How will truck body and trailer manufacturing change in the coming years?

We address that three ways in this month’s Fabrication Issue—with a tour of North America’s newest trailer manufacturing plant, with a report on the latest manufacturing technology seen at last month’s Fabtech show, and by talking to a variety of truck body and trailer manufacturing experts to find out what they believe the plant of the future will look like.

We are convinced that truck bodies and trailers will be changing in ways that will impact the plants that build them and the necessary job skills of the people who work there. It’s not surprising then that as Trailer/Body Builders’ Rick Weber interviewed experts for his “Factory of the Future” story (see Page 28), the discussion inevitably turned to the vehicles that tomorrow’s plants will produce.

 “I think we are going to start seeing trailers equipped with complex electronics much like what occurred with tractors nearly two decades ago,” says David Schaller, president of Schaller LLC. Schaller is an engineer who spent 27 years at Navistar in product development and now runs a consulting business to help suppliers in the industry that are looking for strategic planning or engineering support or integration ideas.

What’s there to integrate? The most common electronic control module on today’s trailer is the anti-lock brake system. For refrigerated trailers, you can add the refrigeration unit control system. But more systems are on the way, and they will need to talk to one another.

Recently, Schaller points out, Stemco introduced its ZeroTouch system, which uses the trailer’s ABS to deploy a trailer tail system. He believes future trailers will do things that haven’t been done before—if components can talk to each other.

“More trailers obviously now have ABS systems,” he says. “The food requirement regulations that are hitting the industry now for better tracking traceability require better, smarter reefer systems, temperature-control systems, and tracking. There’s telematics that are coming onboard more frequently. All of that has been kind of put on trailers but not integrated.”

It’s easy to imagine additional electronic devices going on tomorrow’s commercial trucks and trailers. But tomorrow’s commercial vehicles will not simply consume electricity—they will generate it. They will do so with roof-mounted solar panels or by capturing the energy produced when the suspension bounces or the brakes are applied.

Derek Kaufman, a managing partner of Schwartz Advisors, expects to see more electrical components on future trailers, consistent with the way advanced electrical systems have impacted commercial trucks.

“I’m interested in the electrification of trailers and straight truck bodies,” Kaufman says. “The electrical need of trucks is going to increase in a number of different ways. There will be a need for trucks and trailers to generate and store electricity on the truck.”

Future manufacturing plants will need to accommodate such changes. Just as some specialized work trucks such as fire apparatus have substantial areas of their plants set aside for electrical work, trailer plants will need to have a place for installing electrical subcomponents such as regenerative braking systems and suspensions that capture motion to generate electricity.

Kaufman believes alternative fuels will continue to become more popular—especially with changes in fuel tank configurations.

“I happen to think that natural gas is still a major opportunity for the industry. The main concerns have been the limited capacity to store natural gas on a vehicle, and the filling mechanisms for LNG versus CNG. People are coming up with what they’re calling conformable tank designs. They increase in volume as they are filled, and they conform to available space. I really think that conformable tank designs are going to make natural gas an alternative for reefer units.”

Given the way electronics have permeated most other aspects of life, it’s a safe bet that tomorrow’s truck products will be more complex. Manufacturers will have to dedicate more floor space for testing these more sophisticated vehicles. Trucks such as Navistar’s SuperTruck already send electronic messages to the trailer. How will the manufacturer know that each unit will function as intended? Look for more electronic test equipment at the end of the assembly line, along with computers that do the programming.

Tomorrow’s plant will put additional responsibilities on plant engineering and production managers. But we are confident that the products tomorrow’s plants produce will amaze you—and your customers. ♦