Taking a look at our report card

DO YOU REMEMBER the report cards you used to get in elementary school — you know, the ones that had one page that listed the grades you earned in each subject and another page that evaluated your character and personality?

In a sense, our annual trailer output report reminds us of those. On one level, it's an objective, numbers-based report on how our industry performed. On another level, it provides a little insight into the industry's more subjective, less measurable side.

First, the numbers. By all reasonable measures, 2009 was a brutal year. Dry-freight production — F. Platform trailers — F. Dump trailer production — F. Heavy haulers — F. Tanks — F. We can probably give ourselves a “C-minus” for refrigerated trailers since reefers were off only a little from last year's average. Same for ag trailers.

If we were all in second grade, we wouldn't be moving on to third with grades like these. Does anyone out there want to repeat this year? We didn't think so.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like we will have to. Analysts who specialize in tracking demand for trailers and commercial trucks pretty much agree that we're on the verge of doing better. Maybe not a lot better this spring, but our grades definitely will be improving by the fall semester.

We are encouraged by what we heard at the recent Heavy Duty Dialogue last month. The Heavy Duty Manufacturers Association assembled a solid lineup of speakers with experience tracking the ebbs and flows of the commercial truck and trailer market. These analysts generally saw the same big picture — a long, slow recovery has begun. We have taken the recession's best shot and are still standing. For a detailed report on what the analysts had to say, please check out our Heavy Duty Dialogue coverage.

We may not be making the honor roll for a while, but we definitely are leaving scholastic probation behind. Still, progress will be slow for several reasons. Some are negative (residual weakness in the economy, a hangover in the financial markets). But a surprising number of factors that will make things tougher in our industry are actually pretty good for the industry's customers in particular and for our nation as a whole.

First, as one Heavy Duty Dialogue speaker pointed out, our customers (and customers' customers) are coming up with some creative ways of making vehicles more productive. Simply by redesigning the package, for example, Wal-Mart was able to increase substantially the amount of milk that it can fit in the trailer. Plus, the miniaturization of electronic goods means that more gadgets can fit into fewer trailers, lowering overall transportation costs.

Telematics and other technologies are making it possible for fleets to operate their equipment more efficiently, again getting greater results from the same number of trailers.

Perhaps most significantly, the quality of trailers being built in North America continues to climb. As another Heavy Duty Dialogue speaker pointed out, he no longer needs to replace trailers every three or four years — they can be operated for a decade. Then, after a little refurbishment, the trailers are good for an additional five years of service. News like that may not bode well for trailer manufacturers' production departments, but from the customer's perspective, that's an A-plus.

Raw numbers tell only part of the story — for a student or for an industry. That's why our report cards had that other page where teacher evaluated how effectively we complete assignments, how well we got along with others, whether or not we were prompt, how easily we became discouraged, how hard we worked. Our trailer output report has that dimension, too.

It does not take a detailed reading of our annual trailer output report to get a picture of companies doing what they could to weather the storm. There is almost universal hope for a better tomorrow. But beyond just hope, our trailer output report lists some of things manufacturers have done or are doing to provide a basis for that hope — cutting costs, improving products, going after new markets.

As was stated in our trailer output report, we congratulate you for surviving this downturn. You did what you needed to do. Survival (and prosperity) is up to you — there is no “No Child Left Behind” program in the commercial truck and trailer industry.

Agree or disagree? Make your voice heard by visiting trailer-bodybuilders.com and clicking on “Contact Us.”

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