Inside a trailer’s high-tech horseshoe

As fifth wheels are vital safety components, their development is slow, steady and deeply considered – but that doesn’t mean they are not subject to continuous research and development. Global Trailer had the opportunity to meet Wendy Cowan, Jason Howe and Rob Nissen, the team responsible for driving SAF-Holland’s fifth wheel program forward.

As the company’s Director for Product Planning and Market Development, listening to the market and predicting future demand is part of Wendy Cowan’s professional DNA. Jason Howe, meanwhile, is helming the engineering team tasked with translating her input into technical progress. Finally, Rob Nissen’s role as Director Field Sales is to ensure every product will perform consistently in the field.

Q: The fifth wheel coupling market is not necessarily one searching for the limelight. Did the growing competition from Asia influence that low perception at all?
Wendy Cowan: No, it’s still a quiet achiever for most people out there. I think fifth wheels are somewhat taken for granted because of their excellent safety record. All of the major global suppliers have rigorous testing requirements in place, so fifth wheel failure is a rare occurrence today.

Q: In that context, how do you make sure a product is perceived as a stand-alone one that is different from the competition and potentially more effective?
Jason Howe: By adding value. Ironically, the growing pressure from low-cost producers has actually pushed industry leaders to increase the value of their products. We are now even more focused on understanding what kind of features fleets value and providing a complete line of fifth wheels that surpass their expectations in terms of performance and lowest cost of ownership. More than ever, we lean on our experience, expertise, relationships and reputation to reinforce the differentiation from low-cost producers.
Wendy Cowan: One example is that SAF-Holland offers performance guarantees for over-the-road fifth wheels, which means there are no rebuild costs for up to six years – should a rebuild even be required. We also offer the longest materials and workmanship warranty – again, six years – on our Holland FW35 fifth wheel. Weight is always a concern on a truck, and Holland offers four of the seven lightest fifth wheels in the market, including the world’s lightest, the FWAL forged aluminium fifth wheel. Those are just a few examples of where we add value.

Q: Speaking of value added, it seems like the development of fifth wheel couplings is slow and steady rather than happening in leaps and bounds. Are there any recent developments regarding the technology?
Jason Howe: Because fifth wheels are  safety components, their development is understandably slow, steady and considered. The most significant material change in recent years occurred for us with the introduction of the forged aluminium fifth wheel in 2007, although we are continually evaluating materials to improve performance and efficiency. And, there are other material developments that we have released in our product line that are proprietary.  While the base materials are not completely exotic, we have developed post-material treatments that allow us to provide performance enhancements that may not be readily obvious to end users. Most of these developments are trade secrets, but have had significant impacts on being able to produce lighter, yet stronger products, as well as components in our No-Lube and Low-Lube product line.

Q: So does that mean the innovation potential in a modern fifth wheel is limited to the material used?
Jason Howe: Not necessarily, and that’s probably new to many. In general, R&D needs to focus on the needs of the customer. This can mean looking at electronic solutions to help monitor the coupling of the fifth wheel, developing lighter weight products to help reduce fuel consumption, and reducing costs so we can continue to provide an affordable product. We have also increased our development efforts with the truck OEMs. As their trucks are continually redesigned to reduce weight and meet new regulatory requirements, we need to be better coordinated with these changes to ensure that the end user receives the best user experience. We see these collaborative design efforts increasing as all parties involved drive towards further product optimisation.
Wendy Cowan: Let me add that fleets are generally looking for better information to help them become as efficient as possible. That’s why telematics also play into the fifth wheel market. Letting fleets know what is going on with their equipment and drivers in real time is critical. I think prognostics will be crucial too in order to control and reduce costs such as downtime.

Q: So, will a fifth wheel still look the same in 2020?
Wendy Cowan: With fleets keeping trailers 15 years or longer and the majority of them designed to be utilised with current fifth wheel systems, it is unlikely that a true revolution in truck-trailer coupling will occur in the near future. However, the advent of the driverless truck may be the catalyst that allows for true evolution in this area.
Jason Howe: Agreed, I don’t expect that fifth wheels will look all that different in five years than they do today. This is in part because as a safety product, changes have occurred steadily over time. And it’s also in part because the industry itself is very safety conscious and wary of major changes. Fifth wheels work very well and have remarkably few failures.

Q: But there must be a range of future scenarios you’re working with behind the scenes…
Jason Howe: Of course we think about what the future could look like. Ultimately, there are likely to be significant changes in our industry as technology pushes efficiencies at every level. The pressures on the trucking industry are many and run from logistical and operational efficiency to a qualified driver pool, and everything in between. That’s why we do have on-going product development projects, as well as future “proof of concept” efforts, focused on the expansion of sensor technology to improve product functionality for the end user out there.

Q: Let’s rewind again for a moment and talk about the status quo. Which sections of the fifth wheel are currently most prone to damage?
Rob Nissen: The throat section of the fifth wheel is probably most prone to damage when drivers place the kingpin on top of the lock instead of in it. The most damaged components in that context would be the lube plates on our Low-Lube and No-Lube products – especially when kingpins get dragged across the surface or during other abusive coupling situations. Some of that comes down to driver training, so following the recommended coupling procedures when using fifth wheels with lube plates is crucial.
Jason Howe: That’s true, even though fifth wheels are generally hard to damage. In the past, release handles used to be susceptible to damage by the trailer kingpins when the truck wasn’t lined up with the trailer, but that’s not an issue anymore since we came up with our dropped handle design.

Q: With such limited risk, what’s the average life span of a fifth wheel in a modern trucking operation?
Wendy Cowan: With appropriate maintenance and lock rebuild when needed, a fifth wheel can last decades. Again, following the recommended coupling procedures when using fifth wheels with lube plates will help get the most out of them.

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