Link Manufacturing is a specialized supplier of truck suspensions to OEMs. Its flagship Cabmate and other innovations have changed the way it feels to drive a truck. Barbara Kram takes a comfortable ride to the Midwestern company.
There’s no suspense about which company is the leading supplier of specialty suspensions. Link Manufacturing of Sioux Center, Iowa is the premier maker of air suspension systems and liftable suspensions for heavy-duty trucks, along with chassis suspensions for light- and medium-duty trucks.
Link Manufacturing was founded in 1980 by an Iowa truck driver looking for a more comfortable, safer ride.
“The company was founded by a truck driver who got tired of getting his back beaten up on the road,” says Claude Gozia, director of sales and marketing.
Necessity gave birth to the invention of the Cabmate, a cab air suspension system for Class 8 trucks. Used by more OEMs than any other system, the Cabmate runs off the active air compressor of the vehicle. The system’s air springs, shock absorbers, air leveling valves and strategically designed brackets control cab movement and absorb road shock and vibration to produce a quieter, smoother ride.
“Traditional suspensions used a solid rubber bounce that mounted the cab to the frame so all of the road movement and variation was transmitted directly into the cab of the truck,” Gozia says. “The Cabmate is an air suspension that’s isolated between the frame and the cab using a variety of leveling mechanisms and valves to maintain the ride and dampen those vibrations.”
In addition to improving the driver’s environment for alertness and safety and increasing the truck’s resale value, the Cabmate addresses another big challenge in trucking today.
“Health and safety is a big concern but driver retention is a major problem in today’s fleets,” Gozia stresses. “They can’t find enough drivers to fill all the seats and when they get them, they want to keep them. So the attributes of our products are a major plus.”
Today’s long-haul drivers have come to expect a better ride and suspension on their trucks, says National Sales Manager Pat Coghlan. “In the Class 8 market, more than 80 percent of the new trucks are built with cab air suspension and they have included many other amenities for driver comfort,” he notes.
Another proprietary technology has resulted in Link Manufacturing’s liftable suspensions. A favorite among heavy-duty truck owners, Link liftable suspensions allow drivers to raise and lower the lift axle to handle heavy-duty jobs. Link liftable suspensions are designed, tested and manufactured with quality, performance and durability in mind. Customers demand that the liftable suspension perform in the roughest applications – vocational markets include cement trucks, milk trucks, and dump trucks.
The most talked about addition to its liftable suspension line is the Link Model 9000, which boasts patented frame and hanger brackets, a compact mounting envelope, and one of the lightest self-steering parallelograms on the market. Link liftable suspensions are available in non-steer designs.
Link Manufacturing also has a new chassis suspension product. UltraRide replaces original equipment for the light- to medium-duty truck market. UltraRide is touted as the perfect solution for applications including ambulances, rescues, school buses, shuttle buses, towers and haulers, custom bodies, pick-up and delivery services, wreckers, and motor homes. Not just a helper spring system, UltraRide is a total conversion package to air suspension that replaces the standard leaf spring system using exiting frame holes for quick installation. (UltraRide includes its own air generation and control because Class 3, 4, and 5 vehicles don’t have on-board air systems.) In addition to the comfort factor, UltraRide improves stability and has a kneeling function to make trailer hookups easy.
Rounding out Link Manufacturing’s suspension designs is the FlexPro cab suspension system, ideal for day cabs. FlexPro uses a torsional elastomeric cartridge to provide spring, eliminating the need for air springs and height control valves. FlexPro delivers a ride that is superior to solid or fluid cab mounts and costs a fraction of a complete cab air suspension system.
“FlexPro cab suspension doesn’t use air because small trucks – Class 6 and Class 7 vehicles – don’t have active air compressors on them. We came up with a bushing-type suspension that doesn’t need supplemental air,” Gozia explains.
Link Manufacturing’s Cat’s Eye is not a suspension, but a tire pressure maintenance system that equalizes the air between the dual rear tires and allows drivers to visually check tire pressure.
Making It Right
Visitors to Link Manufacturing may be shocked by the sophisticated level of production taking place on thesuspension maker’s shop floor.
“It’s not what you expect from a relatively small company in Northwest Iowa,” Gozia admits. “We are a cut, bend and weld shop. That’s what we do,” he says. “But we have also invested in lean processing over the last several years including enterprise management systems to identify and drive out waste.”
The company’s 100,000-square-foot manufacturing operation is gearing up for the new, international quality certification standards for the automotive and transportation industry.
“Currently we are certified to QS9000 ISO and are proceeding toward TS16949,” notes Paul Funk, quality engineering supervisor. The important thing about the new standard is that it’s an enterprise level of control that extends well beyond the production floor. Link Manufacturing is well positioned to gain the advanced certification because of recent capital investments in infrastructure and information systems to upgrade operations.
Specific equipment investments include 1.5-kilowatt and 2.5-kilowatt lasers to cut sheet steel, a pair of high-precision press brakes for bending operations, and robotic welding, all tied together with CNC controls from the engineering department. The overall goal is one-piece flow, an operation organized not around people or processes, but around the product itself.
“From a manufacturing standpoint, we are largely a cellular operation with a group of people working together doing multiple different tasks,” says Funk. “We went from doing an operation and putting the product on a cart to physically handing the part from one operator to the next so that work is continuous.” The company has reduced the time it takes to produce a cab suspension from eight to 10 days down to one day. “We’re quality driven and engineering driven. We want to design it, we want to make it, we want to sell it,” Gozia concludes.
The Road Ahead
Link Manufacturing’s innovative products for the transportation industry may enjoy a pull market soon with demand exceeding supply in the near future.
“We’re looking at major growth in the Class 8 truck market over the next three years,” Gozia predicts. “To address that growth we may add yet more pieces of capital equipment and we have a building project underway right now to add square footage and integrate new operations.”
In addition, Link Manufacturing has made the investment in suspension technology and proprietary designs so that its customers don’t have to.
“Our only competition in the cab suspension business is the OEM itself if they decided to vertically integrate rather than outsource the part,” Gozia observes.
Although the truck market has been depressed along with the economy over the past several years, the pent up demand may be about to burst with opportunity. New government mandates for Class 8 truck engine emissions take effect in January
2007. The previous EPA regulations that took effect October 2002 spurred new production and the next wave should do the same.
“We’re expecting a huge ramp up between now and the end of 2006 so this is a good place to be for the next couple of years,” Gozia says.