Making waves on the other side of the pond

A little reorientation is always required after a long flight. Chances are good that the weather is different from the city you left — hotter or cooler, rainier or sunnier. The pace may be different. If it's an east-west flight, your watch will no longer have the correct local time, and your body clock may be lying to you.

But it's not just chronology and meteorology that can be surprisingly different when we fly into another part of this rapidly shrinking world. Sometimes it's the business climate.

To a certain extent, this month's Trailer/Body Builders is a study in business climate contrast. One section of the magazine takes a look at what is going on in the North American market. We follow that with a report that highlights some of the changes taking place in Europe — and the design modifications that trailer manufacturers are making in response to ever-increasingly stringent regulations on trucks and trailers.

First let's look at what's happening here.

As Paul Schenck reports in our annual survey of North America's largest trailer manufacturers, 2007 was not exactly a banner year for most manufacturers. Overall, production among the largest companies in our industry fell 22% from 2006 levels. And while Great Dane, Wabash National, and Utility Trailer Manufacturing all retained their respective positions as the three largest trailer manufacturers in North America, there was a wholesale shuffle from that point on.

Yet as turbulent as last year was, we found pockets of increased production. General freight applications may have been down sharply in 2007, but the ag market and energy sector were two areas that turned in strong performances. Most recent reports indicate some changes, but that will be the subject of next year's report.

Also in this issue is a state-of-the art report on the truck body manufacturing industry, thanks to the folks at SpecialtyVehicles.net. After extensive interviews with manufacturers — large and small — of virtually all types of truck bodies, SpecialtyVehicles.net researchers crunched numbers and looked at trends, compiling an intensely detailed view of truck body production. The result is a 574-page report titled “Truck Body Production in North America.” Do you think you know where the money is in truck bodies? Check out our top-level view of North American truck body manufacturing. The answer may be surprising. See the story on Page 28.

Now let's discuss what's happening in Europe.

Our counterparts across the Atlantic not only are on a different continent, but they also are enjoying a much different place in the business cycle. According to Lode Verkinderen, secretary-general of SAV, the Belgium-based trade association that conducted the recent Trailer 2007 exhibition in Kortrijk, Belgium, business is booming for European trailer manufacturers. A variety of factors come into play, including the continued ripple effect of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. With the manufacturing infrastructure still trailing that of Western Europe, established manufacturers are serving the transportation needs of the entire continent. And they are reaping the benefits from Eastern European economies that are growing in excess of 3% annually as they try to catch up with their counterparts to the west.

But in spite of language, cultural, and market differences, much of the discussions we had at Trailer 2007 struck some surprisingly similar themes. Acute driver shortage. Prospects of an even more acute driver shortage in the years to come. The need for a more efficient transportation system. Railroads opposing legislation that would make the system more efficient. Tighter emissions regulations.

Traffic remains an immediate and long-term concern here and abroad. One solution: make more deliveries in the middle of the night. But how do we reduce the amount of noise vehicles generate as they pass through (or make deliveries in) partially residential areas? The Europeans are at work on this now. Their solutions for noise reduction — along with their answers to other trailer design issues — are illustrated in our coverage of Trailer 2007, Page 42.

Clearly the trailer market is at high tide right now while the tide is a little lower than normal in North America. But business, like the tide, goes through cycles. It's our hope that the information contained in this month's Trailer/Body Builders will help in your preparations for the next change in the business cycle.

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