3M VHB Tape Helps Give Featherlite a Competitive Edge

FEATHERLITE INC manufactures luxury motorcoaches, specialized transporters, and more than 400 custom and standard model specialty trailers. Located in northeast Iowa in Cresco, a town home to 3,000 people, Featherlite seems far removed from the fast-paced, high-profile racing world. But as the company grew, so did its reputation. So much, in fact, that Featherlite was named the only officially licensed trailer manufacturer of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR).

Nearly 10 years ago, Featherlite attended its first NASCAR race with promotional trailers it assembled for the Ford Motor Co. There, Featherlite met with the team for race car driver Dale Earnhardt and demonstrated its trailers. Featherlite was given the green light to create a trailer for Earnhardt for the Daytona 500 the next year, and it has never looked back.

Featherlite race car transporters feature smooth exterior surfaces to accentuate graphics. Interiors sparkle with functional work areas, plenty of storage space, and comfortable lounges. The 53-ft transporters are built to haul two cars on an upper deck. Below are dozens of tires, additional engines, spare transmissions, a fully stocked service area-and the race car team itself.

Racing is an industry built on image, and Featherlite knows that the looks of its trailers are just as important as the function. To keep pace, Featherlite designers looked for ways to perfect the appearance of the trailers to ensure that the teams' graphics would always look their best.

Working with 3M Bonding Systems Division, Featherlite set out to create a transporter with a smooth-skinned, rivet-free finish.

The transporters are built with galvanized steel posts and aluminum panels to provide a solid and rust-free structure. Typically, trailers use rivets to attach aluminum skin to the structural posts. But to achieve the smooth-skinned surface, Featherlite turned to 3M VHB tape for the job. VHB tape is a double-sided, pressure-sensitive, acrylic foam adhesive with the strength of mechanical fasteners that creates virtually invisible bonds.

Here's a quick look at how the trailer side panels are assemble in Featherlite's assembly facility. Steel posts are prepped and cleaned with a water-based solvent. VHB tape is applied to the end of each side of the post evenly and quickly with uniform application pressure. After the tape is on the post, the tape is manually cut to length. After the posts are mounted onto the trailer bed, the liner is removed from the tape and the aluminum panels are put into place and adhered to the tape. A secure bond immediately forms between the metal and the pressure-sensitive adhesive.

With the cost of sponsoring a NASCAR racing team running between $8 million to $10 million per year, one can imagine how particular the owners and their sponsors must be.

How do the race car teams feel about entrusting their prize possessions to a trailer held together by tape? "They love them," said Steve Sheldon, vice-president-specialty transporters. "Not only do the race teams like them, but the team sponsors do, too. After all, it's their image displayed on the sides." Sheldon says rivets can cause dimpling and waves in the panels. When using rivets, special tools and additional time are required when applying the vinyl graphics over the protruding fasteners.

Featherlite takes as much care when it customizes the interiors. The insides of the trailers are as pristine as the outside and might contain amenities such as oak cabinets, stainless steel countertops, mirrored walls, leather furniture, entertainment centers, and anything the team needs to service the cars and be comfortable at the same time. Like the outside of the trailer, the inside wall and ceiling panels are adhered with VHB tape.

But looks aren't everything. By using VHB tape instead of rivets and screws, Featherlite's customers enjoy other benefits. "The viscoelastic properties of VHB tape absorb shock and dampen vibration," says Susan Adam, 3M market development supervisor. "The flexibility of the tape helps compensate for differential thermal expansion or temperature changes." VHB tape separates the two metal surfaces to help reduce potential for galvanic corrosion. "Another advantage is that no holes are drilled in the panels, and this definitely reduces the chance of leaks," Adam says.

Each Featherlite racing transporter takes about 12 to 16 weeks to create. Nearly 150 are designed and manufactured each year, with most of the work in the fall and winter to gear up for the racing season.

Featherlite takes its commitment to NASCAR seriously. Its own sales and service trailer appears at the track at every NASCAR race.

With the popularity of NASCAR among spectators skyrocketing, so are the sales of Featherlite specialized transporters. Sales increased 19% in 1998 after a 56% gain in 1997.

Besides NASCAR, Featherlite is licensed with other national organizations including the Indy Race League, National Hot Rod Association, Automobile Racing Club of America, and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.