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Lighten Up: Carry More

New semi-trailers that utilize ultra-light stakes and bunks made of composite materials are expected to be ready for market as early as 2013. Deloupe, a Quebec-based trucking equipment manufacturer, and FPInnovations (FPI), a non-profit forestry research and development group, are behind the research and trials that have been taking place since 2005 on the design for this revolutionary product.


July 5, 2012
By Pierre Vaillancourt

Topics
Composite elements necessitate some sort of adaptation on the designers’ part. They must find the best way to join the stakes to the bunks New semi-trailers that utilize ultra-light stakes and bunks made of composite materials are expected to be ready for market as early as 2013.

Any added manufacturing costs for this new semi-trailer could be amortized over a very short period of time. Deloupe will have exclusive manufacturing rights for Quebec, the Maritimes and the northeastern United States. Depending on the fluctuations of fuel prices for trucks, FPI estimates that added revenues could be achieved due to the lighter overall weight of the semi-trailer, due to the trailer’s potential added strength (allowing for transportation of more material), and through any fuel economies gained during return trips of the empty semi-trailer. Altogether, this could add up to a savings of $5,000 to $6,000 a year.

FPI is currently validating the new components through rigorous testing. Frédéric Boutin, an FPI researcher in transportation and energy, describes the stakes and bunks ensemble as being 40% lighter than steel. The components look more massive, but they are flexible and are 1.25 times more resistant (stronger) than steel.

The properties of these new stakes and bunks enable the semi-trailers to meet the most important factor in transportation cost savings – the ability to carry more material. By reducing the semi-trailer’s weight by 450 kg, it allows for 450 kg more material to be hauled during each trip.

A part of the stakes and bunks is made of steel, and the rest of composite stakes and bunks. Spread out on the deck at strategic locations, they allow for the evaluation of their resistance to strain and impacts. Transaco conducts that portion of the trials with this configuration in forest roads in Saguenay.

Mat-Comp, an engineering consulting firm specializing in composite materials, came up with the design, the analysis and the conception of the stakes and bunks, and also has taken part in the trials necessary for their certification. Their mandate consisted in reducing the weight of the vehicle while offering the same strength and longevity.

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Serge Paré, of Mat-Comp explains that compared to steel or aluminium, composite materials allow for a 50% or 30% weight decrease, respectively. “But weight isn’t everything, and composites are less affected by corrosion and more resistant to breakage due to impact. In the “resistance to rupture versus weight,” comparison, composites always win, although they cost 20% more than the material they replace,” he explains.

The composite material is more flexible and regains its original shape even when hanging by a grapple. In an empty semi-trailer, the stakes seem to bend toward the inside. Under the weight of the load, the stakes straighten up and absorb the movements towards the outside. Furthermore, this product is painted grey, which gives added protection from sun exposure deterioration.

It is important to consider the severe operating conditions for log trucks, both on pavement and on logging roads, when trying to calculate the amortization of equipment investments. Mat-Comp and FPI aimed for a return on investment (ROI) that included this factor, to be within two or three years for a part that will last a minimum of eight years. This objective can be realized more quickly as the price of diesel increases.

Deloupe is working to decrease the weight of its semi-trailers through configurations, number of axles, length, galvanized steel poles, and new composite stakes and bunks.
The first tests on the stakes and bunks were conducted in Deloupe’s backyard, in Beauce. A battery of tests was made on the composite elements and their assembly before the semi-trailer intended for the tests was delivered to a contractor in Beauce for test drives.

Composite Material Technology
Composite materials are made of at least two immiscible materials (meaning materials that do not blend together), but also have a strong adhesion capacity: the same way that reinforced concrete is the product of cement and reinforced steel, composite materials often comprise a fibreglass or carbon canvas that acts as reinforcement and supports the mechanical efforts of various rigid resins such as epoxy.

The structural elements in the production of  these “pultrusion composites” are combined by moulding plastic and metallic materials together in a process that involves pushing the material towards the entrance of the die and pulling it at its end.

In the near future, equipment and semi-trailer designers envision a greater number of lighter parts will be produced from composites that have been created for other areas of transportation. For example, the Boeing Dreamliner is the first commercial airplane to use numerous composite materials in its construction, resulting in superior fuel efficiency. Many other vehicles such as boats, tractors, train wagons (such as those used in the Eurotunnel) use composite materials in their construction. Researchers predict that it won’t be long before composite materials are commonly utilized in the manufacture of trucks, semi-trailers and other types of heavy equipment.

It may take some time to convince fleet managers and truck drivers of the potential benefits of these new materials, but ultimately, researchers see acceptance on the horizon.

Trials
Two sets of trials have been carried out since October 2011. One test achieved success, and the other failed. Raymond Tardif, of Beauce, Que., reports on the first test, which had disappointing results. In it, FPI was required to halt operations on a road test when an inspection from the Ministry of Transportation revealed cracks in the test semi-trailer. Because there are no regulations for composite materials, the same rules that apply to steel and aluminium for this kind of defect had to be followed.

The engineers questioned confirmed that the rules applying to steel and aluminium cannot apply to composite materials, but right now, there is no data to judge of the seriousness of those weaknesses, and currently no clear directives have been issued. New norms and evaluation procedures will have to be listed in the regulations and added to the training of inspectors from the Ministry of Transportation. FPI has submitted a report to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), an agency that outlines the orientations for transportation equipment in Mexico, the United States and Canada, after which, each state and province will be free to implement or reject the recommendations from the CVSA.

In the second instance, the test semi-trailer was delivered to a company that specializes in transporting tree-length logs. Louis Cloutier, co-owner of Transaco located in Sacré-Coeur, in the Saguenay region of Quebec, reported a very positive experience in that environment. Cloutier cited exceptional results for this semi-trailer as it was subjected to extreme conditions that included a minimum of 65,000 kg. of load, four and a half days a week, 24 hours a day.

Cloutier reports being satisfied to the point where he will consider installing similar stakes and bunks on his next semi-trailers, as long as the price isn’t prohibitively high. “We wish to reduce our diesel consumption, but not at any cost. Our other semi-trailers weigh 2,000 kg to 3,000 kg more and we are paid per tonne of transported material, so we’d rather transport more material than steel,” he says.

Market Penetration of the Product
Deloupe hasn’t yet defined the parameters for the very specialized new model about to launch in 2013. Trials have mostly focused on the stakes’ behaviour in real-life situations, and on the bunks, Guillaume Samson, an engineer for the company, reports. The trailer’s final configuration including length, width, height, suspension, steering axle, etc., will depend on the target market region, and whether that will be in the Maritimes, in Quebec or in other parts of Canada.

The Deloupe semi-trailer used during the trials for the new composite stakes and bunks is a retrofit semi-trailer with an adjustable air suspension of the kind that is loaned to clients while they have their semi-trailers repaired. Its configuration hasn’t been optimized for weight loss. It doesn’t constitute the ideal semi-trailer in real-life situations.

Deloupe will establish the final price and handle the distribution. Samson affirms that the cost price, rather than the sales volume, will dictate the sales price, and he hopes to develop an important market share based on that principle.

The company already manufactures semi-trailers made of aluminium or galvanized steel rather than high-resistance steel. The forthcoming composite stakes and bunks are expected to be in the highest price range.

FPI researchers have not yet been able to evaluate the degree of long-term wear on the composite elements. The elements are still too new and will need to be subjected to lengthy evaluations and subsequent changes. A crack in one of those composite elements won’t necessarily affect the structural integrity as it would in a steel part or a welding, but it remains to be seen, at which point does a problem pose a threat and at which point must a vehicle be disposed of? Given the stakes for the industry, these are questions that warrant the full attention of regulatory agencies so the industry can move ahead with promising solutions for energy savings and improved profitability for forestry transportation
businesses.


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