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What’s in Print

Time for a break?

Trailer/Body Builders' monthly editorial

The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association’s 77th Annual Convention marks the end of the spring trade show season for me, and speaking as someone who’d just started covering commercial vehicles when the Great Recession hit, 2019 already has been quite a year: SRO general sessions, sold out exhibit space, and noisy banquet halls are a lot more fun than events were 10 years ago when the attendee badge and lanyard came with the sound of crickets.

And, as outlined by ACT Research Economist Jim Meil in the TTMA coverage, and by FTR CV Equipment Expert Don Ake in our annual 5-year trailer forecast, 2019 will be another record year for the industry—and that’s something of a surprise, at least in being able to follow up the 2018 smash hit with another chart topper.

“Your customers had a hellaciously good 2017 and 2018,” Meil told the manufacturers. “Too much freight and too little capacity.

“But the fundamental thing that we’ve got right now is the industry tends to be very volatile. It’s either Fat City, or Death Valley. And we think the second half of 2019 could represent this transition, where the market goes from shortage to equilibrium then capacity equipment excess.”

But Ake has an interesting spin. The capacity crunch forced more drop-and-hook moves to cover for the lack of trucks and drivers—and the supply chain got used to the convenience. So the excess that usually comes with a the cyclical downturn might not be so painful for trailer builders.

Indeed, Ake’s 2020 forecast calls for a production total that’s still “a great number.”

“So if you have a downturn, fine, you have excess trailers. It’s not like they’re going to sit forever. But, again, this is uncharted territory,” Ake says. “I’m almost hoping that I’m wrong [about a minimal downturn] and that it will be a normal, predictable cycle. That’s what people expect.”

In short, the bad news is still pretty darn good news, and the worst that can happen still won’t be the worst we’re used to. More likely, we can expect to catch our collective breath and get back to normal for a while before chaos (the good kind) builds again.

Our TTMA coverage also features an insightful panel discussion on what fleets—your customers—want and expect from trailer manufacturers and dealers. Not surprisingly, what they want depends on what they need, and about only thing trucking fleets have in common is their vehicles have wheels. Beyond that, they’re 18-wheel (more or less) snowflakes: No two are alike.

Still, some bullet points:

  • Trailers need to be able to communicate better with the driver.
  • Trailers need to be able to communicate better with dispatch.
  • Trailers need to be able to communicate better with the shop.
  • Trailers need to be able to communicate better with the back office.
  • Trailers need to be able to communicate better with the shipper and receiver.

Are you seeing a trend here? Most importantly, trailers need to be able to communicate with the communications and telematics systems the fleet already uses. Your one-of-a-kind proprietary solution might be the greatest thing since the Cowboys won a Super Bowl, but it could be a tough sell if it doesn’t play well with others.

Also, as did most manufacturing events this year, TTMA had a panel discussion on hiring, training and retaining the workers everyone needs. And, not uniquely, the overarching theme is to treat people well. The trick, when plants are operating at capacity and pushing for more, is that’s much more easily said than done.

Another solution—again, easier said than done—is to find ways to attract young people. We need to make apprenticeships sexy again and, with college debt hitting six figures for some, the question is ‘why not?’.

(Along those lines, I’d no sooner finished writing in this space last month about the importance of exposing young people to manufacturing when Felling Trailers passed along photos of a high school robotics team visiting the plant. Good stuff on the last page in this issue. Got a good story about filling your skills gap? Give me a call.)

Finally, I have to mention how impressed I was by the closing banquet at TTMA this year. Outgoing Chairman Gary Smith, to close the celebratory event, spoke powerfully about the tragic work-related deaths of two employees.

It was a surprisingly solemn moment and an absolutely a great way to get the attention of the audience. Smith was about to hand out the TTMA Plant Safety Awards and he wanted everyone to pause for a moment to consider what the awards truly mean. And to remind everyone not to take safety for granted.

Again, when we’re running at full speed like we have been, it’s easy to make mistakes. Make safety a priority.

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