One Less Link in the Chain

A practice that has been developing slowly in recent years took a major lunge at the recent Great American Trucking Show.

For some time now, chassis manufacturers have been establishing alliances with one or more companies that convert their incomplete vehicles into viable commercial products. Perhaps the most visible of these relationships have been found in the school bus industry, where alliances or shared ownership among chassis and body manufacturers essentially have been the exception rather than the rule.

Other niches in the truck body industry have seen similar relationships, including ambulances, fire apparatus, refuse equipment, and concrete mixers.

But to date, these partnerships have tended to involve specialized niches - not high-volume commercial truck bodies. However, that is about to change with the announcement that Freightliner and Wabash National are teaming up to provide readymade straight trucks equipped with van bodies.

Under the partnership, customers wanting a straight truck and van body will be able to order it through Sterling or Freightliner dealers. The two companies (Wabash National and Freightliner LLC, which produces Sterling and Freightliner chassis) plan to mount the van bodies at one of four installation centers in the US and then deliver the completed vehicles to local dealers.

The agreement enables Wabash to turbocharge its entry into the van body business. The trailer manufacturer has proved its ability to go from zero to sixty, grabbing the industry's largest share of the van trailer market in spite of being the youngest of the largest trailer manufacturers. By linking itself with Freightliner, Wabash suddenly has a distribution network capable of delivering van bodies throughout the US.

For its part, Freightliner has continued to strengthen its share of the medium and heavy truck market - perhaps most visibly with its acquisition of the Ford heavy truck line a few years ago. The operations Freightliner LLC now controls include Freightliner Trucks, Sterling, Western Star, Freightliner Custom Chassis, Thomas Built Buses, and American LaFrance fire apparatus.

The van body that Freightliner and Wabash will sell uses Wabash's proprietary DuraPlate technology instead of conventional sheet-and-post construction. DuraPlate panels have a polyethylene plastic core sandwiched between two sheets of galvanized steel. As we mentioned in last month's Trailer/Body Builders, Wabash is expanding the production capacity of its composite DuraPlate material. As the new plant ramps up, it will be able to produce enough DuraPlate panels to build 120,000 trailers. The difference between DuraPlate production capacity and the number of trailers Wabash produced last year (69,772) leaves plenty capacity to use the material for van bodies.

In making the announcement, both companies pointed out the advantages for the truck customer. "With our integrated truck/body concept, Freightliner LLC and Wabash National are simplifying the process of specifying a truck body, ordering it, paying for it, and taking delivery," said Jim Hebe, Freightliner president and CEO. Jerry Ehrlich, president of Wabash, called the idea "a streamlining of the supply chain."

The two companies point out that the concept eliminates the need for separate quotation and specification processes for the truck chassis and the van body. The Wabash DuraPlate van body will be integrated into Freightliner's SpecPro software, enabling customers to order the truck as a single unit. The system results in less paperwork and faster delivery. The partnership between chassis and truck body manufacturer also means single-source accountability regarding the quality of the entire assembly process.

The two companies are targeting the integrated body and chassis concept for the Class 5-8 Freightliner Business Class and Sterling Acterra products. The DuraPlate van bodies will range in length from 16 to 26 feet.

Freightliner and Sterling will be gathering feedback from customers and dealers regarding the design and the business plan for the integrated truck concept during the next few months. Production is expected to begin about the middle of 2001.

It is a significant step, one that bears watching. The concept has been well accepted in Europe and Japan. However, time and again the American market has shown that it is unlike its counterparts on other continents.

Ultimately, the market demands and receives what is in its best interest. We wonder, however, what the long-term effect would be on the truck equipment distributor if more of the market demands a shorter distribution chain. The integrated chassis concept should be one more incentive for truck equipment distributors to constantly develop ways to enhance the value they provide the customer. In today's market, no one can afford to be the weakest link.

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