SAF Holland unveils ultralight trailer suspension

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | 6/4/2015

MUSKEGON, Mich. – For decades, trucks and trailers have used air ride technology for the comfort and safety truck drivers depend on. Air ride systems offered sizable advantages to previous mechanically based suspension systems.

Improvements to combinations of metals and engineering, however, could be game changers because they are lighter, stronger and – for the professional truck drivers that command them – faster.

“We like to say they ‘increase efficiency,’” SAF Holland’s Jeff Peterson said.

During a two-day press event hosted in Muskegon, Mich., by suspension maker SAF Holland, company leaders unveiled the ULX40 Ultralite Slider Suspension Axle system. The new suspension system uses composite spring-ride technology that the company declined to describe in detail in order to protect its proprietary interests.

And for good reason:

SAF Holland has an estimated 40 to 45 percent of North America market share for mechanical suspensions compared with 15 to 18 percent market share of air ride suspensions on the continent.

What they would say: The ULX40’s spring system is 80 pounds lighter than the steel springs its competitors sport.

The next generation of trailer suspensions aren’t designed to speed up cargo movement as much as they aim to be lighter, flexible and longer lasting.

“Air rides are still king,” said Peterson, SAF Holland marketing and communications manager. “Mechanical suspensions are a good fit for the right niche.”

For now, drum brakes remain king in North America even as Europe and other trucking hotbeds have switched to disk brakes. The ULX40 is capable of supporting either brake system, though disk brake systems will include bi-metallic casing process that “creates a uniquely integrated rotor-hub assembly,” SAF Holland said.

SAF Holland is proud of the system’s top to bottom use of proprietary parts, including a 5.75-inch diameter axle that saves 20 pounds per axle but adds more than 30 percent rigidity when compared to 5-inch diameter axles. The larger axle should improve tire wear in theory, though the company acknowledges that’s difficult to prove.

In all, SAF Holland says the ULX40 saves 100 pounds in weight to offer owners more payload, fuel savings and 150 pounds annually in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. SAF drum or optional disc brakes make the system a self-contained system from a single supplier.

Doug Dorn, SAF Holland vice president for fleet end user development, pointed to customer frustration when systems combined from different manufacturers have warranty issues. Manufacturers often blame the other parts makers in such situations.

“That’s just not acceptable,” Dorn said Wednesday. “Now, we own it.”

The company also owns the industry’s first 10-year system warranty. The Durasystem Suspension & Axle Warranty includes the mechanical slider assembly, the SAF X-Series 5.75-inch axle, welded bracketry, and the axle connection.

Customers with warranty issues prompt two questions at SAF Holland, Dorn said. Could the customer have done anything to prevent the problem and, lastly, is what they’re asking for reasonable?

SAF Holland demonstrated the ease by which the ULX40’s quick release pin-pull system can be released, moved and put back into place for a trailer.

“Drivers are sliding suspension very much more than you think,” said. “So we have made it as easy as possible.”

Besides the slider system, SAF Holland touted the ULX40’s use of no shock absorbers, no air springs, no height control valves and no dock lock devices as simpler and easier to maintain.

A G-rail design is more difficult for production plants to achieve than the typical C-rail setup, Dorn said, but the G-rail offers improved strength and an open design to minimize long-term corrosion causes.

The unit is so self-contained, in fact, that its automatic slack adjusting system is hidden from view, which could cause an issue during truck inspections, though the company is working on a solution to that potential hiccup.

Reporters were treated Wednesday, June 3, to a tour of nearly every one of the 212,000 square feet SAF Holland dedicates to manufacturing at its Muskegon facility. The Muskegon plant is staffed by two shifts employing 120 people who build entirely in-house suspension products, landing gear, fifth wheels and coupling products as well as systems that combine other OEMs’ products.

The factory floor has 19 welding stations manned by humans, and 10 used by robots. Two labs test axle strength with a range of machines simulating load weight, road stresses, and turning trucks.

Plant Manager Ken VanDyke said the plant sends two to three daily truckloads of fifth-wheel and suspension components to Kenworth’s Chillicothe, Ohio, plant where the truck maker operates only two days behind SAF Holland’s schedule.

The one day of truck delivery gives SAF Holland little margin for error.

On Tuesday, trucking reporters saw art at the Muskegon Museum of Art, including a special exhibit on baseball. Next to a baseball bat signed by Negro Baseball League survivors sat an autographed picture of Cool Papa Bell, the Hall of Fame outfielder so fast he could “turn out the light and get into bed before the room got dark,” the legend goes.

Whether it’s 90 feet on the bases or 408 miles on a truck, human or robot – speed matters.

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