Plastics News: Reaching for Lighter Vehicles

 WAKARUSA, IN - October 18, 2011 - Plastics are a big part of a new commercial vehicle that companies, including shipping giant UPS, are hoping will help them cut costs by reducing weight. 

United Parcel Service of America Inc. is currently testing five vehicles modified from the new Reach van developed by Utilimaster Corp. and Isuzu Commercial Truck, which has a composite skin, structural plastic floor and roof and injection molded bumpers. 

 With a promised improvement in fuel efficiency of 35 percent or more over standard delivery vans, the Reach is also expected to have other customers on board soon. 

 “This was developed from a clean sheet of paper,” said John Knudtson, vice president of product development for Utilimaster of Wakarusa, in a telephone interview. “The architecture is unique. It doesn’t exist just off the shelf.” 

 Utilimaster and Isuzu Commercial Truck, based in Livonia, Mich., have been developing the Reach since 2008 to meet demands from customers for better fuel performance. The two companies debuted it in March. In August, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency released a joint set of future fuel standards for commercial vehicles that will require a minimum improvement of 10-15 percent for everything from delivery trucks to school buses and large tractor-trailer rigs. 

 Truck makers like Utilimaster have been hearing customer demand that is based on more than environmental regulations, though. Companies like UPS have thousands of vehicles covering 20,000-40,000 miles each year. Every additional mile it can squeeze out of a tank of fuel adds up to huge savings over the entire fleet, and the Reach partners estimate companies can save $3,000 in fuel costs per vehicle, per year. 

Atlanta-based UPS has 70,000 vehicles in its domestic fleet alone. A quarter of those are delivery vans with about 650 cubic feet of storage capacity, similar to the Reach. 

 UPS has been looking at multiple ways to cut its fuel consumption costs, said spokesman Michael French. It already has 2,000 vans in service using alternative fuels — including plug-in electric engines and motors powered by natural gas. 

 But there are limitations to those alternative engines. Batteries will cover only a set number of miles, while natural gas fueling stations aren’t always easy to find. 

 “With a standard diesel engine, they know what they can do, and they can fill up almost anywhere,” French said. 

 So UPS went looking for a van that it could use on long rural routes, in congested traffic and everywhere else an existing van could go. 

 Its search came as Utilimaster and Isuzu were developing the Reach. Utilimaster had been hearing from its customers that they wanted a lighter-weight delivery truck with a smaller, more efficient engine using standard fuels. Isuzu had just the engine Utilimaster needed and already was bringing it to the U.S. for another vehicle. 

 To make the most out of it, the companies reconsidered every aspect of the van, creating a unique chassis as well as the materials used throughout it. 

 “Certainly weight and cost comes into play, but so did other criteria such as the fastening techniques, the manufacturability, the environmental impact of the material, the recyclability of the material,” Knudtson said. “There was corrosion resistance and thermal insulation, acoustics, paintability.” 

 The van traditionally was called an aluminum step van — made with aluminum body panels connected to vertical structural supports. By rethinking the entire vehicle, rather than merely replacing one material for another, Utilimaster was able to eliminate metal supports in favor of a composite body that is molded in color to eliminate the need to touch up paint from scratches. 

 The floor is a one-piece composite structure with a polyester skin on the top and bottom and a urethane foam core. The PE outer layer also means that the floor will not corrode while the multilayer structure improves acoustic and thermal performance, Knudtson said. 

 The side walls also are made of PE with a honeycomb inner core, while the front and rear bumpers are made of urethane. 

 Utilimaster declined to name the plastics suppliers making the Reach’s components. Isuzu makes the chassis and engine and delivers them to Utilimaster, which builds the rest of the vehicle in Wakarusa. 

 The UPS vans now being tested are slight modifications on the Reach that was first introduced, using a UPS-specific cargo area. 

 UPS picked five varied locations to test its “real-world” worth­iness in different settings, French said. 

 In Flint, Mich.; Albany, N.Y.; and Lincoln, Neb., the van will be put through its paces on rural roads and in winter conditions. The Flint vehicle is close to Isuzu’s offices in Livonia for regular engineering checks. A Tucson, Ariz., site will give the company feedback on how the van behaves in extreme desert heat, while a van on the road in Roswell, Ga., will give UPS engineers easy access for checking it throughout the test period. 

 The delivery company will decide after the trial period ends in December whether to invest in more Reach vans, French said.