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World best practice

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Melbourne company Fuwa K-Hitch is right at the centre of a global network of expert axle and suspension businesses that has set out to revolutionise the transport equipment market.

Fuwa K-Hitch’s (FKH) long-standing involvement with Chinese manufacturing giant Fuwa has not only catapulted the company into the highest echelon of the Australian axle and suspension market over the past decade, but also helped it build an international support network that is unique in the transport equipment scene.

Via Fuwa, FKH is connected to US axle and suspension expert AXN as well as European counterpart Valx, allowing it to grow and nurture what could be the most complex axle and suspension knowledge base in the world. Also part of the Fuwa support network is innovative Dutch brand, VDL Weweler, which has developed a unique Modular Bolt-On Suspension (MBS) that continues to set the FKH, AXN and Valx triad apart in the trucking scene.

The key to VDL Weweler’s MBS system – available in Australia exclusively via FKH – is a parabolic trailing arm that acts as an integrated roll stabiliser and guiding arm for the axle and is manufactured in a new, world-unique facility in The Netherlands.

“By being part of the Fuwa family we have access to the latest in modern axle and suspension technology,” says Chris Barrett, National Sales Manager at FKH. “The resulting suspension and axle package is able to provide excellent weight savings without compromising on strength, stability and life of components, which is critical in the Australian transport market.”

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According to Chris, the MBS system does not only simplify product engineering by forging the axle clamp into the actual trailing arm, but will also positively affect operational performance by keeping weight down. “By continuously minimising the amount of components used in the design we also minimise the risk of failure,” he says. “The MBS suspension module only features one trailing arm, one shock absorber, one hanger bracket and two tail ends, and it is friendly on the axle because there is no welding involved. On top of that, the design is able to absorb stresses in a way no conventional solution has ever been able to.”

Chris explains that the wide, weld-free clamping area, combined with the small diameter pivot bushing of the suspension and Fuwa’s unique 146mm axle beam, will lead to “superb” roll stiffness and stability – particularly for loads with a high center of gravity. The result is less stress on the axle, and with it an increase in service life.

Another unique selling point is that the suspension is ‘locked’ in position by a groove in the axle beam, providing a “high degree of modularity” in spring track, ride height and offset, as Chris puts it. “By removing the axle seat, there is no need for welding in the axle. In combination with the in-built clamping area, Fuwa’s unique axle design and leading wheel end technology, this realignment-free, non-welded solution will provide exceptional roll stiffness while putting less stress on the axle. It’s the ideal package for on highway vehicles, particularly PBS equipment.

“Of course things can and always do happen, but the major benefit of the system is that whether due to accident or simply end of service life of components, all parts of the suspension and axle are easily replaced or repaired – unlike complete integrated designs – therefore maximising and controlling costs over the life of the trailer.”

According to Chris, Fuwa’s combined knowledge has led to the creation of a product that will be hard to beat in the Australian marketplace: “I think having the new VDL Weweler plant join our global support network will enable us to be more competitive across the board, especially here in Australia,” he says. “The message we really want to get across is that MBS has evolved into a globally proven technology that is backed by years of development and testing, and coming out of one of the most advanced manufacturing facilities in the world. The benefit for Australian road transport will be enormous.”

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Second coming

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Dutch company Valx is not new to the European trailer axle market anymore, yet hasn’t quite managed to break into the industry’s top echelon just yet. With the help of Fuwa K-Hitch, that could now change.

It’s fair to say that the official launch of the Valx brand at the 2010 IAA Commercial Vehicle Show in Germany was a game-changing moment for the European trailer axle industry. Then part of Holland’s MCB Group, the novice seemingly ignored the traditional market hierarchy and staged itself as a fresh alternative to the German establishment – boasting a distinct international edge and a firm commitment to innovation.

Helped by a stunning visual campaign rolled out both traditionally and online, the young brand’s British Racing Green-inspired colour scheme quickly gained traction in the market and would have probably caused the competition some serious embarrassment had the trailer market not slowed down so dramatically in 2011 and beyond – not just because of smart publicity, but also because of the convincing value proposition behind it.

Even with the Eurozone crisis silhouetted against the horizon, though, Valx’ integrated axle module – combining innovative componentry supplied by Fuwa, Wabco, TMD, Timken, SKF and VDL Weweler in a price competitive package – left a notable impact on the market and earned the company a fan base stretching from Portugal’s Atlantic coast all the way to the Russian capital of Moscow.

In 2014, with Europe slowly recovering and Valx studiously stealing market share from the powerful German competition, Australian Fuwa-subsidiary, Fuwa K-Hitch, stepped onto the scene to acquire what had hitherto been but a – somewhat nonconventional – client business. Sensing the disruptive potential behind the brand, Fuwa K-Hitch hoped it would be able to bring the necessary firing power to the table to help Valx shake up the market once more and finally break into the top three of the European sales ranking.

To do so, Fuwa K-Hitch installed a completely new management team led by Joop Arends as Managing Director and Martin van Willingen as Sales Director, and moved the Valx head office to a new location in Veghel, The Netherlands. From here – with guidance from the new Australian parent and an ever-present, highly ambitious and equally resourceful Chinese mother ship – the company is now ready to take on the establishment once again.

“Via Fuwa K-Hitch, we are now officially part of the global Fuwa family, so it’s been quite a substantial evolutionary leap for our small company,” explains Joop. “Fuwa is the biggest axle manufacturer in the world and has already opened a lot of doors for us in the market to ensure our product will be even more competitive in the future. Product development, for example, has been accelerated extremely by being so close to our main supplier, and the input we’ve received from our new sister companies in Australia, China and the US has been invaluable too. For our customers, however, the main message is that our new parent is a company with the same core business as us – axles.”

From a brand perspective, however, Joop says not a lot has changed. “Even now under new ownership, we will continue to operate independently and deliver a high-end European product. What has changed is the scope of our operation, though: Helped by Fuwa-K-Hitch, we’ve quickly learned that the Valx product is suitable for export markets outside of Europe, too.

“Quite a few of those markets use specifications that are comparable to, or derived from, European standards, and many of them value our robust design – so we see a lot more opportunities globally today than we’ve seen in the past. Of course it also helps that the product had had time to prove itself in the field over the past five or six years, because now we know just how versatile it is, both on and off the highway.”

With the dynamic of the trailer axle market in Europe very similar to trailer building itself, where two big market leaders are followed a range of contenders for the number three spot, Joop says the revitalised Valx business has “all the potential” to become a top three player over the next five years or so. “There is no doubt that when Valx first came into the market, people looked at it with a certain amount of caution – some deliberately taking the time to see how the product performed over the long run before committing to it,” he explains.

“But now that we are 100 per cent owned by a global powerhouse like Fuwa, there is obviously a lot more brand integrity and staying power behind it, which has helped us gain the same kind of trust from the market our competition has.”

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Fast Fact: Made by Fuwa, the Valx axle is based on a seamless, cold-drawn and non-welded beam structure to eliminate the risk of weakening or material degradation. As a result, the Fuwa axle beam is said to have a high strength-to-weight ratio.

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Taking action

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With an adaptable axle and suspension offering that has proven itself in the Australian market, Fuwa K-Hitch has become a key piece in Australia’s high performance vehicle puzzle.

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With a firm commitment to the often-quoted actions speak louder than words adage, Australia’s transport equipment industry has developed a distinctly hands-on approach towards commercial vehicle design that has seen it rise to a global leadership position in the field.

Nowhere else in the world is high productivity freight vehicle (HPFV) design more advanced than down under, and nowhere else are transport businesses able to unite OEMs, government authorities and local councils in creating the kind of equipment that hasn’t even been thought of before.

The result is a transport equipment scene that is more vibrant and creative than anywhere else in the world, with a healthy sense of pragmatism and unique openness to the design challenges of tomorrow.

The International Truck, Trailer & Equipment Show (ITTES) held in Melbourne last month again showcased that ingenuity and provided a forum for the transport community to explore what may be next on the agenda.

While not exhibiting at the Show, the leadership team behind Fuwa K-Hitch used the opportunity to join the debate and find out just how its expertise in the axle and suspension field could benefit the industry.

Especially in the HPFV field, the company’s unique axle and suspension package – based on Fuwa’s famous one-piece forged axle beam – has seen increasing uptake of late, says National Sales Manager, Chris Barrett. “We have created a reliable, affordable, and almost fool proof system that adds incredible value to the kind of Performance-Based Standards-rated equipment Australia has become famous for.

“Looking at the equipment that was on show, it’s obvious that Australia is forging ahead in this new and exciting field, and I’m proud we can be part of it with our growing running gear and coupling line-up.”

According to Chris, ITTES has shown that variables like ‘weight’ and ‘speed’ are now as important as price and reliability, forcing suppliers to constantly adapt and improve. “Every fleet is different, with different vehicles and requirements, and that’s why we are constantly evolving as a business. We want to be able to provide the right solution for everyone, so just talking the talk will never cut it here in Australia.”

He adds, “Whilst tare weight is always a buzzword – particularly around these new and innovative HPFV and PBS vehicles – it is also important not to become solely focused on this and a ‘one size fits all’ regime.

“These designs are certainly outside the box and include very high centre of gravity, increased loadings and dimensions, so it is vital that the running gear is specified around these requirements. As such, the equipment supplier should be included in discussions to maximise the life and integrity of the components, which in some cases might mean sacrificing some tare weight for a more robust platform,” he says, revealing that engaging with fleets face-to-face and understanding their needs is the key to long-term success in a fast-paced market like Australia.

“If you want to build a successful and long-lasting fleet – especially here in Australia with its extreme focus on customisation – you have to consider things like the durability of a certain part, axle wear, the availability of aftermarket parts and the ease of service and maintenance. At Fuwa K-Hitch, we’re committed to providing the full package, all while catering to the unique applications we have here in Australia. That’s our true strength.”


Fast Fact: Fuwa K-Hitch recently released two new axle and suspension packages based on VDL Weweler’s European MBS design and its own forged one-piece KI axle beam. “The new KI series is fully integrated, incorporating the trailing arm welded to the beam in a move to eliminate U-bolts,” says Fuwa K-Hitch’s Chris Barrett. “The suspension is attached to the axle beam via a unique groove forged into the beam and clamping bolts only which eliminate the need for welding and u bolts. Coupled with our lightest weight alloy hub and lightweight drum options, we can offer tare weights of 425kg for KI and 415kg for MBS.”


Fast Fact: At the Melbourne Truck Show, Fuwa K-Hitch equipment was featured on a PBS-approved 26-pallet quad-axle Lucar van. The 15.7m reefer was equipped with three standard drum-braked FKH axles, a steer axle, and VDL Weweler’s 11-tonne air suspension system – also on the lift axle.

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The right framework

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Away from the limelight, transport equipment specialist, Fuwa K-Hitch, has been working tirelessly to set itself up for a successful 2016. The result is a nimble organisation with an innovative edge – and a powerful global support network.

It was only recently that Melbourne company Fuwa K-Hitch stirred up the commercial road transport industry by partnering with Swinburne University and Ballarat consultancy Bisitecniks to design a dedicated fifth wheel testing laboratory in Melbourne.

Before Fuwa K-Hitch decided to invest in the project, testing the mechanical properties of a fifth wheel could only be carried out in Brisbane or Sydney. But due to the company’s unswerving commitment to bringing a new dimension of professionalism to the Victorian transport community, Swinburne’s $15 million Smart Structures Laboratory eventually opened up collaborating with the local transport equipment expert.

The project not only helped build a strong foundation for Fuwa K-Hitch’s future success in the fifth wheel space, but also signified just how busy the company was behind the scenes to create the right framework for success in 2016.

Last month, the same mind-set led the company to enter into a new distribution agreement with Auckland company, Truck and Trailer Parts (TATP), as its new representative and service agent for New Zealand. “With the market still somewhat murky, it’s all about creating a strong framework for success at the moment to prepare for the next upswing,” says Chris Barrett, National Sales Manager of Fuwa K-Hitch Australia, who is confident the two projects helped strengthen the company’s standing in the Australian and New Zealand marketplace.

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“Joining forces with a company like TATP finally gives Fuwa K-Hitch Australia the ability to truly service the very important NZ market on a national basis, at both OEM and after sales level, which has been our goal for a long time. It’s another building block we added to the foundation our business will continue grow on.”

The feedback Fuwa K-Hitch has since received is indicative of how well recognised the product is – and the growth opportunities that come with recent developments in Australia and New Zealand.

“Fuwa K-Hitch products hold significant market share positions in Asia and Australia, and Fuwa is the largest global producer of axles – by volume – in the world,” says TATP General Manager, Scott Holt. “That’s a strong value proposition to begin with. Unsurprisingly, local NZ stock exchange commentators have recognised this is a tremendous deal for the group.”

According to Scott, TATP is already in discussions with potential customers, “many of whom have seen this outstanding range of products at trade shows in Melbourne and Brisbane, where the Fuwa brand is already recognised as a market leader.”

As such, it’s safe to say Fuwa K-Hitch’s efforts to reinforce its market position in the Asia Pacific region by building strong relationships and investing in product quality are already paying off. “Sometimes it’s the work you do in the background that is most important to the future success of the company,” says Chris.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and money in building a basis that is future-proof to ensure our customers are well-looked after both from a product and service perspective, so we’re incredibly confident about the future.”


Fast Fact: Over the course of 2015, Fuwa K-Hitch has come up with a range of dedicated bulletins that are meant to raise awareness for safety-critical processes – from initial installation all the way through to the obligatory pre-drive check. “We do everything we can to rule out issues from the outset,” says Chris Barrett, National Sales Manager at Fuwa K-Hitch and passionate safety advocate. “Our bulletins are a good way to pass on our knowledge to those using our products in the field.”

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The NGH Spec

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NGH Express has developed what it calls the ‘NGH Spec’, a set of particularly robust components and features that it knows can handle the gruelling route across the Nullabor. One that made the cut is the eLeg from Razor and Fuwa K-Hitch.

When Bryan Adams sang that “Only the Strong Survive” in 1987, his lyrics championed the value of mental strength in overcoming adversity. However, the concept also translates accurately to a physical level, especially when it comes to trailer building – for equipment to last, it has to be able to stand up to its environment. The sentiment rings true to those who travel on the coarse and uneven roads that cross the famous Nullarbor plains on the East-West route from Melbourne to Perth – a path that is the daily reality for NGH Express’s fleet of 11 trucks and 30 trailers.

Although the general freight fleet now has robust collection of equipment, Nathan Godfrey, Owner/Director of NGH Express, admits that he has gotten it wrong in the past. “We’ve certainly learnt a lot from buying the wrong stuff. It gets more complicated with trailers than with trucks, because there isn’t really a standard spec. So I took things into my own hands and developed what I call the ‘NGH Spec’,” Nathan says.

Although it took some trial and error to develop, the NGH Spec has become a very particular set of requirements that equipment must meet before it can be confidently added to the fleet. With the Nullarbor’s destructive roads in mind, Nathan decided early on that a priority focus for the NGH Spec had to be the strength of the components. “I like to build things tough,” he says. “Australia is a big country and we go from one side to the other, so our vehicles are travelling 7,000km week after week. I invest in equipment that will just keep going, because if you buy something cheap, then you have to expect to spend a lot of time fixing it.”

Nathan says it’s “really important” to have open conversations with trailer manufacturers and component suppliers to make sure equipment will be able to handle abuse from the roads or other environmental factors such as heat. “I go and see a trailer model and pick out all the weak points, then the manufacturer re-engineers it to match what I need. Topstart has been really good in that way – it builds whatever I want, however I want it,” Nathan says – revealing that the most recent trailer he has designed with Topstart is a 36-pallet double drop deck B-double delivered in December last year.

The new trailer set is a prime example of the NGH Spec, Nathan says, boasting tough floor to roof gates, thick outside curtains, a Teflon-topped turntable, 11-tonne pre-cambered axles with parallel bearings and his third set of eLeg automatic landing legs that are fitted to the A-trailer. “While I was re-designing the NGH Spec with Jimmy at Topstart, Colin Himmerman from Fuwa K-Hitch suggested I try the new automated landing leg that it was developing with Razor International. He’d previously suggested a sturdier axle to replace what I was using, which worked out really well, so I was confident to give the eLeg a try too,” Nathan explains.

As such, Colin says that NGH Express was one of the first companies in Australia to have the eLeg installed. “NGH was early off the mark.  Before Nathan’s fleet we’d only supplied to about three or four others. Now, of course, the eLeg can be found on a rapidly growing number of significant fleets as standard fitment,” Colin says. “It is easier for the drivers to operate than a manual leg and they last a hell of a long time.”

Razor’s co-Managing Director, Geoff Watson, agrees that the eLeg holds up to the standards for the NGH Spec. “The eLeg has a robust, yet compact solid aluminium gearbox casing, and has undergone extensive testing to ensure it will be a valuable part of the NGH Express fleet,” he says – adding that the eLeg builds on Razor’s proven electronic landing leg technology.

The eLeg also does its part in preserving the strength of the NGH Express longhaul drivers, who already have enough fatigue management concerns without wearing themselves out manually operating landing legs. “As a business owner, you’ve got to think about workplace safety: anything to make life safer for the staff is a priority. In our case, that means removing the need to manually wind landing legs to protect drivers from back injuries,” Nathan says.

“The eLeg is definitely part of the future and it is good technology, so there’s no doubt that it will become part of the NGH Spec from now on.”

According to Colin, Nathan’s description reveals the main benefit of the eLeg, as it is all about improving OH&S. “It’s so easy to operate, and it’s not hard on the shoulders and arms of the operators because there is absolutely no labour involved. The drivers can save their energy for other, more important things,” he explains. “The eLeg is operated with a push button and simple high/low range gear lever, so the driver just has to hold the button and the legs will operate by way of the directional buttons.

“The leg incorporates internal sensors that trigger when the leg reaches the end of its stroke whilst retracting, or In the case of lowering the legs to the ground in high speed, when the load is imposed. To continue raising the trailer to the required fifth wheel height, you simply switch to low gear and push the directional button until the desired height is achieved. There’s no more manual work so it greatly reduces the chance of injury and costly claims.”

Taking care of his staff is incredibly important to Nathan, especially as the number of NGH Express employees continues to increase in alignment with the company’s growth. “Now I have about 14 staff members, including drivers, office staff and mechanics. The business has come a long way since I bought my first truck,” he says.

“Although I started from humble beginnings, I found a niche in the market and targeted it. Now, being dedicated to Perth linehaul has allowed me to grow my fleet and pick up work with some major companies. Next year, I’m anticipating adding two or three more trailer sets to the fleet, of course all built to the NGH Spec and complete with eLegs.”

Similarly to the NGH Express fleet, the trailer and component markets have evolved dramatically since the Canadian singer Bryan Adams released ‘Only the Strong Survive’ in the late 1980s. However, the requirement for hardwearing equipment is still the main constituent for the ‘NGH Spec’ and a widespread part of the Australian transport industry that isn’t likely to change.


Fast Fact: The majority of the trailers in the NGH Express fleet are pulled by Volvo FH prime movers, but Owner/Director Nathan Godfrey’s pride and joy is his fully customised 2010 Peterbilt 388, lovingly titled ‘Boneshaker’. For the second year in a row, it won the ‘Best Custom Truck’ award at the 2015 Castlemaine Rotary Truck Show. “It looks amazing and features paintwork from an artist at AIM Autographics. It represents a lot of money, time and effort, but it’s my dream. Everything is fully customised – it has everything I’ve ever wanted.”


Fast Fact: Displayed at the 2014 IAA Commercial Vehicles Show in Hanover, Germany, the first order of the fully automated landing leg was delivered to Vawdrey Australia in April last year. “This is a monumental feat, as it has taken Razor and Fuwa K-Hitch three years to commercialise the product,” says Razor’s co-Managing Director, Geoff Watson, who adds that the eLeg has the potential to ‘revolutionise the transport and logistic industry’.

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