Counting the kilos 04 March 2014

Light-weighting vans and LCVs is big business, as operators increasingly demand higher payloads from lower gvw rated vehicles. Steve Banner reports on what works and what doesn't

Over the past quarter of a century, light commercials have become safer and more generously-equipped, with everything from airbags to satellite navigation and air conditioning now commonplace. Unfortunately, such extras have resulted in one drawback: reduced payloads. That's a problem likely to be exacerbated with the arrival of Euro 6 in LCVs come 2016.

SCR (selective catalytic reduction) looks set to be the means by which the new engine emissions standard will be achieved, if what Mercedes-Benz has done with its latest Euro 6 Sprinter is anything to go by. And the 18-litre AdBlue tank typically fitted alone weighs 30kg when full, quite apart from the heavier exhaust itself.

So how can un-laden weights be reduced and payloads improved? By using different materials and a more intelligent approach to design, say body builders. That is especially the case when it comes to building tippers, because operators that buy them want all the payload they can get.

VFS, for example, has moved towards high-strength steel, as opposed to cold rolled mild steel, since less of the former is required for its all-steel tipper bodies. "As a consequence, we can offer a 1,130kg payload on a 3.5-tonne chassis – and with a more rigid body – as opposed to the 1,050kg we offered previously," says Ashley Morris, marketing manager at the Eastleigh-based firm, owned by Italian bodybuilder Scattolini. That also significantly improves on the sub one-tonne payload, if a tow-bar was fitted, he adds – and a lot of light tippers tow trailers. Nor has the policy resulted in anything more than a modest price increase, he insists.

Switch to an all-aluminium tipper body on your 3.5-tonner and an even higher payload can be achieved. But the bill is likely to be higher, too – although that isn't putting off buyers, according to Tipmaster director Matthew Terry. Approximately 75% of the 450 or so tipper bodies on 3.5- and 7.5-tonne chassis turned out by its Leyton, London, factory annually are made entirely of aluminium.

"We use aluminium sheet for the floor and headboard, and aluminium planks for the sides and tailboard," he explains. That makes the bodies 23% lighter than Tipmaster's traditional offerings, which use alloy sides and tailboard but steel for everything else. Terry concedes that it also makes them 20% more expensive, but adds that they won't corrode, don't require painting and the weight saving benefits fuel consumption when running un-laden. The floor is also strong enough to withstand the hammering it is likely to receive in service, he insists.

Indeed, the benefits that going all-alloy at 7.5-tonnes can bring are well illustrated by the body Tipmaster fits to the Fuso Canter, says Terry. "It enables the vehicle to carry a 4.0-tonne payload," he states. And the proportion of Tipmaster's output now dedicated to all-aluminium bodies suggests that operators are willing to pay for that.

"Payload is the first thing many of our customers ask about," agrees Roy Shelton, business development manager at body builder Bevan Group, perhaps best-known for its aerodynamic Icon Luton body. "If they can get a 5—10% payload advantage, then price pretty much goes out of the window." That is especially the case with the growing number of operators deploying 3.5-tonners on work once handled by 7.5-tonners, he adds.

Cutting weight can involve using aluminium bearers and runners to support a body's floor, rather than steel, advises Shelton. And he adds: "Something else that can be specified is punched-hole alloy flooring of the sort used on car transporters. We're seeing that being asked for by operators ordering dropsides. Some of them are also opting for a dropside body with a tilt cover, rather than a curtainsider body, because again you can obtain some weight saving."

Savings can also be made by thinking about the construction of the body itself. For example, the Maxi-Low Luton body produced by Leicester-based Maxi-Low on Vauxhall Movano 3.5-tonne platform cabs makes extensive use of a recyclable polypropylene honeycomb. That helps the vehicle to deliver a 1,510kg payload when offered with a 20m3 body.

All sorts of other initiatives are out there, if you really want to cut weight, suggests Iveco UK product director Martin Flach. "Do away with the spare wheel, carrier and jack and you can save yourself 50kg. Get rid of the passenger seat and you can save at least 20kg."

Either could cause problems, if you end up with a flat tyre or need to carry a driver's mate. But several vans now carry inflator/sealers, instead of spares (although they're of little use, if you suffer a major gash in the tyre sidewall) and many operators also instruct drivers to summon roadside assistance rather than deal with problems themselves. Further, some fleets discourage drivers from carrying passengers. Many others may benefit from using the space vacated to transport fragile items, if, for instance, they're on parcels work.

"Something you can certainly do is look at the use made of the body you specify, and see whether a smaller body might make sense," continues Flach. "At present, we're seeing many customers switching from 4.5m to 4.2m bodies on shorter wheelbases."

Additionally, most bodies have front panels, while cabs have rear panels. Do away with one or other, marrying the body seamlessly to the cab, and you are bound to save a few kilos, points out Flach. And you might make the vehicle look more stylish.

What about doors? "If you're going to specify a tail-lift on a box or Luton body, then one thing you can do is use the platform as the rear closure," suggests Shelton. "That way you've saved yourself the weight of a roller-shutter door." And there are similar gains to be made with cages. "We build 3.5 tonne caged tippers and one of the things we can look at is an alloy cage, instead of a steel one," comments VFS's Morris. "It's half the weight and the on-cost is modest."

Furthermore, a well-designed racking system invariably cuts weight, not least because it prevents tools and parts being strewn all over the cargo bed. Racking also allows drivers to see what they've got and discard what they don't need. Te kilos saved should more than counterbalance the weight of shelves and bins.

All that said, no sensible operator should attempt to save weight simply by specifying lighter-gauge steel for a tipper body. The body will start to fall apart and rust, warns Terry, and the price of putting all the problems right will far outweigh the cost of a decent alloy body.

Something probably equally unwise is to go back to basics and strip out the extras that drivers like. Fail to specify air-conditioning in your latest batch of vans and they will rapidly become the most unpopular on the fleet – and the ones most likely to be off the road thanks to 'accidental' bumps and bangs.

Steve Banner

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Related Companies
Bevan Group Bodies Ltd
Mercedes-Benz UK Ltd
Mitsubishi Fuso Trucks Europe
Scattolini Spa
Tipmaster Ltd
Vauxhall Motors Ltd
VFS (Southampton) Ltd

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