Thursday, April 03, 2014

Looking Toward the Future of Truck Bodies

What will the commercial truck bodies of tomorrow look like? What will be different? What design innovations can we expect to see?

For clues on what the future holds in the commercial truck body market, one starting point is to look at what the automakers are doing, said Ray Chess, president of R.J. Chess Consulting LLC, an automotive industry advisory firm based in Oxford, Mich. Chess is a former commercial truck vehicle line executive for General Motors.

“OEMs are a leading indicator. To me, that’s your road map for seeing what will happen in the commercial truck and equipment sector,” Chess said. “The truck body manufacturers do not need to create a lot of new invention here because they don’t have to. They can piggyback off what the OEMs are doing. And, when OEMs get involved, they help lower the cost.”

Take, for example, the 2015 Ford F-150 pickup, which is 700-pounds lighter than the outgoing model by replacing traditional steel with a military-grade aluminum alloy throughout 95 percent of its body. According to Ford, the aluminum alloys, already used in the aerospace and other industries, not only make the new truck’s body lighter, but also stronger and more resistant to dents.
Ford introduced the 2015 Ford F-150 at the Detroit Auto Show, noting that it will utilize an all-new, high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloy body and will weigh 700-pounds less than previous models.

Ford introduced the 2015 Ford F-150 at the Detroit Auto Show, noting that it will utilize an all-new, high-strength, military-grade, aluminum alloy body and will weigh 700-pounds less than previous models.

“The things we see getting utilized in light-duty vehicles — if and when it becomes cost effective — tend to migrate into bigger trucks and bigger truck bodies,” said Doyle Sumrall, managing director for the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), the association for the work truck industry. “I think we’ve already seen a transition in the last decade where, as truck chassis become more aerodynamic and use more modern materials, I think we’ll see that same sort of trend being adopted in the body industry over time.”

Bob Johnson, the NTEA’s director of fleet relations, agreed. “OEMs are developing the advanced material technologies and increasing their use, which means as the availability of these materials increase, driving down the price,” he said. “As the OEMs use more and more of these advanced material technologies, they are going to refine the technology and build the service and repair infrastructure to make the material more available and affordable.”

Utilizing Advanced Material Hybridization

If the automakers are a leading indicator for what to expect in the truck body market, then it’s not likely one advanced material — whether aluminum, fiberglass composite, plastic composite, high-strength steel, or carbon fiber — will be declared the sole winner in the foreseeable future.

The MY-2015 Ford F-150 incorporates other advanced materials beyond aluminum, such as high-strength steel that’s used in design of the truck’s fully boxed ladder frame to make it stronger yet lighter.

Johnson of the NTEA forecasts a similar trend with truck bodies, where one material does not fit all fleet applications or duty cycles.

“Moving forward, I think we will see more hybrid bodies. We’re going to see a lot of innovation in design in the area of moving away from an all-steel or all-aluminum or all-fiberglass bodies and start mixing and matching the materials and technologies to get the best features of all of them into one body — for weight reduction, corrosion resistance, reparability, and lifecycle considerations,” Johnson said.

Additionally, the increased cost of the advanced materials currently comes into consideration, and increased usage may drive these costs down.
Johnson added: “I can’t say the OEMs are leading the body companies because the body companies are really doing more in the area of fiberglass, plastics, and aluminum right now than the OEMs are. But, that being said, as OEMs get involved with it they achieve much higher volume, which drives availability and cost and knowledge of how to repair it.”

Creating High-Strength Bonds Without Welds

The increased use of lighter-weight materials in truck bodies may increase the use of high-strength adhesives versus conventional riveting and welding techniques to ensure an optimal bond. Used extensively in aerospace applications, these adhesives are ideal in joining dissimilar materials where welding may not be possible.

In the right applications, these adhesives provide greater bonding flexibility to achieve more aerodynamic body designs and reduce the number of welds to increase manufacturing efficiency.

“Once the adhesive technology matures, I think you’ll see more use of the adhesives in the truck body market, especially when you get into the advanced materials like the carbon fibers, plastics, and things of that nature,” said Johnson of the NTEA. “You can weld plastic, but it takes special equipment and skills, so why not bond it?”

by Sean Lyden

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