Where the magic happens: Inside the new Wabash molded structural composites plant

Aug. 3, 2018
Foaming equipment is a key component of the Wabash proprietary molded structural composite PRISMA process at the Little Falls operations.

As a Roman philosopher and American football coaches like to say, “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” By that standard, Wabash National has been very lucky indeed with its conversion of a shuttered boat plant into a next-generation trailer manufacturing facility.

Dustin Smith, Wabash senior VP and group president, Commercial Trailer Products, is charged with bringing the company’s promising R&D behind Molded Structural Composite (MSC) Technology to full commercialization. As Wabash prepared to debut its MSC refrigerated trailer prototype at the Technology and Maintenance Council’s annual meeting in 2016, Smith was preparing to build this entirely new trailer in an entirely new way.

“Wabash had never built a van trailer outside of Lafayette [the company’s Indiana headquarters] before—and that’s a big deal for us,” Smith told Trailer/Body Builders, ahead of an exclusive tour of the Little Falls, MN facility. “So it’s more than just composites. We have boat builders who have transformed into semi-trailer manufacturers.”

By boat builders, he refers to the former employees of the Larson Boat Group. Wabash had been in discussions with Larson about partnering to produce composite panels, but when a business initiative prompted Larson to consolidate its manufacturing operations with a facility in Wisconsin, Wabash saw an incredible opportunity: a 53-acre site with more than 500,000 square feet under roof (as well as some complementary machinery) and, perhaps most importantly, an experienced workforce to go with it.

“We worked very closely with the local community as well as the state,” Smith said. “Larson wound down on a Friday and we hired people back on a Monday. We hired 15 on the first day and a year later we’re up to 79.”

It took just four months from the time the deal closed to the first trailer rollout, Robert Lane, VP of engineering, Commercial Trailer Products, added. Of course, Wabash had four years’ worth of product-engineering work already on the books.

“From an engineering standpoint, the Larson employees understand boats, and transferring this knowledge to trailers was surprisingly easy,” Lane said. “But this process is new to us [at Wabash]. As we learn the capabilities in the new equipment we have installed, we must shift our focus to design for manufacturing.”

The process is a “completely different way” to build trailers.

“The Larson way of building boats has an incredible amount of overlap with how we’re now using the facility to build trailers. We have 3,100 associates in Lafayette, but none of them understand this,” Smith said. “The trailer assembly process is what Wabash brought to Little Falls; this is what Little Falls brought to Wabash: They understand this composites process very well.

“Could we replicate this in a different location? Yes. Would it take a lot longer? Yes. But being here has allowed us great speed, because we had so much infrastructure and a workforce that was so skilled.”

The product

Simply, high-performance MSC technology in refrigerated trailers boosts thermal performance by up to 25 percent and reduces weight by up to 20 percent when compared to more conventional materials, according to the company. This translates into reduced fuel consumption and increased cargo capacity.

Additionally, MSC structural strength eliminates need for metal or wood; it provides 2X puncture resistance over traditional options; the gel coat protects against water intrusion and weight gain; and slower foam degradation upholds thermal properties. This all adds up to a customer-pleasing extended product life.

But if applying MSC technology to trailers were easy, anyone could do it. Smith likens going to market with MSC panel reefers to another Wabash market “disruptor.” “This has the opportunity to be another DuraPlate and provide decades of competitive advantage,” he said. 

Ensuring the head start is a combination of exclusivity agreements on the chemistry, Wabash IP, the facilities and the company’s “general know how.”

“These are exotic resins that are patent protected. They behave differently than a product that’s off-the-shelf. We changed the marketplace,” Lane, the engineering lead, added. “If you look at the refrigerated market now, we had to learn a new technology that we could make affordable. Anybody can bring technology that would give the improvements we’re talking about, they just can’t do it affordably. 

“We had to find the technology and then figure out how to design with resin, glass and foam. It’s been an interesting process.”

As an example, Lane tells of an early floor test that failed spectacularly—just ahead of a Wabash board meeting where the team planned to ask for additional funding. In taking the bad news to Brent Yeagy, now Wabash CEO, the response was straightforward: “Well, what did we learn?”

“So we went out and made sure everybody still saw the big picture,” Lane continued. “Then we tore it apart, understood it, and three months later we had a 24,000-lb. floor. The leadership at Wabash has continued to back us as we get closer and closer. Now we’re confident that we’ve got a product that’s significantly different—and better—than anything else that’s out there.”

Added Smith: “We’re lucky to have leadership that’s interested enough in the long game that we’re not going to rush the launch and miss out on true opportunity. Try to picture completely changing your manufacturing process from one Monday to the next, because maybe another way will work better. That’s what we’ve done a lot of here in Little Falls—a lot of trials and experiments.”

The process

Broadly, the Little Falls facility gives Wabash the ability to vertically integrate—“all in-house,” Smith notes.

“You’re looking at different input materials than what reefer OEMs have been subject to in the past,” Smith said. “Aluminum coil—not in the facility. Z-posts—not in the facility.”

Nor are there press brakes, or even many welders. And the resulting quiet makes for a much more pleasant working environment.

The manufacturing process in Little Falls is split into three basic steps: 

• The PRISMA preform, or the production of the foam base or “feedstock” beams that are the building blocks of the molded structural composite technology.

• The pieces are then compressed in a proprietary tool, along with resins and gel coats, to form the MSC panels. The panels are formed into trailer walls, floors, and ceilings. As Smith characterized the process: “This is where the magic happens.”

• Finally, the pieces come together in a somewhat more recognizable trailer assembly process.

In the building where the PRISMA beams are produced, protective curtains enclose the tanks for the foam blend. In the “casket,” or the tool that forms the beams, the mixture is injected between sheets of fiberglass. 

The former Larson employees are quite familiar with handling the materials, but even though the process is similar to the one used in boat building, Wabash has already introduced innovations developed through partner Structural Composites Inc. Still, when a supervisory team went to train on the process, “after Day 1” the team was left on its own without the need for additional instruction, explained Plant Manager Dave Steinmetz.

“That’s how quick the transition was. The people here know how to use fiberglass and they’ve been working with the two-part blending system, a foam hose, the controls,” Steinmetz said. “But when I learned the way Wabash’s partner was doing it versus the way we were doing it, I immediately wished I had thought of that. We were doing it with much heavier equipment, at higher capex levels.”

The beams can be made in various thicknesses, typically from 1.5 inches to 3 inches, depending on the characteristics the customer specifies. Some will include metal plates to support the refrigeration units. As production ramps up, automated systems will replace the manual foaming stations.

“Now that we’ve proven out the dimensional profiles and the attributes, we have automation equipment being built today that will do eight hours of work in an hour. It’s about proving out the process first—waiting for a little volume to come through,” Smith said. “We’ve changed our processes and product designs so many times, we would’ve been throwing away a lot of automation capital.”

The MSC panels are formed in another building, the heart of the Little Falls facility, where the PRISMA beams are fitted into a proprietary tool. The product then spends 60-90 minutes in a cure station, depending on the materials blend, before moving to the “oven” for vacuum compression.

The process is the same, regardless of the dimensions or specs for the trailer or truck body, resulting in a product consistency that is unprecedented in the industry. 

“In a normal reefer plant, you’re unrolling aluminum coil, you’re punching holes and smashing rivets—all of these processes we’ve all done for 30 years that are full of variation,” Smith said. “But here, once you have the right tool built, you mix proprietary resins and other chemicals along with our PRISMA preforms, close the lid, walk away. You come back after lunch and you have this part—every time, it’s going to be exactly the same. You spend all your time and money on building the tool and process, and eliminate your variation.”

Smith points out that only a small portion of the panel production area is currently being utilized. Looking to the future, the floor is big enough to contain “dozens” of tools circulating in a loop—a non-stop line that feeds an adjacent building from which the completed panels would be packaged and shipped to other assembly facilities.

In the assembly building, Smith points to the “very small footprint” needed to go from sidewalls to full trailer.  The area is bright, clean, and most interesting, quiet—not at all like most trailer plants.

Flats, or carts, holding “panel kits” for each trailer are rolled in, and the side walls are loaded on a pair of automated clamping fixtures—replacing hand-set clamps—to bond the base rail and top rail. 

“It’s all programmable,” Steinmetz explains. “We’re using an 18-minute bonding material, which means we have to be down and clamped in that timeframe. Then it’s a 60-minute hold before we can release and go to the next process.”

The sidewalls then move to “the Monster,” or the trailer-bonding fixture—a machine that slowly and precisely lifts and attaches the sidewalls to the floor. A different flat delivers the noses and rear frames, which are staged at the Monster. The composite floor is prepped nearby, where the running gear is attached before the unit is backed in the fixture.

The roof comes in on another flat, and is bonded and hoisted in place before being attached to the body.

The building is air-conditioned and heated to maintain on optimum temperature range for the adhesives.

At a finishing station, the doors and additional content are installed, and the box is wiped down before rolling out for delivery. The Little Falls facility currently is building one trailer a day, with those destined for select launch customers to evaluate.

In the long term, Wabash anticipates shifting assembly to other Wabash and Supreme facilities.

“Little Falls is not intended to be the final assembly destination for MSC trailers,” he said. “It’s meant to be the premiere PRISMA and panel manufacturing site."


Looking ahead, Smith declined to share market projections for the Wabash MSC product. Indeed, he’s still reluctant to set a target for when he’ll be satisfied that the new trailers are everything Wabash expects them to be.

“No one wants to circle a day on the calendar more than I do. Like any truly disruptive product technology, we continue to learn things that we didn’t know until we stumble across them. But at the end of the day, what’s really been exciting is the product attributes continue to be at our desired outcome, or better,” Smith said. “The launch customers remain excited to try out our product and get the trailers on the road. The value proposition continues to materialize, but it hasn’t been without our learning, having to pivot, reevaluate and pivot again.”

Coincidentally, a customer participating in the demonstration trials had just come through the facility and had seen one of his trailers being prepared for delivery. The Wabash team walked the customer around the trailer, pointing to “some things we don’t love right now,” as Smith explained it. But changes have already been made, and will be available on the next trailer the customer receives.

“This industry is challenging because of the abuse the equipment takes. These trailers aren’t something you can just put on a machine and run a fatigue test for 10 million cycles and say ‘we’re good,’” Smith continued. “Will we wait until we’re 100-percent comfortable that all the boxes have been checked? No. You’re not moving fast enough if you wait that long. ‘Slow but fast’ is how we’re treating the ramp up—trying to balance the curve. The technology is out there. Our engineers have spent four years building competencies and partnering with composites experts. We can have confidence because we’re just bringing a number of these existing technologies into an industry that hasn’t necessarily utilized them.”

Still, Smith welcomes the “more complicated” conversations with customers that will come from the new product, compared to trying to sell the latest design iteration as a true innovation.

“I want our sales leaders to have to stand inside that trailer and talk about the no-aluminum floor with a 24,000 lb. rating, and the resin-based sidewall,” Smith said. “Those are complicated conversations but, once you get through them, the customer might have a 10- to 12-year reefer trailer when the others last just six or seven. And that completely changes their business.

“The industry welcomes something that’s disruptive in a space that hasn’t necessarily seen significant product innovation in over 10 years. We all basically build refrigerated vans the same way, with the same materials. This is a chance to change that and keep the Wabash brand considerably ahead of everybody else.”

Lane emphasized that incremental improvements have always been important in trailers, and that’s why Wabash hopes to seize the moment for more substantial change. “Those small innovations in our industry are customer driven and important—but we want to think bigger.”

And he added that Wabash engineers are already at work on the next big thing. 

“People will always catch us, but we’re going to make them do that,” Lane said. “By the time they catch us, we’ll be in the next generation—and that’s fun.”

About the Author

Kevin Jones | Editor