It is safe to state the axle is the backbone of every commercial vehicle. It is the main sub-assembly of the running gear system and the most immediate link between wheels and chassis, directly determining the entire driving experience.
Despite the complexity of the axle’s work environment, the main concept has remained the same since the discovery of the wheel in the 4th millennium BC – making the rigid axle an economical, yet robust solution for the transport equipment industry.
In a past instalment of Global Trailer, we have given a comprehensive insight into the science behind modern axle technology and compiled a complete market overview. Now William Hicks, Director of Product Planning & Market Development for SAF-Holland’s axle and suspension division, has agreed to give an insider’s perspective on the R&D and marketing side of the axle industry.
Q: If you look at the axle as a separate component, does it receive the attention it deserves in modern road transport?
A: As critical a component as a trailer axle is to the overall suspension/axle system, it is often overlooked since it is engineered to provide years of reliable, safe service with minimal maintenance. It’s one of the most important multifunctional components of the total trailer system and is significant in roll stability, tyre alignment, load distribution, braking performance, and overall driving safety of the trailer. Highly organised and cost-conscious fleets recognise the important role that the suspension, axle, and wheel end systems play in the overall cost of trailer ownership.
Q: Today’s clients demand a lot from the axle manufacturing industry. Ideally, they want zero cost, zero maintenance and total peace of mind. How do you react to this development?
A: SAF-Holland, through advanced R&D, is constantly evaluating effective solutions to improve the end user’s total cost of ownership. If the solution can provide the fleet a return on investment with reduced or eliminated maintenance demands, the market will accept it for no or a nominal cost increase. Again, a total cost of ownership evaluation becomes the deciding factor.
Q: But, don’t long service intervals indirectly encourage people not to monitor the equipment in up to two million kilometres, risking on-road failure?
A: They often do, which is a problem. All components need some form of periodic inspection, even if they are considered ‘zero’ maintenance. The definition of maintenance comes into play as some consider monitoring or visual inspection part of the maintenance process. Thus, using the term ‘zero’ maintenance can be misleading to some. SAF-Holland believes continuous education and training are critical considering the wide spectrum of differences in duty cycle applications, which can have a detrimental impact on overall system performance.
Q: Is the axle an area that requires constant R&D investment or is the development a ‘slow and steady’ one?
A: Both – the axle area requires constant R&D, yet the development is slow and steady. Due to the high level of capital equipment, system integration considerations, development/validation testing requirements, as well as risk, safety and liability considerations, significant axle design changes take considerable time, resources and finances. However, system modularity also allows for continuous R&D efforts on selected components. This approach provides for design improvements on selected system components, improving overall system performance while reducing the overall cost, time, and risk associated with a completely new system.
Q: Could you give an example? For instance, are there any recent developments regarding production methods?
A: Recent developments and trends in production methods include continuous improvement through initiatives such as Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing etc., as well as the inclusion of advanced assembly or material joining processes. In addition, global suppliers, such as SAF-Holland, are expanding their production capabilities in local markets. They are providing more economical choices for their customers while providing industry leading technology whenever possible.
Q: New, lightweight materials like glass fibre reinforced plastic promise just that. How does SAF-Holland react to that trend?
A: Of course SAF-Holland is continuously looking into new materials, for example glass fibre trailing arms. This process has been on-going for many years; however, the marketplace only sees those solutions that are the most commercially viable.
Q: Speaking of the marketplace, in how far does the fleet sector affect the development process?
A: We have multiple contact points with the industry and our fleets via planned direct sales contact, industry trade shows, service networks, development partnerships, and so forth, providing a constant flow of feedback information.
Q: It’s fair to say every development effort is eventually aimed at influencing purchasing behaviour within the commercial road transport industry. But what do fleets actually consider when purchasing an axle?
A: Fleet buying criteria are fairly universal, based on Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) and what we call Features and Benefits (FABs) – some may call it Unique Selling Propositions (USPs). But, it’s also about strong individual sales and service relationships. As a business, we want to be a “one stop” global business partner providing comprehensive systems solutions that are engineered towards improved fleet efficiency.
Q: So, what is SAF-Holland’s USP?
A: SAF-Holland offers industry leading technological solutions to the global transportation market. Our focus is more than just the product. Our product is also our service to the customer after the sale. We are a reliable and long-term partner for our customer.
Q: What does that mean in detail?
A: We have different USP’s with different products for different markets. Unique SAF products such as the Integral disc brake bi-metallic rotor and “All-In” field service coverage provide the features and benefits fleets are looking for. Of course, weight competitiveness is an important criteria in selection, since every pound more reduces the payload or consumes more fuel. The SAF CBX40 is the lightest air ride tandem slider in the North American market, yet retains industry leading durability and performance.
Q: Does that mean the axle is not considered a separate unit anymore but just part of a suspension package?
A: It depends upon regional influences as well as the type of suspension system being used. In some cases, it can even be different with small market segments. SAF-Holland pursues a global strategy of providing complete suspension/axle system solutions to the global market.
Q: Those regional influences can make all the difference when talking axle design. For example, some use round axles beams, while some prefer a square shape. Why is that?
A: Each axle configuration provides unique features for product differentiation; however, it is still based on regional market preferences by the fleet. For example, no known regulatory requirements exist that benefit the selection of either configuration regarding axle capacity. Ultimately, the axle configuration is becoming less important to the end user as the markets eventually move to more system integration, where the entire suspension/axle system is purchased as one unit. SAF-Holland, as a global suspension/axle supplier, has a full global portfolio of axle configurations available that accommodates many regional preferences, and can provide alternatives solutions as well that may change the market place.
Q: Often overlooked, the bearing is a key component of every axle. Which effect does the right choice of bearings have for your product?
A: This is a balance of application vs. life. You can design a bearing for any mileage based on the understanding the correct loads. Bearings are impacted by the following factors: axle load; road surface quality; vertical loads from straight driving; and lateral loads based on tight cornering or off road driving situations. In addition, there are the commercial influences like maintenance levels, long-life bearings, etc. SAF-Holland has vast experience in supplying long life wheel ends via our Integral hub design with six years, one million kilometre warranty.
Q: The bearing is a great example of how much engineering work goes into a modern axle. What do you see as the next improvement the market is crying out for?
A: In some markets, this could be adoption of new technologies from other global markets. For example, air disc brakes from Europe into North America.
Q: When will that happen? Can we expect the next big leap in axle technology to come anytime soon?
A: The next big leap in axle technology will have to be accompanied by a major trailer design change or a breakthrough in materials technology. This new technology could be in the next five to ten years, depending upon materials, R&D, road congestion, or other regulatory impacts.
Q: Final question: How do you react to the growing competition from Asia?
A: We take all competitors seriously and continue to pursue our relentless quest to provide industry leading technological systems solutions.