Refurb and Remodel

Running a trailer workshop is completely different to a run-of-the-mill truck workshop. Different rules apply and priorities are changed, as Diesel Workshop learned when visiting Rytrans in Toowoomba.

Even though seemingly alike, truck and trailer maintenance can be distinctly different: Where a truck workshop will concentrate on scheduled services and repairs, maybe interrupted by the odd rebuild, working with trailers will see constant refurbishing and rebuilding, with servicing and repairs thrown in between.

One workshop that has mastered the art of trailer servicing is Toowoomba-based Rytrans. With the Queensland town quickly evolving into a regional hub for general freight and livestock, the young company is currently writing a rare success story in an area deeply affected by the loss of mining-related investment.

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Founded two and half years ago by Ashley and Leanne Daley with two technicians, it has already had to increase the size of its premises and now employs 14 technicians to service growing demand for quality truck and trailer servicing in the area.

According to Ashley, the company outgrew its original facility so quickly that it had to add an extension that would see it double in size overnight. However, growth kept increasing at a rate that a second facility down the road had to be taken on, which is now serving as the repair and refurbishment base, with the original building housing trailer manufacturing.

Originally, trailer manufacturing was not on the horizon for Ashley and Leanne when founding the business, but a number of repair customers were constantly asking them to start building their own equipment. So, when more room became available in the workshop, it became possible to offer customers new trailers built to their individual specifications – even though Ashley admits the numbers will remain limited by the capacity of the workshop and the team involved in the manufacturing section of Rytrans.

“I don’t want to get into a position where I have to tell a customer they will have to wait twelve months for a new trailer. We are keeping the numbers down to keep it manageable.”

“I am not going to make too many trailers,” says Ashley. “I don’t want to get into a position where I have to tell a customer they will have to wait 12 months for a new trailer. We are keeping the numbers down to keep it manageable.”

One restricting factor for Ashley is staff availability. The manufacturing shed currently has eight people on the ground full-time, and the repair shed employs six on refurbishment and repairs. As this is a relatively new workforce, there are different levels of experience across the Rytrans team that need to be balanced. Ashley says some have worked in the trailer industry for a long time and have built up a strong skillset, while others have come across from different industries and may not have the specific experience just yet.

To find the right mix and assess just how much work the team can handle, Ashley and Leanne are currently going through the team one-by-one to evaluate what qualifications are already there and where experience may be turned into a qualification. They also want to make sure that younger members of the team can develop additional skills and go through an apprenticeship process.

“I want to have a workshop where everybody working there is either an apprentice or a tradesman,” says Ashley – pointing out just how variable the jobs in the company are.

Rytrans’ cattle trailers, for example, are essentially made of steel and require a respective skillset. The floors are steel plate with an overlaid grid to give the cattle some grip, and the frames are steel with aluminium corrugated sheeting for the walls. The basic design is very similar to most manufacturers, however, as variation comes in the finer details.

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According to Ashley, there are many considerations when designing a cattle crate, with number one being the robustness of the construction. The kind of work a cattle trailer has to handle means the quality of workmanship, the solidity of the welds and the finish of the components is paramount.

On top of that, there are also the animals themselves to consider. Firstly, they must be carried safely and legally – damage to the interior of the trailer could also cause damage to the cattle. Secondly, the cattle create a lot of effluent during the journey, which must be handled carefully under the latest environmental rules.

Another major factor is the length of time the livestock haulier will keep a crate. The first ten or so years are normally followed by a full refurbishment, with the intention of getting another ten years out of it. As a result, the trailers have to be built to last so when they come in for refurbishment, the same level of quality and robustness can be achieved.

Ashley explains a major refurbishment will usually see the livestock trailer come into the workshop in a sorry state. The corrosive effect of ten years on the road – plus effluent flow – can be hard on the best steel. The basic chassis comes out of the ordeal relatively well, though, as it is built for the tough environment of farm roads and fitted with robust components.

Refurbishments after rollovers can be less straightforward, Ashley adds. “Unfortunately, these are not uncommon in the livestock industry. It’s a 4.6m high trailer with a high centre of gravity running on rough dirt roads. Sometimes [only] the running gear, axles and suspension need replacing or renewing, but these trailers have a tough life and all the components take a battering.”

Refurbishment entails removing the aluminium sheeting and rebuilding the steel frame by cutting out corroded or damaged sections and replacing them with new steel. On Diesel’s visit to the workshop, one lead trailer in for a revamp had so much corrosion on the frame that Rytrans simply built a completely new one to keep the process cheap and fast.

Refurbishing a trailer may also see it brought up to date and improved on the design and technology front, especially to meet new legal requirements. On the livestock trailers, Ashley says effluent tanks are becoming bigger and the rules governing effluent spills on the road stricter, especially in NSW. As a result, when an older trailer comes in for a refurbishment, it will get fitted with improved effluent handling equipment and, invariably, a bigger capacity tank.

Another improvement is in incorporating surfaces on which liquid cannot settle. In every case possible the surface is built with an angle or slope so liquid will flow down through the system and not sit and cause corrosion. The outside frame itself is especially prone to hold water, so design ideas are being tried with a profile on the bottom steel member having an angled top to keep it dry.

Other variations tend to be in reaction to where the cattle get on and off. Loading and unloading in specific locations creates requirement for side doors or rear doors at specific heights, Ashley says, further pointing out the complexities of running a trailer workshop.

He says the range of technology used on some trailers can vary from the most basic to very sophisticated: “A number of operators will still only use trailers on steel springs with air controlled drum braking systems, [but] the use of air suspension is growing and becoming standard in many bigger fleets now.”

In line with that, some operators are now opting for a suite of new technologies on their equipment when updating. Electronic braking systems with stability control on both dollies and trailers are no longer unusual, for example. These changes are coming along as the technology becomes more robust, and because there are some regulatory benefits available in some areas, too.

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Safety issues have also changed in the trailer repair industry over time. With a refurbishment, there can also be a safer gantry added, or a safety line to attach a harness, Ashley says. The same is true with working at height, an area where new equipment to mitigate problems is quickly becoming more prevalent.

Regardless of the job at hand, Ashley says the workshop does not have a booking system. “If you need your trailer repaired, you just bring it on down. A lot of the work involves refurbishment, which is a relatively long job. Therefore, if the repair is urgent, the mechanics can drop the longer-term work to make a quick fix and get the trailer back on the road.”

Luckily, the level of equipment required to run a trailer workshop is relatively low. Most of the work is done with basic workshop tools, with welders and grinders the key tools to the trade. In fact, many modern trailer designs have been developed so they can be built in any agricultural workshop if the technician is skilled enough.

But, that doesn’t mean anyone can do it. Ashley says the development of Rytrans’ dedicated trailer workshop has shown that there is a distinct gap in the market. “A lot of trailer refurbishment is handled by the trailer manufacturers themselves, but it is not their core business. Their main game is all about designing and building state-of-the-art new trailers,” he says.

“While smaller general workshops in rural areas may have the kind of equipment necessary to maintain and refurbish trailers, they don’t necessarily have the skillset in the workforce. Rytrans seems to sit somewhere in the middle.”

As a workshop dedicated to ensuring customers receive quality maintenance and refurbishments in a region where transport services are growing rapidly, it has created the right offering at the right time, driven by a focus on basics like service and quality.

Yet, even basic trailer designs need a sophisticated approach to repair and maintenance to achieve incremental improvement over time, Ashley says – and that’s where the difference lies. For example, Rytrans was recently asked to turn an old Queensland Rail cattle carriage into a trailer to be used for carting camels in the Northern Territory.  The basic, tough design was there to begin with, it just needed to be recreated as a road going vehicle that meets the current dimensions and ADR requirements, Ashley explains.

As a positive side effect, he says the experiences made when refurbishing old trailers or taking on special projects like this show Rytrans’ engineering team where improvements in design need to be made in new trailers – thereby helping improve the newest arm of the business, too.

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Author: Tim Giles

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