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Feature: Smart trailers make for smarter business

06 December 2017 #CV Sector #Features & Interviews #TNB News #Trailer

Long-gone are the days when trailers were big, basic lumps of metal on wheels which hauliers bought for cash. Today’s products are increasingly sophisticated, backed by a variety of essential support services – of which the big-volume trailer manufacturers are in an especially good position to provide.

That is the view of Alan Hunt, UK and Ireland managing director for Schmitz Cargobull; not surprisingly because his employer is without doubt one of the sector’s biggest players.

Provisional figures show that the German-owned business – currently celebrating its 125th anniversary – built some 57,000 trailers and bodies in 2016/17 with a turnover of more than 2bn euros. At present it sells 1,200 to 1,300 a year on this side of the Channel.

While Schmitz Cargobull is probably best-known for its box, curtain-sider and refrigerated semi-trailers, it is active in other sectors of the market. “UK tipper sales are climbing quite nicely at present and we can cater for customers who haul anything from grain to scrap,” Hunt says.

The support offer referred to earlier is best illustrated by the Executive Line range of enhancement packages that are being rolled out across much of the company’s trailer line-up.

Opt for one on an S.CS curtainsider semi-trailer, for example, and you will benefit from a telematics-linked tyre pressure monitoring system, plus an aftersales support regime that includes trailer and tyre servicing and Europe-wide breakdown back-up. “We’ve got 1,400 service partners across Europe,” he says.

“When we talk to customers we’re having conversations about value-added services, better uptime and digital and telematics solutions,” he continues. It’s data that matters and Schmitz Cargobull’s onboard systems can generate information on everything from axle loadings to brake pad wear, while keeping a close eye on a temperature-controlled trailer’s fridge unit.

Some customers also want the management of their fleets outsourced. “In some cases we manage their trucks as well as their trailers,” Hunt says.

Providing useful support packages may help offset the price pressures a manufacturer importing products from Europe into the UK faces, given sterling’s decline against the euro – pressures that also beset UK trailer makers using imported components.

“We’ve phased in price increases but we’ve got strong connections with our customers and I think they’ve been received reasonably well,” he says.

Alan Hunt will focus on maintaining and growing Schmitz Cargobull’s substantial presence in the UK and Irish markets.

“Remember that the cost of steel and oil has gone up and although we’ve absorbed quite a bit of the increases ourselves, there comes a point where you have to be sensible,” he adds. “You can’t keep protecting customers from price rises.”

Having a UK manufacturing base might help relieve some of the currency pressure but Schmitz Cargobull no longer builds trailers in the UK. Some of its fridge bodies for rigid chassis are assembled for British customers by Bevan Group in the West Midlands, however, in a deal struck just over four years ago.

Schmitz Cargobull is unusual in producing its own axles, fridge units and telematics systems – something made possible by its sheer size – which makes it easier for the company to build a fully-integrated product, says Hunt. “We make our own body panels too,” he says.

Nor is it afraid of venturing into new markets, he adds. Aware of the growth of home delivery, it is now starting to build dry-freight bodies for 3.5-tonners.

“We’re supplying our V.KO DRY bodies to the Volkswagen Crafter factory in Poland and they’re assembled on the production line,” he says. “Temperature-controlled 3.5-tonne bodies will be available soon” he adds.

Schmitz Cargobull is not trying to be all things to all men, however, he stresses. While double-deck semi-trailers with a height of 4.85m, or even more, are popular with some UK operators, such tall trailers cannot be used on cross-border traffic within the European Union because of the 4m height limit that is imposed. This means that volume opportunities are limited, even though some of the EU’s other members allow tall trailers to be used on domestic work, and it is not a demand Schmitz Cargobull caters for.

“If we haven’t got the product then we have to be honest with the customer about it while recognising that there is huge potential in those sectors of the market that we do serve,” he says.

What about length? “We’ve built some longer semi-trailers in line with the current UK trial, but it is worth noting that it took a while for the 1,800 licences that were initially issued five years ago to be taken up,” Hunt observes.

The trial was extended by a further five years earlier this year with 1,000 more licences issued. The 14.6m and 15.65m trailers do not appear to be appealing to a wider audience however, as Hunt explains.

“Those taking up the new licences tend to be operators who have already got some and it is also worth noting that UK hauliers run empty for 29% of the time,” he remarks.

If that’s the case, then is there really a great need for more space? Maybe fleets need to make more efficient use of the room they have already got.

And if more space is required, then why not run a drawbar combination, wonders Schmitz Cargobull’s UK technical director, Derek Skinner.

A drawbar combination with a permitted maximum overall length of 18.75m, will give you a body length of 15.65m if you add the bodies on the prime mover and trailer together – the same length as the longer of the two trial semi-trailers.

When it comes to cutting fuel usage, the weight can often be more important than its aerodynamic treatment, Skinner believes.

“We offer lighter-weight versions of everything we manufacture but few of our rivals’ trailers are as light as our standard models,” he contends. The company’s in-house research and development facilities mean that it can optimise material thickness, he says, so that its products do not end up overweight and over-engineered.

“We’re also conscious that trailers need to be repaired from time to time so we use bolted construction so that damaged items can be easily replaced,” he says – comforting to know in case your shiny new trailer scrapes a gatepost on its first trip out of the yard.

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