If you’ve spent time on a U.S. highway at any point in the past 30 years, you’ve seen a Wabash National semi-trailer. The company is the largest semi-trailer producer in North America, manufacturing more than 60,000 semi-trailers last year. But while the company is firmly established as an industry leader, president and COO Brent Yeagy has never been complacent. Four years ago, he implored senior leadership to look to the future to overcome its products’ performance barriers and improve the design of its semi-trailers.
The result was the transportation industry’s first refrigerated trailer made with molded structural composites. Three months ago, Wabash announced it would begin a limited production run of 100 units over 18 months. According to Robert Lane, Wabash’s vice president of product engineering, the reaction to a 2016 concept trailer was so positive that the company acquired some early customers before it even built a prototype. They include transportation providers K&B Transportation, Werner Enterprises, Leonard’s Express and Combined Transport.
Wabash was first introduced to the possibility of using composites in the trailer by Structural Composites, a Melbourne, Fla.-based company that was using unique composite technology for shock-mitigating Navy boats. Wabash assessed performance and economic metrics, then benchmarked how the technology might apply to trailers.
Wabash opted to use composites, however the project came with a steep learning curve for everyone involved. “We had a lot to learn about semi-trailers and refrigerated truck bodies and what kind of loads they go through,” says Scott Lewit, president of Structural Composites. “And they had to learn from us about what composites can do.” Yeagy encouraged the team to push the boundaries and not be afraid to fail, recalls Lewit. “This approach allowed us to learn and innovate from failure and to rapidly develop and deploy new technology,” he says.
Wabash used Structural Composites’ PRISMA® as the main material for the trailer’s entire box, which consists of the roof, walls, nose and floor. It provides excellent insulation qualities at a lower weight than conventional sandwich materials and has the necessary scalability to service a large market, says Lewit. CFRP can also be selectively utilized in the trailer to further reduce weight.
Wabash utilized a combination of unidirectional and other orthotropic configurations of glass fiber. The company combines the PRISMA preform elements with several different resin combinations depending on the size and specifications of each part. Some parts feature vinyl ester resin, while others incorporate polyester or Structural Composites’ proprietary CoCure resin.