Panel of fleet executives fields compelling questions from trailer customers

July 5, 2015
Hot topics for trailer customers

A fleet panel took on a variety of topics, including the most important qualities of a trailer manufacturer, new technology, research and development, and natural gas.

The panelists were: refrigerated sector, Todd England, CR England; tank, Gary Enzor, Quality Distribution; LTL/package, Lee Long, Southeastern Freight; van/dry, Brent Nussbaum, Nussbaum Transportation; and flatbed/platform, Steve Zaborowski, XTRA Lease, moderator.

Q: As equipment manufacturers, we want to ensure that we are providing equipment that best meets your needs. Besides “lowering prices,” what do you view as the most important qualities of a manufacturer? And, what features and capabilities do you look for in the product offerings of your preferred suppliers?

England: I think there’s a very important element we look for: We need them to understand what our business is and how our business works. We are all in different segments and all have different needs. That’s very important for our partners to look at. I know that’s simple to say. But there’s a lot of detail there.

Nussbaum: 35% of Nussbaum’s business is in the dedicated carrier arena. We’re talking to customers who have different needs. They will sometimes ask us to do things that in the industry are not available yet. So the ability to be able to meet with manufacturers and have access to their engineers and bounce ideas off them is important. An example of that is a trailer we worked on for Wabash National a few years ago: We had a customer who was taking a lot of steel inbound to a plant, but there was nothing for them to pull out on the flatbeds. Vans were coming in to pull finished goods out and flatbeds were leaving empty, so we worked on a project with them over a period of a year where we developed a trailer that was a van that would operate as a flatbed and as a van. We worked on that for a period of time. I think today they call it an XD-35—35,000 pounds and allows a 21,000-pound forklift to take a 14,000-pound steel coil. We can strap it on the floor with rings recessed into the floor. So when we get into the plant, we unload the product and go around to the other side and load finished product, keeping it in a dedicated operation. We appreciate the fact that we had access to their engineers. Partnership is really the key to the ability to call them directly if we have a question. Relationships are key in that.

Long: I totally agree. Relationships are very important. To us, the reliability of a product is very important to us. They load that truck maybe once a day. They’re in and out of that trailer maybe two or three times a day. It’s really critical for us to keep the interior of our trailers working good. So the design features that the industry puts on is very important to us for us to have that longevity.

Enzor: I think all of our major OEMs are very good in delivery and the price is always competitive, so it’s about a partnership. We have to communicate among each other.

Zaborowski: For us, we have a pretty short list. We need the company to be financially stable. If the supplier is not going to be around long term, it doesn’t do us any good. They need a strong engineering team. I think the biggest problem is suppliers come in to see us and ask, “What application are you in?” We say, “Rental.” They say, “What does that mean?” To really understand our business, we cover a broad gamut of LTL truckload and private fleet. A consistent approach in pricing is important to us. That means no opportunistic strategy. We want our suppliers to make money, but we don’t want to be taken advantage of when there are good times in the marketplace. Our approach on the other side is, we try to reward those long-term suppliers so when there are down times, we come through for them. We buy trailers every year, even when we are in recession. We expect suppliers to be nimble. So we need answers quickly. We have customers that operate equipment and they have extremely timely needs, so we are in the emergency business. When a carrier gets a logistics deal, they want us to provide trailers to them, so on-time delivery and being able to be flexible with scheduling really helps. We sometimes need favors in scheduling. It’s very important to be nimble with us.

Q: What do you view as the most significant trailer technologies introduced over the past decade, and why? Going forward, what new trailer technologies or innovations would you like to see over the next decade? Why are these innovations so important to you?

Long: Being able to stack our freight is a big benefit to us. Our gross payload is typically 26,000 to 27,000 pounds. The difference between LTLs and truckload, these other gentlemen’s business, is that we had that opportunity to stack that freight so we can get more on a trailer. That increases our payload, which means we max out. In doing that, the system is very effective for us. The technology we implemented on our pup trailers is skirting. We’ve seen a 3% increase in fuel economy with that. So the technology is coming along.

England: In the refrigerated market, I think the biggest improvement in technology has been the quality and durability of lining material in trailers. The biggest problem we’ve had over the years is punctures in material and the downtime that creates. In addition to that, the new safety rules we have to comply with in terms of cleanliness of the trailers—it has been a big improvement to have trailers that are impervious to those problems.

Nussbaum: LED lights were a vast improvement, along with stronger, lighter doors. The lock systems on the doors of these trailers are amazingly better than what they used to be. We’re buying trailers today that are more durable. In our case, it’s great for us because they’re longer-lasting. Trailers last forever, but it’s a challenge for manufacturers. We’re still struggling with that because trailers are lasting forever. There are numerous things that have come into play. Aerodynamics is still an issue, but they’ve come a long way. One of the challenges we struggle with is interior components. I can imagine LTL goes into that because they’re loading more times than a truckload carrier, but still there are issues with components getting knocked around. Our hats off to you for what you’ve done.

Zaborowski: From our perspective, composite-plate sidewall trailers have eliminated a lot of accidental damage. Our customers are primarily carriers. The trailers depart shipper locations and get damaged, and the carrier is left holding the bag. So reducing damage for our customers is really important. Corrosion has been a big problem in the industry and there’s been a lot of progress, but you can develop materials that prevent corrosion to component systems. This is primarily for component companies and trailer manufacturers. You can reduce things that reduce downtime and protect the life of the trailer. We expect we’re going to get a minimum of 10 to 15 years out of that trailer and want it to perform the same as when it’s new. So the introduction of lighter-weight materials is a future product. Because tractors are heavier today, the pressure is on trailer providers to take weight out of trailers, but not compromise durability. So that would be something to think of going forward.

Q: From a cost-of-ownership standpoint, which equipment issues are most adversely impacting your bottom line today? Where do equipment manufacturers and suppliers need to focus R&D efforts to improve their offerings?

Enzor: For us, it would be more about corrosion issues. I’d also like to get drivers off the top of trucks. Catwalks are great but we would like to get them off the top of the truck and on the ground.

England: Tires—we all struggle with that. There are great technologies with inflation systems and low-rolling-resistance tires that help fuel economy. We see lighting in our application becoming a bigger challenge, even though we transitioned to LEDs. For whatever reason, whether it’s theft or damage, we see challenges in protecting the lighting. Unique to our specific industry: I’d love to find a way to do something with reefer chutes other than what we’ve got now. A reefer chute directs the air coming out of a reefer and above the trailer to the back of the trailer. It’s just a piece of fabric that does that. They always seem to get torn down, and customers don’t seem to help us. I don’t know if there’s a way to work that into the design of the trailer and give us the refrigeration and thermal efficiency we need. That’s one thing we really struggle with.

Nussbaum: Between last winter and this winter, there was a lot of salt going around. Corrosion seems to be the biggest issue we run across in our maintenance department. There are tire issues. I would also say we have issue with sliders. Compared to 20 years ago, they’ve come miles, but there are still some challenges on the slider side.

Long: I would say corrosion is a big issue with us as well. We have units that don’t get out on the road with a wash and rain like a lot of over-the-road trailers, and they tend to corrode easily. You have an asset that has a liftgate on the back and you have issues with the liftgate platform. The other thing is, we’ve done some testing with Michelin on low-rolling-resistance tires, and I’m here to tell you they work. But the cost of that tire and the longevity of that tire is not what we currently expect. On line haul for our sleeper kings, we do have wide-based tires that do distance. However, in applications where we’re going over curbs, those tires get scuffed and don’t last long.

Q: Conversations continue around the merits of converting, at least partially, to natural gas as a fuel for Class 8 trucks. What is your view of the potential for this technology and do you have fleet plans for CNG and/or LNG over the next five years?

How do you think the recent drop in diesel fuel prices will impact the adoption of natural gas? Is this still a consideration for your business?

What are the greatest obstacles to the adoption of natural gas as a widespread Class 8 tractor fuel?

Long: We’ve had people request from some shippers to go with the natural gas option, but we can’t cost-justify it because we can’t dedicate a truck just for one shipper. We understand the need and the desire, but we just can’t. The second thing is infrastructure. With an operation like us in multiple applications, we feel like with the lower price of fuel, that’s not a feasible option.

Nussbaum: We’ve done a lot of research on it. It works great in a short-haul, dedicated operation. We’re a long-haul fleet, and the infrastructure is not built out, and the cost of engines is still too high. I would love to get rid of our dependence on Saudi Arabia. I think it’s a great idea, but the problem with it is that with the fuel price coming down, it makes the payback longer. It makes it more difficult to justify. At the present time, we’ve backed away from it and said, “It’s great for certain applications. It’s great for UPS. But in our fleet and operations, it just doesn’t work.” 

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.