The State of Lightweight Material Technologies in Truck and Van Upfits

The State of Lightweight Material Technologies in Truck and Van Upfits

It wasn’t long ago when nearly $5 per gallon of gasoline and diesel was a reality, with most analysts predicting that this price, or even higher, would be the new normal for a long time to come.

And as fleets grappled with the impact of fuel cost spikes on their operating budgets, they began to look more earnestly into lighter-weight truck and van upfits – built with advanced lightweight materials, such as aluminum, fiberglass composites, plastics, advanced high-strength steel and carbon fiber – with the hopes of improving fuel efficiencies and uncovering other cost-savings opportunities in a volatile market.

This is because replacing conventional steel with lighter-weight materials wherever possible allows fleets to accomplish one of three objectives:
Achieve net fuel-efficiency gains. If you reduce the truck’s weight, without adding more payload, the vehicle requires less effort – and thus, fuel – to perform the same work.
Increase legal payload and productivity. If you take, for example, 1,000 pounds out of the construction of a truck body, that allows your crew to carry 1,000 pounds more in gear, parts and equipment per trip, while staying under gross vehicle weight limits pertaining to bridge laws, commercial driver’s license requirements or other Department of Transporation regulations, depending on the truck class.
Reduce acquisition costs. Selecting a lighter-weight upfit might enable you to downsize to a smaller, potentially less expensive chassis, without sacrificing net payload capacity.

But fast-forward a few years later and, as of press time, both gas and diesel have sunk below $2 per gallon in most of the U.S. So, does this mean lower demand for lighter truck and van upfits?

Not according to these four trends.

Trend #1: Greater Openness to Lightweight Materials in the Fleet Industry
“You don’t typically see fast, wholesale changes in our industry, either from the body manufacturers or from the fleets or consumers,” said Doyle Sumrall, managing director for NTEA – The Association for the Work Truck Industry (www.ntea.com). “That’s because mistakes are really expensive. And it takes time for customers to try something new and trust that these [lightweight] materials will work in the field and hold up in harsh conditions.”

But the spike in fuel prices in 2007 and 2008 pushed the industry to move faster into lightweighting, according to Sumrall. “There was a period there that when you filled up your vehicle, it made your eyes water. Five-dollar fuel was a true impetus for change. Those kind of seminal events tend to open your mind to look at new and creative ways to do things.”

Since that time, as more fleets have become comfortable with the performance of advanced materials in the field, this has helped create greater industry awareness of the benefits of weight reduction, spurring fleet managers to at least consider lightweight material options when spec’ing upfits – something they likely wouldn’t have done, say, 10 years ago.

Trend #2: GHG Phase 2 Standards
The upfit industry is about to get external pressure from the federal government to take weight out of their products.

That’s due to the Phase 2 greenhouse gas emissions rules, as outlined in a joint proposal by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. These rules apply to heavy-duty trucks – defined in this context as vehicles at or above 8,500 pounds gross vehicle weight rating – and are expected to begin model year 2021.

While the Phase 1 ruling, in effect from 2014 through 2018, requires chassis manufacturers to create fuel-efficiency gains through powertrain improvements, the Phase 2 proposal takes a more holistic approach, addressing the factors that impact fuel economy with both the chassis and the truck-mounted body, as with vocational vehicles like bucket trucks and digger derricks.

And one of solutions proposed by the government that impacts the upfit industry is weight reduction through the use of advanced material technologies in upfits.

“Body manufacturers and upfitters will likely be involved in the Phase 2 standards discussion; it won’t just be the chassis OEMs this time around,” Sumrall said.

Trend #3: Improvements in Advanced Adhesive Technologies
The future of truck bodies is not that there will be one material – whether steel, aluminum, plastics, fiberglass composites or carbon fiber composites – that becomes the market winner. It’s that there will be hybrid designs that incorporate multiple materials, factoring in the unique strengths and weaknesses of each material to build a product that achieves the optimal balance of weight reduction, strength and cost for the customer.

But joining disparate materials is a challenge. “A major problem with a vehicle made with different types of materials is where and how you join them together,” said David Warren, program manager, transportation materials at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (www.ornl.gov), the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy laboratory. “You can’t use the typical welding process. I can weld two pieces of steel together, but I cannot easily weld a piece of aluminum with steel. And if you’re not careful, you’ll also create a very bad corrosion situation when trying to combine dissimilar materials.”

According to Warren, one solution to join aluminum and steel, for example, is friction spot-welding (as opposed to torch welding), which uses a rotating tool to generate friction heat that softens the materials just enough for them to combine, without actually melting the materials and damaging the microstructures of the aluminum panel.

As other possible solutions, Sumrall points to advanced bonding technologies – such as high-strength structural adhesives – in lieu of welding, bolting or riveting. “The market for these technologies is growing, opening up the opportunity to put dissimilar materials together, like a steel skin with an aluminum or polymer interior,” he said. “This is not prolific yet, but it’s clearly a direction we’re heading in the industry.”

The bottom line: Advancements in bonding techniques and adhesive technologies will expand options for body manufacturers to achieve weight reduction in their product designs in ways that could be more cost-effective – and thus, more financially attractive – for customers.

Trend #4: More Lightweight Materials Use by Major Automakers
In 2015, Ford introduced its redesigned F-150 pickup, with the cab and pickup box built mostly out of high-strength, military-grade aluminum alloys to achieve a 700-pound weight reduction compared to the previous model. The upcoming 2017 all-electric Chevrolet Bolt will incorporate large amounts of aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber to reduce weight and improve energy efficiency to increase battery range to 200 miles on a single charge. And the BMW i3 electric vehicle is built with an all-carbon-fiber passenger compartment that the company says is six times stronger than conventional steel, at a fraction of the weight.

How does this impact the truck equipment industry?

As automakers incorporate more lightweight materials in their designs, this will eventually bring economies of scale that trickle down to truck equipment manufacturers, making advanced material technologies more financially viable for their products.

It also helps expand the service network to repair these materials. For example, repairing damage to an aluminum body panel has historically been expensive, requiring different techniques, tools and expertise than fixing a steel panel. But Ford’s expansive use of aluminum in the F-150 is forcing the vehicle body repair industry to increase training and capacity, helping drive down the cost of aluminum repairs.

And, the automakers’ increased adoption of advanced lightweight materials provides proof of concept that gives fleets greater confidence to try these materials in their own truck applications.

As Sumrall put it, “In the work truck world, we all go where the OEMs go. So, we’re seeing a lot more aluminum and more composite materials in truck bodies and equipment as well.”

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