Crank it up

Used to raise a trailer’s nose to match the fifth wheel height or to rest the unhooked vehicle upon, the landing leg is an unsung hero of the transport equipment market. Although it is a vital part of each and every articulated vehicle and a key element to ensure a seamless exchange of trailing equipment, it’s still widely perceived as a commodity item.

One reason for that poor perception may be the landing leg’s unobtrusive appearance. Consisting of a hollow steel beam with a square or round foot and a folding or detachable crank handle on the side, the potential for innovation seemed limited for a long time. But that image is now about to change, as companies from around the globe continue to invest in next generation technology that could see the landing leg transform from a simple reinforcement tool into a viable safety feature.

One hot topic is the automation of the lifting and lowering process. As tendering is becoming more and more competitive, hand actuated equipment is increasingly considered a safety threat – prompting companies from around the globe to invest in the development of an automated alternative. 

The most recent attempt to capitalise on the safety movement originated in Ireland, where Prime Transport Solutions (PTS) developed a pneumatic piston and locking pin mechanism to replace the classic crank handle. Modestly named PTS50, the new system recently made headlines when Detroit’s Chrysler Group publically endorsed it.

PTS CEO David White had been canvassing from door to door for quite some time before the Chrysler breakthrough, determined that an automated landing leg could positively affect driver recruiting, safety and maintenance, aerodynamics and idling time. And he was right. After lengthy conversations between his company and Chrysler’s fleet management team, the PTS50 will now be adopted by the first large US fleet – potentially paving the way for a whole new landing leg generation. The contract could include retrofitting up to 1,300 trailers down the line, according to White.

“With this exciting milestone we will now see how serious the industry truly is about improving their bottom-line and helping drivers,” he says – admitting the Chrysler deal has been a welcome change from having to focus all his energy on generating sales and getting the new business off the ground.

Despite the surge of attention, White wasn’t the first to go down the automation path. Razor International’s Australian team has been selling an electric landing leg drive for quite some time now and recently teamed up with Chinese powerhouse Fuwa to develop a fully automated landing leg that will be marketed globally from 2015.

Now referred to as the eLeg, the volume model was on show at the IAA commercial vehicle show in Germany and is has the potential to bring the auto leg concept into the mainstream. “The eLeg will be based on our proven Razor power lift, which has been in operation around Australia for several years now,” says Razor’s co-Managing Director, Geoff Watson, who is hoping to capitalise on the device’s ‘street credibility’ once volume production has begun.

However, the competition is fierce. Come 2015, Razor and Fuwa will not only compete with PTS’ mechanical solution, but also with an ambitious UK start up pushing into the electronics market. Trading as Intelligent Trucking Solutions (ITS), the young company has developed an electronic device called Velocity Drive. Comparable to the long established Razor device, it is currently being tested on Razor’s home turf in Australia, where it is supposed to be sold via the local Jost subsidiary. 

Run by Welshmen Phil Busby and Phil Busby Sr., ITS is currently based at the Bridge Innovation Centre in Pembroke Dock, a business incubation hub partnering with Swansea University.

Research and development have been carried out in collaboration with Defence Technology and Nano Electronics specialist Torquing Group, a fellow Welsh start-up that provided the electronics know-how to create the Velocity device. According to Phil Busby, the first units of the Velocity Drive are ready to ship for the Australian market, but there could be more to come.

“We expect the Velocity Leg Drive to be available in Europe, USA, South Africa, Asia as well as Australia by December,” he says. “We’ve had strong interest in the product from the US, where preliminary discussions have taken place with one of the largest trailer builders in the country. In addition to substantial interest from trailer builders throughout Europe and the UK, it’s exciting times for us here at ITS.”

On the opposite side of the Atlantic Ocean, US company Gear Up is also trying to secure a piece of the pie. The Gear Up product is powered by an electro-hydraulic motor running off an auxiliary battery, which is charged by the truck’s alternator or can be powered directly by the truck battery. One feature that sets the Gear Up approach apart from the European and Australian competition is that the landing leg can still be operated manually via the standard crank handle if need be.

Also in the US, Patriot Lift is selling a pneumatically operated system that has been officially endorsed by the Women in Trucking association in the past. “There has been virtually no innovative technology on trailers in the transportation industry to improve safety and reduce the manual effort for drivers since trailers were put into practice in the early 20th century,” says Dave Rivers, CEO of the family-owned company. “Now that drivers are aging and more females are getting into the profession, the need to eliminate the archaic operation of manual landing gear operation is definitely upon us.”

According to Rivers, the air power to run the so-called On-Lift system is delivered from the emergency brake system so that no other auxiliary power is required. “The small nine-pound unit uses a pneumatic air motor designed and built by Ingersoll-Rand and the Patriot team.”

According to Zoran Tomic, Director of Global Landing Gear Product Planning & Market Development at SAF-Holland, one reason for the growing competitive pressure in the landing leg market, especially in the US, is the increase in the trailer-to-truck ratio. As a result, there is a growing need to uncouple and recouple equipment, which is putting added pressure on both landing gear and those operating it.

Unfazed by the automation movement, Tomic says structural integrity is still key to modern landing leg design, which is why SAF-Holland is currently placing more value on minimising risk potential in areas that are prone to damage instead of rushing to develop an auto drive suitable for mass production. 

But that doesn’t mean a big player like SAF-Holland wouldn’t have looked into it already. In fact, the technology would be readily available if management decided to go down the automation path too. “Yes, we have offered both electrical and pneumatic automated landing gear before, but due to a significant cost increase, the market has been slow to accept such technology,” says Tomic. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t continue to refine the technology for those who demand it.”

After all, SAF-Holland is well aware that times are changing, with occupational health and safety becoming more and more important in tendering. So far, the emphasis is on “improving ergonomics” though, with the goal of catering to a changing driver demographic.

As a result, going down the automation path still is a viable option for OE suppliers like SAF-Holland, especially since Jost is now collaborating with ITS in Australia, where the auto landing leg movement is currently making headlines. The race has begun.

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