FOR years, Kevin Hill had been working on a dump-trailer design that would utilize both aluminum and steel. He had always stayed within the normal parameters — frame, crossmembers, sheet on top — but his designs couldn't reduce the weight by more than 600 lb. He figured he needed to save a ton to make the project worthwhile.
Hill, vice president and chief engineer at HilBilt Mfg Co in Benton, Arkansas, had pretty much run out of ideas.
And then came a Sunday morning in December 2002. He was sitting in the sanctuary at First Assembly of God in North Little Rock. Pastor Rod Loy's inspirational message on this Sunday before Christmas focused on encouraging the church members to escape their comfort zone in the new year.
“I was thinking to myself, ‘That's the absolute truth. I need to come up with something different than the post-and-beam style dump trailer,’” Hill says. “The idea hit me just like that. The inspiration was immediate.”
When he reached his Sunday School class, he was asked to list his personal goals for the new year. He wrote:
1. Revolutionize the dump trailer.
At the bottom of the sheet of paper, he started drawing the basic design for a new unibeam trailer. The class instructor wasn't offended that Kevin's attention was diverted. The teacher was his wife, Donna.
The next day, he arrived at work and told his brother, HilBilt president Grayling Hill, “I've got it. This is it.”
“I was stunned,” Grayling says. “It's simple, but it's one of those things where it's simple only after somebody explains it to you. When Christopher Columbus was trying to get ready to explore the new world, he was before one of the courts of Europe, trying to get funding. The plan sounded pretty outrageous to them, you can imagine. So he had a hard-boiled egg and said, ‘Can you set this on its end and make it stay?’ They said, ‘No.’ So he picks the egg up, crushes it, and sets it on its end. They said, ‘Well, yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, it's simple now that I told you how.’”
The design goal was to have the lightweight qualities of an aluminum trailer but yet have the strength of a steel trailer.
It would have a steel framework similar to what HilBilt always had used, except for a few lightweight features such as the unibeam on the bottom edge that would take the place of the frame underneath the trailer and also the normal side bottom rail. The unibeam, which he anticipated HilBilt could build at its plant, would be one piece for the full length of the trailer, to which the crossmembers would be attached. Along the floor, he envisioned a high-strength material — T1 or AR plate — so that the back of the trailer wouldn't wear out like it usually does. Forward of that would be the aluminum floor, side sheets, and gate. The aluminum sheets would be attached with Huck fasteners and a high-strength bonding tape.
That first day back to work, Kevin started building a 4' version to determine if everything would work — the latching system, the draft-arm hookups, the cylinder. And it did.
“Then we went through everything from the tires to the top rail and looked for areas where we could cut out more weight,” Kevin says. “Down below, we integrated the stool with our normal frame that supports the apron, so now one piece does the job of what two did before. We thinned up the metal in non-critical areas.”
They saved 200 lb by going to a wide-stance draft arm with the hookup integrated to the crossmembers. They saved another 200 lb by using Watson & Chalin's Integra Series integrated axle and suspension, which was released at the same time HilBilt was developing the design of its trailer.
“We designed the trailer with the air ride in mind, so it just really worked well for our particular application,” Grayling says.
HilBilt was able to use such a long unibeam because it has a press brake with a 250-ton capacity and the ability to bend 20' of 12 gauge or 12' of 1/4" high-strength steel.
“Usually, when you design something, you try to design around your capabilities,” Grayling says. “And with that long press brake, it gives us the capability to build a long unibeam without having to weld a bunch of them together.”
HilBilt also invested $2000 in riveting equipment and consulted with 3M to come up with the high-strength bonding tape.
The result was the XP Unibeam Combo — the XP being the abbreviation for EXtra Payload. Its features: unibeam construction, rear floor section (18") of 3/16" T-1 steel, 1/4" aluminum floor and 3/16" sides, hardened tailgate bushings, outside mounted hydraulic hoist, sloped front, inverted angle on sides, high dumping angle, minimum doghouse, greaseable tailgate hinge pins, and sides and floor that are easily and economically replaced.
The 24' high dump weighs 10,700 lb, which is 2,800 lb lighter than the previous steel version. The 22' frameless weighs 8560 lb, saving 2300 lb. HilBilt has reduced the weight by at least 2000 lb on every trailer.
It took HilBilt four months to build the first XP trailer. The first call was made to Jim Holland of Holland Gravel Co in Benton, a long-time friend and business associate of the Hill family. He embraced the idea of testing HilBilt's prototype.
“We only intended for him to use it a month, then we were going to have other people do different applications,” Grayling says. “After two months, Kevin called him and said, ‘Jim, we need the trailer back. We have other people who want to use it.’ He said, ‘You're not getting this trailer back.’ Kevin said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘I'm buying this one. Y'all can build another one.’ He bought it and we immediately started on the second one. We quickly built two and put them into the Chicago market with two dealers up there, then built a 34' frameless for a customer in southern Arkansas.
“We'd have people all the time saying to us, ‘I talked to Holland's driver, and he loves that trailer.’ I told people, ‘You'd think the driver was on our payroll.’ It just really took off.”
Making it pay
It took off because Holland was paying his drivers a percentage of the load they hauled. The weight savings with the XP design meant they were able to haul close to 1½ extra tons every mile.
“When you start hauling an extra ton and a half — I don't care what you're hauling — that's some serious money,” Grayling says. “Holland is doing exceptionally well because for the most part, he doesn't just haul loaded one way. He's probably loaded two-thirds of the time because he hauls from Little Rock to Benton (a suburb 20 miles southwest), and he has a sand and gravel plant in Benton and hauls to other places.
“In our business, our customers are thrilled when we can pull 100 or 200 lb out of a trailer. So when you come up with something where you can haul a ton more, it's amazing. The payback is very quick.”
Kevin says one customer told him he bought a new XP and was making the $500-a-month payment strictly with the money he was saving by hauling heavier loads.
Grayling says HilBilt has had a reputation for years as being a company that produces a high-quality product in the higher echelon of the price structure. But the XP has changed perceptions about price.
“Over the past five or 10 years, we've spend a lot of money and time on upgrading our technology internally so we'd be more competitive,” he says, “and we've tried to take as many labor hours out and automate as much as we could. It gives us an in to places and allowed us to be much more price-competitive. We rarely get in a situation now where somebody says, ‘Well, you're just too high.’ We might be a little higher, but we can easily show that the price difference is offset by the quality of the product and the return on your money — particularly with the XP. It's improved what we can bring to the table.”
Holland has been using that original prototype for almost 20 months. The last time Grayling looked at it — in July — he says it looked “brand new.”
“The rivets at the very back were beginning to show a tiny bit of wear,” he says. “Otherwise, you couldn't tell it had hauled its first load.”
HilBilt expects to produce close to 50 XP trailers in 2004 — its first full year of production.
“We didn't want to get a fleet out there until we felt good about the first few,” Grayling says. “Next year, we should be able to build as many as anybody wants. In the market area we're currently serving, I'm guessing we'll build 100. Most of the ones we've been selling are in Arkansas and Chicago and have been 22' and 24' frameless and quarter-frame. Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma are good markets for larger trailers. We're building them, but we're still feeling out the market to see which way it's going.
“It's a new product. Folks like to see it out for a while. But material haulers — particularly those that already have an aluminum trailer — have embraced it. They're comfortable with aluminum. The ones who are thinking longer are the ones who have a lighter steel trailer. Before making a change over to aluminum, they want to see the first guy replace a floor or see the first one turned over.”
Once HilBilt got the XP trailer going, it moved into dump bodies. That market has opened up, with HilBilt selling 35 XP dump bodies to the Arkansas State Highway & Transportation Department.
The XP and XPC dump bodies are manufactured with the same basic technology as the XP trailers.
“The primary difference is we don't use crossmembers and we go with a thicker floor,” Kevin says. “We use 3/16" steel, when traditionally this product is 10 gauge. It's very light and price-competitive. The unibeam is modified — it has a flat plane. I see this as meeting the needs of cities, counties, and states. It has a heavier floor but still costs less than what they're buying now.”
The Hills say the company's growth has exploded. Manufacturing sales were up 15% through the first seven months — 40% in Arkansas — and Grayling says they would have been flat without the XP products. It sells its products in Arkansas through HilBilt Mfg Co and HilBilt Sales and has two fulltime outside salesmen who cover Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Its Chicago dealers are RG Smith Equipment and HCI Transportation Technologies. HilBilt has a distributor in Michigan, dump-body distributors in Missouri, Mississippi, and Texas, and is pursuing possibilities in Kansas and Louisiana.
The XP also has put the company in the forefront as an innovator.
“This new product is opening up some new areas where we just didn't have a product to sell,” Grayling says. “We've always been in short trailers and heavy-excavation-material-type trailers. We've never gone for the lightweight market. We actually built one aluminum Mongoose and it went well, but about the time we got it completed, out steel sales took off and it was the bird-in-hand, bird-in-bush type of thing. We were going great guns on steel, so we just didn't do anything else with aluminum.”
Says Kevin, “We're not afraid of doing something different.”
The company was started in 1955 by the Hills' grandfather, Richmond H Hill, their father, Vance, and their uncle, Neil, in Arkadelphia, about 55 miles southwest of Little Rock. At that time, it was a bulldozer and dragline operation, digging livestock ponds and mining gravel and sand. It then expanded to include building materials. The brothers sold that business, moved to Benton, started Hill Equipment Co, buying, refurbishing and selling used construction equipment and ready mix concrete batch plants. Another brother, Richmond, joined the business and operated the sand and gravel plants and the ready mix concrete business. In 1971, Neil and Vance purchased Richmond's share of the Hill Equipment Co, and the sand and gravel business was sold two years later.
The company was the Arkansas franchisee for Fontaine trailers and dump bodies and the franchise operator for Massey-Ferguson bulldozer and earth-moving equipment and Diamond REO trucks. In 1972, responding to a need for heavy-duty trailers for construction work, Hill Equipment Co began building lowboy trailers under the HilBilt name, later adding dump bodies and material and excavator trailers.
The retail operations of the Hill Equipment Co were sold in 1983 to Truck Parts and Equipment in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The HilBilt franchise was re-purchased in 1986 and is now HilBilt Sales Corp-Arkansas, operating out of the same facilities and offices as Hilbilt Mfg Co.
In 1987, the Mongoose rounded bed trailer was developed for heavy excavation and demolition — a product that even now is the company's biggest seller. (The Chicago market is full of multi-use customers who might haul broken concrete one day and something different the next. The T-1 steel body, which is both abrasion- and impact-resistant, is offered in 3/16", 1/4", and 5/16" thickness. It's offered with three tailgate designs: standard with hinges at the top; single barn door with hinges on one side; or double barn door with hinges at the top and on one side.)
Five years later, Vance bought brother Neil's stock in the business, assuming full ownership, and passed it on to Grayling and Kevin.
Today, the company is operating on 4½ acres, with 100,000 sq ft under roof, including 60,000 for the main facility, which was built in 1972 and includes a 150'×200' manufacturing plant added in 1990.
The plant includes: a plate roller that the company uses to roll all of its own materials; a saw that will cut 16"×20" (HilBilt does a lot of tubing in bundles); plasma cutter; welding fixtures and jigs that they use as much as possible to create uniformity; and an 18,000-lb capacity Posi-Turner that maneuvers the bodies.
“Throughout our operation, we try to do as much welding in the flat position as possible,” Grayling says. “We do a lot of rolling. In our trailers, we have fixtures that will handle the length. With dump bodies, that fixture doesn't work, so we manually roll them from side to side. We bought this big Posi-Turner 12 years ago to do the trailers and bodies and built a small one to do the real small bodies. It's a good piece of equipment. It saves us a lot of labor. When we first started building Mongoose trailers, all of it was done by forklift, chains, and cranes — a very slow process. Typically we'd start out with it upright and put the running gear on upside down. So labor-wise, this Posi-Turner saves us four to five hours. It allows us to assemble the product in the best position.
“A lot of the savings we got was from being able to do the work in a better and more efficient position, instead of working overhead or laying down. The more flat welding you can do, the better off you are. It's quicker and you get a better product. When you're welding overhead or downhill, you have to do a lot more testing.”
The Hills say they have a patent pending on the XP technology for three reasons: the unibeam technology; the concept of combining aluminum and steel; the fastening process.
“Down the road, we expect we'll see a lot of folks taking our design and trying to do their version,” Kevin says. “It's the only composite dump trailer, though there are some composite flat trailers. We've seen aluminum boxes put on steel running gear, but never the combination.”
Kevin says he still has the Sunday School notes he scribbled on. He says Loy, the pastor, used the Hills' story in a subsequent sermon that illustrated the remarkable ways in which God works.
Loy also has been to HilBilt's facility to view the manufacturing process and inspect the design that his sermon inspired.
“I've told him that it was no less inspiration than a song writer gets when he writes a song, because an idea just hits them,” Kevin says. “Now, there was a lot of work past that to turn that idea into a dump trailer. But the spark was there.”
Says Grayling, “We're like everybody else. We work hard and try to do the best we can. But sometimes God blesses you. The XP has our whole company excited about what we're doing.”