Volume 12 | Issue 4 | Year 2009

Fontaine Fifth Wheel is a big wheel in providing OEMs and fleet owners with the critical fifth wheel – a horseshoe shaped coupling device on a semi-truck that attaches onto a kingpin on a towing trailer – that is indispensable for modern transportation.
The term “fifth wheel” derives from the horse and buggy days. A coupling on a four-wheel, horse-drawn carriage or wagon served two purposes: it stabilized the front axle assembly and enabled it to pivot to make more efficient turns. Since this coupling was necessary to effectively direct the wheels, it became known as the fifth wheel, without which the other four wheels could not effectively turn.

Similarly, today’s transportation companies couldn’t effectively operate without Fontaine, the world’s largest fifth wheel manufacturer as part of Marmon Highway Technologies, Berkshire Hathaway company, with three operating groups in North America, South America and Europe. Fontaine’s fifth wheel, furthermore, is a unique, patented locking and slack adjustment mechanism called No-Slack® that makes it the safest and most reliable tow coupling system available.

Henry Bell, president, notes, “Fontaine’s No-Slack is the only self-adjusting wheel lock available on the market. One of the main causes of premature fifth-wheel wear is slack between the kingpin and the lock. We’ve addressed that problem with the No-Slack technology that automatically adjusts for slack every time a trailer is hitched. So we’ve made switching from trailer to trailer hassle-free, with the additional benefits of superior durability and reduced maintenance costs. The No-Slack design also reduces shock from braking and accelerating, which improves driver comfort as well extending the service life of other drive train components.”

The steel constructed Fontaine fifth wheel has a 28 percent larger surface area compared to other fifth wheels, which provides greater stability. A patented secondary lock provides added safety and security. It also features an easy coupling force of only 30 pounds of pressure to lock it, resulting in less wear and tear on the kingpin. Also, a patented safety trigger eliminates the common problem of high-hitching, reducing tractor, trailer and tire damage.

Terry Mennen, vice president of sales and marketing, also points out that “safety is our foremost concern. One example of this commitment is our new StraightShot™ pull handle. It takes a lot of effort to unlock most fifth wheels, and anyone could very easily pull a muscle or throw out a back in exerting to push open the lock. What we’ve done is to add a simple handle that allows for a simple, no strain release. There’s also no complicated opening sequence that’s easy to forget. All you have to do is pull the handle. Workers are less likely to get hurt, and companies have less worker compensation exposure. It’s a win/win all around.”

There’s also an optional in-cab air release which, as an added safety precaution, cannot be opened unless the parking brake is set. Additional options include Clean Connect™ to improve steering, increase tire life, reduce maintenance and protect the environment; a TechLock sensor that lets the driver know that the kingpin is correctly positioned inside the lock and the fifth wheel is closed; and a SmartLock™ visual indicator that that the fifth wheel is properly closed.

John Fontaine founded the company in 1941 as a fabricating shop that came to produce hitches for the military in World War II. Today, it sells fifth wheels to OEMs, OEM dealers, aftermarket distributors. Employing about 200, Fontaine North America is based in the Birmingham suburb of Trussville, Ala., where it recently consolidated three separate buildings into a single industry leading research and development lab and demonstration facility.

Manufacturing is based in a 200,000-square-foot plant in Matamoros, Mexico. According to Toby Harris, vice president of aftermarket sales and marketing, the manufacturing plant is staffed with 120 workers and 20 robotic welders. “While the robotic welders are labor saving devices, the fact is that robotics is really the most efficient way to perform welding. Again, it’s part of our commitment to safety; with robotic welding, we can be confident that our products are secure and safe for use under the toughest conditions.”

Fontaine’s management system is ISO 1401 registered for its promotion of environment protection, resource conservation and efficiency improvement processes. It is also ISO/TS 16949:2002 registered for its quality system requirements for design/ development, production installation and servicing as established by global automotive industry standards.

Perhaps no better testament to the quality of the company’s product and services is the number and frequency of supplier awards it has won over the years. Fontaine was recognized with the Daimler Masters of Quality award six years in a row, one of only two suppliers to have achieved that record of performance. Additional recognition includes the Volvo Best Supplier of the Year, the International Truck and Engine Diamond Supplier, Freightliner Certified Supplier and PACCAR (the manufacturer of Kenworth, Peterbilt and DAF heavy duty trucks) Quality Certification awards.

“Under the current economy, the automotive and truck industries are very concerned about their supply chains and the financial stability of their suppliers,” Mennen notes. “We are a company with no outstanding debt, owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, that is continually recognized for the quality of our products and services. I think that results in a pretty high confidence factor for our customers.”

As to how the economy is affecting Fontaine, Bell says, “We think things have bottomed out; the question that we don’t know the answer to is how long we’ll stay at the bottom. The health of the transportation industry is gauged by tonnage, which is also a good general economic indicator, and tonnage today is well below prior year levels.”

That said, Mennen says Fontaine is still “doing very well. We’ve cutback where we’ve needed to and improved our operating efficiencies, so we’ve not only been able to survive this downturn, we will be in a very good position when the economy starts to rebound and orders pick up. We have the capacity in place to meet future demand, so it won’t be the case that customers have to wait for us to ramp up production. We’ll be ready to deliver product when they need it.”

He emphasizes that Fontaine did not cut back on research and development. “That’s the future. We have the largest, best-equipped laboratory in the world focused exclusively on fifth-wheel technology. We also use it as a center to show our customers what we’re working on and what innovations they can expect. The investment has paid off big for our customers with design and engineering breakthroughs only available from Fontaine that deliver real safety and performance advantages.”

Mennen says these innovations include green initiatives such as grease-free surfaces, and also new designs that will better handle increased weight and, thus, improve fuel efficiency. “In 2010, new environmental protection regulations regarding diesel truck engines will add significantly to engine weight, while at the same time mandating improved fuel efficiency performance. Consequently, OEMs are looking for ways to reduce weight wherever possible throughout the truck and trailer, without compromising safety; the less weight the engine has to pull, the better its fuel economy. So we’re looking at how we can improve the fifth wheel in ways that provide for easier distribution and handling of weight to help the industry achieve that objective.”

As the leading fifth wheel manufacturer, Fontaine enjoys significant market share, but that also presents challenges for future growth. “We want to focus on our core competency, but we will consider anything that complements that core competency that can help us grow. We’ve acquired companies in the past that have added to our fifth wheel capabilities, and we will continue to consider acquisitions along those lines if the fit is right and it makes sense for our customers.”

For this company’s customer now and in the future, when they need a fifth wheel, they can be confident there’s no better connection to make than Fontaine’s.

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