lost significant market share to imports, domestic automobile manufacturers make substantial improvements in product quality throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. More than ever, buyers of trucks, trailers, and commercial truck bodies demand the same level of quality available from the world's largest automotive manufacturers.

November 1999. Robotic welders and high levels of assembly fixtures improve product quality and plant efficiency at a 100-year-old truck body and trailer manufacturing company. While final figures for the last two years of the decade are yet to be published, it is clear that the 1990s will be the industry's most productive decade of the 20th century. When the totals come in, we probably will see that trailer manufacturers in an average year in the 1990s shipped more trailers than they did in record years in previous decades. Quality. Boom and bust cycles. Lengthy setup times for production runs. Plant safety. Many of the problems that have plagued manufacturers over the years have been made less acute with some of the advancements in plant equipment technology displayed at this year's Fabtech International (see Pages 38-48). Computer controlled lasers, plasma cutters, and other equipment enable manufacturers to fabricate parts with previously unheard of precision. Robots are now available to perform hazardous or repetitive tasks. Software and network protocol simplify the process of transmitting the vision of the mind of the engineer to the "mind" controlling the manufacturing equipment.

Is fabricating trailers and truck bodies easy now? Not hardly. But with the ingenuity of our industry and technology at our disposal, it will be interesting to see what things look like in November 2009. People call this a mature industry, but how can it be mature when it just keeps growing?

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