The flat-out truth

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Due to major changes in styling, people readily notice that tractors and straight trucks have changed signifcantly over time. With trailers – especially flatbeds – the evolution may be more subtle visually. But advances in design and materials have produced flatbed trailers that are more productive, more versatile and easier to maintain.

Stronger and lighter
Modern flatbed trailers may look similar to their predecessors, but engineering has made them stronger and lighter.

Taking out weight must be done carefully, with attention to areas that shouldn’t be compromised. “Trailers don’t usually break from being overloaded,” says Hank Prochazka, vice president of sales for Fontaine Trailer. “They break from being racked, side-to-side. With our Phantom design, we’ve developed a thicker, 12-inch-wide bottom flange – which is extruded in one piece with the main beam, eliminating the flange-to-beam weld – that provides five times the side-to-side strength of previous designs.”

Fontaine recently introduced an aluminum flatbed trailer that it says weighs less than 7,800 pounds and handles 60,000 pounds in just 4 feet. The Revolution features a sleek, aerodynamic shape designed to cut through the air with a premium drag coefficient; and friction-stir welding adds to the strength of the floor while reducing weight to allow for bigger payloads and more miles per gallon, Fontaine says.

Fontaine also introduced the Infinity TX Twist Lock, which it describes as two trailers in one: an advanced-technology dropdeck trailer to handle a wide variety of loads, and a twist-lock trailer to haul intermodal shipping containers. The trailer is equipped with two twist locks at the front, four in the middle and two at the rear, so users can haul two 20-foot ISO containers or one 40-foot container, the company says.

“Many of the trailer manufacturers have been set with the duty of reducing trailer weight due to increased tractor weights caused by increased truck options and EPA requirements,” says Lenny Miller, director of dealer development for Benson International. “This has caused most trailer manufacturers to look at better designs to meet today’s load requirements.”

Benson’s 524 aluminum drop deck trailer features a steel neck transition designed to allow a concentrated load capacity of 52,000 pounds in a four-foot span, as well as 80,000 pounds evenly distributed to allow for increased hauling capabilities. Other features of the trailer, according to Benson, include a standard winch track on driver side (standard); 40-inch rear deck height with 255/70R22.5 tires; reinforced wheel cutouts for proper tire clearance; fully welded construction for added strength and longevity; and LED lighting.

Wabash subsidiary Transcraft recently increased the legal payload capacity of its standard-duty flatbed models by about 8,000 pounds (or 12 percent) to allow customers to haul more freight and help improve profitability per shipment. The company’s standard-duty flatbed trailers, which were formerly designated as “normal” duty with a 65,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating, now carry a GVWR of 73,000 pounds. The added capacity, which Transcraft says was achieved through focused engineering efforts and the use of higher-strength materials, is effective on 2008 model year flatbeds.

According to Charlie Wells, director of dump trailer products and dealer development for East Manufacturing, trailer manufacturers have the advantage in that today’s aluminum alloys offer the durability of high tensile-strength steel at less than half the weight. Much of the design innovation has centered on the main load bearing part of a flatbed – the main beam.

Countering corrosion
Savvy flatbed purchasers are willing to spend more for the protection of certain areas of the trailer that are damaged prematurely by harsh road chemicals or repeated exposure to the elements. Protection options include: hot-dipped, galvanized rear frames, impact guards and other rear components that come in contact with docks that scrape away paint, causing rust; hot-dipped, galvanized understructures, landing gear bracing and front components that are impacted during coupling and uncoupling; and coating crossmembers with materials such as wax that is self-healing following impact with road debris.

For fleets that operate in the northern states, “Chemicals like liquid magnesium chloride used to fight snow and ice on the roadways are so corrosive that they can even put a stain on stainless steel,” says East’s Wells.

Aluminum is not affected as badly as steel, but aluminum trailer manufacturers are improving their products’ resistance to corrosive elements. Hollow-core siderails, for example, provide fully enclosed conduits for wiring, and manufacturers are using sealed lamps and wiring harnesses to keep out the elements.

And some manufacturers, like East, are developing ways to replace traditional steel components, such as suspension hangers, with rust-free aluminum designs. In addition, new anti-corrosive coatings are being used on steel bolts, and shim-like isolator devices are being used to shroud steel parts with stainless steel.

An overall better package
In addition to flatbed trailer structures being stronger, lighter and more resistant to corrosion, manufacturers agree that running gear and ancillary items also have improved in recent years. “From a manufacturer’s viewpoint, we like the way trailer suspensions are being supplied,” says Fontaine’s Prochazka. That’s because they’re easier to install as a module, with no fuss. “They come all buttoned-up,” he says.

Charles Cole, manager of technical sales and product training for Utility Trailer Manufacturing, cites some relatively recent improvements: better wheel seals and bearings, lighter wheel-end components, better wiring harnesses and LED lighting, which lasts indefinitely and are becoming more and more affordable.

Utility’s 2000A high-strength low-weight flatbed, 2000S steel centerframe, dropdeck and doubles all feature plug-in connectors and a higher-quality paint process for lower lifecycle costs, and all but the dropdeck incorporate plasma-cut one-piece main beams.

Also, adds Fontaine’s Prochazka, “We think onboard tire inflation systems are a great safety feature.”

Today’s flatbed trailers, if properly spec’d, are more productive, require less maintenance, are safer and can last longer. But know what you’re buying, experts advise: Visit the factory, do a “paper” pilot inspection, and make sure you’re getting what will do the job. And make sure you have a good, solid trailer and tire maintenance program.

Which way to winch?
Flatbeds require a means to secure their loads, and winches that require less effort to tighten load straps always are in demand.

Ancra International has unveiled the EZ Torque Winch, a gear drive winch that replaces the standard 34-inch winch bar with a 6-inch handle, allowing truckers to secure loads with a smooth, simple rotational motion, according to the company. The EZ Torque Winch requires just one-third the amount of force needed to torque-tighten a load strap, Ancra says.

The device will achieve about 1,500 pounds of tension on the webbing – the approximate tension needed to secure a load – with a few dozen rotations of its removable handle, after slack has been taken out of the straps. About 40 pounds of pressure is needed to achieve the 1,500 pounds of tension. The unit, made of zinc-plated steel, also facilitates faster load securement to save time, according to the company.

Ancra also has teamed up with Traction Technologies Inc. to manufacture, market and distribute Cinch, an air-powered winch. Because Cinch allows operators to tighten loads with just a two-button operation, more drivers, regardless of size or strength, will be able to secure loads, the companies say.

Kinedyne says its new ratchet winch bar provides for safe, convenient tensioning and releasing of winch straps. It is designed to be operated from a comfortable, upright position to limit driver movement and reduce back strain. The bar attaches to the winch cap with a positive-locking device built to prevent it from slipping from the cap holes. Designed to work with most existing trailer winches, the bar effectively converts them into ratchet winches.