Trailers from paper to prototype

Pilot review: Part 2 – Trailers from paper to prototype

Just in terms of the benefits—accuracy in specs and a valuable relationship—pilot reviews and relationships equal productive trailers. Your responses to last month’s column on the importance of properly conducted tractor pilot reviews turned my attention to the new trailer review process. This month, trailer manufacturers underscore the importance of paper reviews (specs) and pilot reviews, especially if the process occurs months earlier than the actual build or first-model viewing. The specs must be nailed down months ahead or else the pilot review is a complete waste of time.

“It’s a confirmation of the exact component specifications and of the precise positioning of key components,” adds Bruce Ewald, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Wabash National. Checking every detail for accuracy matters, such as overall height-width-length, rear deck height, vertical/horizontal door openings, upper coupler height (against the customer’s standard fifth wheel height), and the location of every electrical device. And don’t neglect to inspect the trailer’s interior and power equipment’s operation, like landing gear and lift gate operation.

The larger the order, or the more complicated or unusual the specs, the more important the pilot inspection becomes for both the fleet and the manufacturer.

For any order, Brett Olsen, marketing department manager at Utility Trailer Manufacturing Co., stresses the importance of a proper paper pilot (or as Utility refers to it, a “paper prototype”): “We hope everyone does that on every trailer bought before the trailer is in production,” he says.

Often the little things can complicate the order. Take for example, the fifth wheel height of a fleet’s tractors. Olsen explains that every manufacturer—tractor and trailer—measures a little different. “Utility does it on 2-in. increments on the half inch—our standard fifth wheel height is 46.5-in. Other manufacturers may be at 46- or 47-in. It’s not a big deal until you buy a group of trailers and find that you’re 1.5- to 2-in. over height on the front.”

“Making sure that every specification is correct is the reason to have a paper pilot,” agrees Dave Gilliland, vice president of National Accounts at Great Dane Trailers. “When the trailer is being built, or has been completed, it is too late to make changes so a pilot is a critical piece in the buying cycle. It is easy to change specifications at a paper pilot but very difficult after that.”

One of the often overlooked details to check for, according to Gilliland, is the decal package. “Their image is very important to all customers and typically a lot of time is taken to make sure that the decal and layout is as they expect,” he says.

“Following the process from the paper pilot through the physical pilot gives us a better understanding of what’s important to our customers, which enables us to meet their expectations,” offers Doug Coffing, director of LTL sales for Wabash National.

Wabash has a formal internal process around requesting a pilot inspection for its dry and refrigerated vans and converter gear. The reviews are held at its Ehrlich Innovation Center, located inside the maker’s primary manufacturing facility in Lafayette, Ind.

“With major customers, we’ve noticed a trend moving toward performing pilot reviews at customers’ locations, which allows for a cross-functional team from both the OEM and the customer side,” Coffing says. “Some changes can be made, time permitting. Typically, we look at 30 to 45 days for minor changes that don’t impact design or material lead times. Most customers who conduct a formal pilot will complete a paper pilot at the time, or shortly after, the order is placed, which allows longer lead time and design questions to be addressed.”

“Nobody likes surprises,” summarizes Derrick Dilts of Antares Equipment, a designer and manufacturer of flatbed and drop-deck series semi-trailers. “Bad quality is one thing, but other times, there is a genuine difference in interpretation of spec, or as we refer to it, ‘things that matter or don’t matter.’ The latter can be avoided if a first trailer is produced and inspected. It’s just smart business to sit with your customer and agree on what the critical to quality [CTQ] list is. Then that first single trailer is based on that list.

“First articles are rarely perfect, and there’s certainly no shame in requiring a second iteration for all parties to be happy, but often, with no pre-set criteria in place, it’s more an indication of a lack of communication than it is an unrealistic customer expectations or the manufacturer’s poor quality,” Dilts explains. The bottom line: “A good, pre-set and previously-agreed-to CTQ list and first trailer inspection procedure can save a lot of time, money and heartache for all involved.”

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