Conversions: Weight watching more important than ever

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Finding new methods of keeping off the kilos weighs heavy on the minds of those involved in commercial vehicle conversions

More ways of trimming fat off their products are being sought by commercial vehicle conversion specialists, including body builders. Rising unladen weights are obliging them to cut kilos wherever possible in order to maintain payload capacity. 

The pressure has become more acute given the extra burden imposed by Euro 6.

“It’s added anything from 30kg to 60kg to the unladen weight of a 3.5-tonner,” says Justin Gallen, managing director of Ingimex, while Iveco product director Martin Flach estimates that “thanks to Euro 6, a typical 18-tonner has gone up in weight by between 50kg and 100kg compared with Euro 5”.  

Fighting the ‘flab’ does not always come cheap says Tipmaster managing director, Matthew Terry. “An all-aluminium tipper body on a 3.5-tonne chassis will typically carry around 140kg more than an all-steel one but will cost you £1,000 extra,” he says.

Aluminium offers other savings that helps narrow the price gap. Unlike its all-steel counterpart it will not require painting and it won’t rust. 

“As a consequence some of the council fleets are keeping their aluminium tippers for up to seven years,” Terry adds.

Furthermore, the ability to shift more weight at a time means fewer trips to transport a given volume of cargo during the working day, says Terry. This means less fuel is used and less wear-and-tear on the vehicle. “So, whenever we’re asked to quote for an all-steel body, we provide a quote for an all-aluminium one as well,” he says.

London-based Terry knows what he is talking about from the operational as well as from the body-building viewpoint. He also runs the All Clear Company which operates 11 vehicles grossing from 3.5 to 32 tonnes to transport domestic and commercial waste in and around the capital. It operates its own waste transfer station. 

All Clear has just bought two Fuso Canter 7.5-tonne tippers. Their lightweight chassis and Tipmaster-built all-aluminium bodies mean they can each transport a four-tonne payload.

Cut a body’s weight and you have more capacity to carry extra kit, says Terry. “Some of the tipper bodies we build for local authorities on 3.5-tonne chassis are specified with cages, tool boxes and tail lifts,” he adds.

Attach all that to an all-steel body and your payload capability is likely to hover around a meagre 450kg. Opt for an all-alloy body and you are up to nearer 600kg.

All Clear is compliant with FORS – the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme – which means fitting additional safety equipment such as side guards to trucks to protect vulnerable road users. 

Terry has gone to the extent of fitting a five-camera CCTV system to each vehicle so he can immediately see what the driver can see; potentially valuable if there is an incident. All of these items add weight and Terry has onboard weighing systems installed throughout his fleet to minimise the risk of overloading.

It also means he knows exactly how much waste is being collected from customers; and can invoice them accordingly. “If we pick up a tonne then we charge for a tonne,” he says.

Aside from price, aluminium bodies have another drawback. There is always the risk the floor will be pierced or split if a builder’s rubble is unceremoniously dumped inside. 

That will not be an issue if you are collecting a cargo of sand or gravel, however, and many of Terry’s council fleet customers use their tippers to move bagged rubbish or old furniture generated by house clearances. Loads like that are unlikely to do any damage.

“In any event we make our alloy floors out of cut, folded and fully-welded sheets so they’re pretty strong,” he says.

Noted for its close involvement in Ford’s One-Stop approved conversions programme – the scheme accounts for around two-thirds of its output – VFS is launching an all-alloy tipper body for 3.5-tonners this year, says sales and marketing director Ashley Morris. It is the first time it has opted for this approach to tipper construction. 

Eastleigh, Hampshire-based, VFS is an offshoot of major-league Italian bodybuilder Scattolini, which builds 35,000 bodies in its home country plus another 20,000 in Turkey. 

The purchasing power provided by these volumes means that the premium the alloy body will attract over steel will be comparatively modest, promises Morris. 

VFS will be opening a factory in South Kirkby, Wakefield, in late August. “It will produce a one-stop Luton based on the front-wheel-drive Transit,” he says.

Luton and box body builders are taking weight out of their products while Don-Bur has managed to strip more than 500kg out of an 18-tonne curtainsider. Steps available include supporting the body on alloy bearers or in some cases doing away with almost all the bearers and the sub-frame and gluing the body’s floor directly to the chassis rails.

Trucksmith executive sales and brand manager Simon Partridge highlights the benefits of composite double-skinned honeycomb panels. “They’re about a quarter of the weight of GRP panels,” he says.

A supplier to Renault’s and Vauxhall’s approved conversion programmes among others, Trucksmith is best-known for its low-floor Lutons.

Some lightweight panels can be expensive, however. Don-Bur makes the point that a polypropylene honeycomb panel from Omnia costs 60% more than its GRP equivalent. 

One way of minimising conversion flab is for operators to take a closer look at the weight of the base vehicle they are using, according to Citroën head of commercial vehicles and business sector operations Jeremy Smith. 

Citroën has a particularly good story to tell here, he contends: “An L3 3.5-tonne Relay with a dropside body built by Ingimex can handle a gross payload of 1,512kg.” 

Tipmaster produces a Relay-based tipper for Citroën’s Ready to Run approved conversions range with alloy sides, an alloy tailgate and a steel floor. Gross payload is 1,295kg, which is generous for a 3.5-tonner with a tipping body.

As well as Ingimex dropsides and Tipmaster tippers, Ready to Run includes Lutons constructed by both Ingimex and Buckstone. Two newcomers have recently joined the line-up, both built by Advanced KFS: a car transporter and a lightweight construction plant carrier.

With 3.5-tonne tippers, customers should ask themselves whether they really need one with rear-wheel-drive and twin rear wheels, advises Renault conversions manager Peter Horton. In many cases they can use lighter front-wheel-drive models with single rear wheels instead,. Do so and you can boost your payload capacity by around 140kg.

Renault offers a comprehensive conversions line-up including everything from off-the-shelf core conversion tippers and dropsides to welfare vans and curtainsiders built by accredited converters.

“There’s a strong and growing demand for conversions and I would estimate that 95% of the commercial vehicles we supply have one of some description,” says Horton. “Even if it’s only a ply lining.”

Renault offers load area racking and storage systems under the Ready4Work banner.

According to Vauxhall bodybuilders vary in the level of productivity when it comes to saving weight.. 

“Maxi-Low, for example, carefully considers every aspect of the body, including whether or not reducing the thickness of brackets will affect the integrity of the vehicle,” says a spokesman.

Conversions designed to be environmentally-friendly can sometimes have the undesirable side-effect of increasing unladen weight.

Dearman has developed a piston engine driven by the expansion of zero-emission liquid nitrogen which has been integrated with a Hubbard refrigeration unit. The package has been mounted on an insulated body fitted to a Mercedes-Benz Antos on trial with Sainsbury’s.

Swapping a diesel fridge unit for a Dearman system can cut a truck’s overall NOx and particulate emissions by more than 70% and 90% respectively, the company contends. 

“But while the core of the engine is made out of aluminium, the tanks that hold the liquid nitrogen are pressure vessels made from steel, which makes them heavy,” says chief technology officer Nick Owen. 

As a consequence he is looking at the possibility of using tanks made from lighter materials. 

“Composite tanks might be an option, but they have to be sold in very high volumes before you can get near to the price of steel ones,” he says.

Van load area racking manufacturers are cutting the kilos too and have moved away from depending quite so heavily on mild steel. 

Tevo has opted to make greater use of high-strength steel because it brings a weight saving with no loss of durability. Some bodybuilders are employing it too, and for the same reason.

“The saving is into double figures,” says Tevo sales and marketing director Andy Gear. “There’s a slight cost penalty but the strength of the product and its ability to last means that operators are more willing to second- or even third-life the racking system concerned.”

Bri-Stor, too, is relying more heavily on high-strength steel than it did in the past, says group managing director Andrew Humphrey. “We’ve used it for a number of years,” he says.

“It’s four times stronger than mild steel so we can use a thinner gauge, thereby saving weight.”  

This means the cost of employing it is roughly on a par with that of lower-strength steels because less of it has to be used. “Where we don’t need the strength, we tend to use plastic,” Humphrey adds.

Tevo is making it easier to move racking from a van to its successor because of the installation system it uses, says Gear. “What we’re doing is bonding an alloy-faced floor with tracking in it into vehicles using an aircraft-industry-grade adhesive along with tracking down the sides,” he adds. 

The storage system is secured to the tracking which makes it easy to remove and the floor and tracking are unlikely to inconvenience whoever buys the van second-hand.

Gear says: “Bonding means we don’t have to use lots of fasteners and that alone means a 3.5-4kg weight-saving.” 

Also with an eye to saving weight, Bott’s Vario load area storage system relies on aluminium in its construction as well as steel. Intended for medium and large vans, the company’s Uno package employs galvanised steel extensively.

Both packages have a key attribute in common: they are designed to withstand two lifecycles.

Also worthy of note is Bott’s Modulo, which is designed to make maximum use of space in light commercials that would otherwise be dead; that awkward area above the rear wheel arch boxes for example.

With sites in Cornwall, Leicestershire, and North Lanarkshire, Bott has aligned itself closely with the Freight Transport Association’s Van Excellence scheme. Its fleet is accredited and it has become one of the programme’s Gold Partners. 

“We can testify to the benefits of adopting the Van Excellence process,” says Bott sales director Steve Turner.

Humphrey is finding that more businesses are getting a second life out of racking systems but points out there can be drawbacks. There is the labour cost of switching shelves and units from the old vehicle to the new one and modifications may be needed to make them fit because the load area of the latter may be different to that of the former.

“If you are having your existing racking refurbished then it probably won’t be a cost-effective exercise,” he says. “If you aren’t, then it may be, but what you will be doing then is switching equipment that may be looking rather tired into a brand-new vehicle.”

That may not do much for the morale of employees, or for the image your business wishes to portray to its customers.

Smith relates an example of second-lifing with an interesting twist from the body-building world.

“We had one customer who bought dropside Relays, removed the bodies and mounted giant TV screens on the chassis to take to sporting venues,” he says. “Once he’d used them for a few years he took the TVs off, re-fitted the dropsides and sold the vehicles second-hand with pristine bodies.”

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  • Duralloy - 17/12/2019 06:01

    Useful article. An aluminium body can reduce the overall weight of a truck by roughly 50 percent. Likewise, the fuel efficiency of an aluminium-bodied truck is eight to 10 percent greater than that of a steel-bodied truck.

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