Tipper body builders report that demand for their products remains buoyant despite the economic uncertainty engendered by the vote in favour of Brexit.
“Our January order book is full,” says Fruehauf Sales Director, David Thomson. “We’ve got a healthy commitment from our customers for the first quarter of this year – in fact we’re heavily committed – and the second quarter is looking good as well.”
Thompsons Group is reporting a healthy order book into the New Year too. “We’re cautiously optimistic,” says Group Director, Scott Burton.
It is continuing to invest in production capacity and is spending £500,000 on a new shot-blasting and paint facility at one of its three factories in Blackburn.
“Nobody knows what is around the corner but at present we’re still very busy,” reports Tipmaster Managing Director, Matthew Terry. “Our activities include building tippers for Citroen on Relay chassis and demand is such that we can’t produce them quickly enough.”
They are marketed through the Citroen dealer network as part of its Ready to Run portfolio of approved conversions. It is an approach that makes selling tippers far easier for dealers because they do not have to get involved in specifying bodywork and getting it constructed by a local bodybuilder, and can deliver the vehicle more quickly to the buyer as a consequence.
Customers know that they have one point of contact – the dealer – should there be a problem and that the entire vehicle is covered by Type Approval. However, a drawback is that there is a limit to the extent to which the body can be tailored to meet the operator’s precise needs.
Increased Demand for Higher Payloads
Tipmaster builds bodies on rigid chassis grossing at from 3.5 to 12 tonnes at a rate of about 500 a year. While 3.5-tonners account for around 70% of its volume, Terry is noting increased interest in 4.0- to 4.5-tonne models, especially among local authorities.
“We’ve sold more vehicles in that weight category this year (2016) than we did during the last five years put together,” he reports.
That is despite the ongoing shortage of drivers with the appropriate driving licence qualification.
He believes it is because customers are becoming increasingly conscious that the payload capacity of a 3.5-tonne tipper is comparatively modest if a cage and tail lift are also fitted, especially given the extent to which chassis un-laden weights have risen in recent years. Euro 6 has also added to the burden.
Around 120 of the tippers Tipmaster has built this year (2016) have had either a tail lift or a crane installed.
The extra payload capability a 4.0- or 4.5-tonner offers means fewer trips to waste transfer stations to unload. “Remember that in some parts of the country – London in particular – you can end up queuing up for an hour before you get the chance to tip,” he observes.
How about recruiting somebody who can drive it?
“I think operators are coming to the realisation than if you can’t find someone then you’ve got to train someone up,” he replies. “They’re having to bite the bullet.”
There may also be an appreciation that it makes far more sense to opt for a 4.0/4.5-tonner rather than run the risk of overloading a 3.5-tonner, despite that fact that it means getting involved with all the rigmarole of O licencing and the Drivers Hours rules. The operator concerned may of course be an O licence holder anyway.
The All-Alloy Route
At the time of writing, Tipmaster was busy building a large batch of all-steel insulated bodies on light-in-weight Fuso Canter 7.5-tonne chassis. “We’re achieving a payload of 3.8 tonnes,” says Terry.
Much of its output at 3.5 tonnes is made up of steel and alloy bodies, with steel floors and alloy sides and tailboards. “A lot of 3.5-tonne customers are going the all-alloy route though, especially if they are having a cage fitted because it gives you a 120kg weight-saving over alloy and steel,” he says.
Such an approach may mean that you can just about avoid venturing over the 3.5-tonne threshold.
VFS’s parent company Scattolini has developed an all-alloy body for 3.5-tonners which it launched at this year’s IAA Hanover Commercial Vehicle Show.
Built on a programmable robotic welding line at Scattolini’s plant at Valeggio not far from Verona in Italy, it will initially be available in the UK for Ford Transits. Applications for other models, including Volkswagen’s new Crafter, are in the pipeline.
Although demand remains healthy at present, an increase in the cost of raw materials and components thanks to the decline in the value of sterling post-Brexit vote, and the need for body builders to pass at least some of this increase on to customers, could have an impact on future orders. Much of what goes into tipper bodies is imported.
“The aluminium we bring in from a mill in Italy is going up by 20%,” says Terry. “A rise in materials and parts costs means we’ll have to put up our prices as a consequence in the New Year, possibly into double figures; but it’ll be the same for everybody. “There could be quite a few pricing shocks in 2017.”
“We’ve guaranteed prices up to March 2017 but not beyond that,” says Thomson. “BPW has already put up the cost of its trailer axles and we’ve seen an increase in the cost of aluminium, although so far it’s pretty been small.”
He estimates that prices of Fruehauf tipper semi-trailers will have to rise by around £1,000 due to a likely increase in the cost of their content from March onwards.
“It’s worth remembering though that we’ve seen no price increases for at least the past eight years and if new tipper prices go up then so will used prices,” he says. That should reduce the cost to change if the operator decides to dispose of his existing tipper.
“If the purchase is being financed then it is also worth noting that money is still relatively cheap,” he adds. “I know of some operators who are borrowing at interest rates of as little as 1.8% to 1.9%.”
“Around 95% of the items we use are sourced from outside the UK,” says Burton. “At the moment we’ve not been affected too significantly by raw material price rises but I don’t know what will happen in the New Year.
“If prices do go up however then we’ll have to pass them on to our customers.”
However, the challenge tipper makers face is how far they can pass cost increases on and how far they will have to absorb them themselves. “I can’t simply stick £2,000 on the price of a tipper trailer,” Burton remarks.
At least the volume of steel that Thompsons Group buys gives it some purchasing clout, and Burton says the company will try to negotiate harder with all its suppliers. “There’s overcapacity in the steel industry across Europe and steel suppliers are chasing business,” he says; and indeed sterling had started to strengthen a little at the time of writing.
A key change in the market is the degree to which low-entry refuse collection chassis – Mercedes-Benz’s Econic in particular – are being fitted with tipper bodies for use in London. The low-set driving position in an Econic makes it easier for the driver to spot vulnerable road users such as cyclists.
Such trucks are starting to find their way outside the capital, with well-known East of England operator Mick George employing Econics bodied by Wilcox on a contract in Cambridge; a city where cyclists proliferate.