CONVERSIONS: Chill out and lighten up

Date: Friday, April 10, 2020   |   Author: Sean Keywood

Saving weight and improving efficiency are at the heart of developments in the temperature-controlled vans market. Sean Keywood reports.

Eberspächer’s Paul Hickinbotham says the firm’s Coldtainer products are for ‘customers who want to transport chilled and frozen goods within a standard van’

It’s been well documented how the growth in the online delivery sector over the past few years has sparked a major increase in demand for vans.

However, while a basic parcel delivery service doesn’t need anything too technical, grocery deliveries are a different matter, with temperature-controlled conversions often required. It therefore seemed like a good time for What Van? to take a look at what’s currently happening in this section of the market.

While some van manufacturers offer basic conversions such as Lutons and tippers in-house, temperature-controlled conversions are strictly the remit of third-party converters.

Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles is one of the brands that will point customers the way of recommended providers through its Recognised Converters programme.

The brand’s specialist sales manager, Nick Axtell, says the idea is that dealers and customers alike should not see specialist conversions as odd or difficult to buy.

“Making sure conversions are as simple for customers to buy, run and maintain as a ‘standard’ van is key to their success,” he says.

“This means collaboration and robust processes between factory, converters, OEM, dealers and customers to ensure nothing falls between the gaps.”

Axtell points out that while the increase in home food delivery has meant increased demand for temperature-controlled conversions, sales actually went down last year, according to the SMMT, something he attributes to replacement cycles, with firms now just recycling vehicles, having expanded fleets previously.

Alongside food and drink retailers and market traders, he says VW also sees demand for transporting pharmaceuticals, which is increasing due to changes in the regulations regarding the movement of drugs.

Commenting on the current market trends, Axtell says: “Payload is king in refrigerated transport – and weight reduction is a key focus. One way we are approaching this is by using the OEM aircon compressor unit configured through the vehicle’s control unit rather than adding on a whole separate bodybuilder fridge unit.”

When asked if Volkswagen is starting to see demand for electrified temperature-controlled conversions, Axtell says: “Yes, but at this stage no-one can run refrigerated vans solely on EV – it is starting to work for fridges but not freezers.

“As soon as you add weight you reduce range, and any refrigerated unit needs to run from a 12V system. We’re working on it!”

One of the third-party converters involved in the temperature-controlled market is Maxi-Low, which claims to have an advantage due to its use of bonded, ultra-lightweight materials, meaning increased payloads and better fuel economy.

It’s no surprise therefore that the firm’s sales and marketing director James Taylor agrees with VW about these being key considerations in the market currently.

He says: “At present we are mainly selling to food companies and chilled couriers that run very close to their maximum weights due to the nature of fridge and chilled conversions that, up until recently, were the only options for delivering goods in panel-derived traditional vans.

“Our customers tell us that our new lightweight fridge conversions ‘have changed the way we do business’ and that ‘we will not be returning to the older-style traditional panel van conversions’ due to the phenomenal uplift in payload [with our conversions].”

Taylor says that Maxi-Low is also being helped by market trends for firms to want to deliver more goods to increasing numbers of clients, but with less impact on the environment.

“By utilising new materials that are lighter, stronger and more resilient than are used within the traditional vehicle conversions, Maxi-Low has been able to assist companies in a number of ways, including reducing the number of vehicles they are using to deliver goods by increasing the vehicle payloads, therefore requiring fewer delivery runs,” he says.

“We’ve also been working with GAH Refrigeration to ensure we only fit the lightest equipment on our vehicles, again to assist with the reduced vehicle weight.

“We intend to release two brand-new refrigerated products at this year’s Commercial Vehicle Show in April, giving even more options to chilled and frozen transport operators that see the benefits of a van that can carry up to 1,400kg.”

When asked if Maxi-Low had seen increased demand for temperature-controlled conversions driven by home delivery market growth, Taylor says: “We have seen a high uplift in the number of enquiries from customers and rental firms wanting to know more about the payload and the benefits we are achieving, and we feel that over the next few months, payload and fuel economy will become even more important and play a much more pivotal role in the decision-making processes of companies.

“With increased focus on the environmental impacts of transport, lighter, cleaner vehicles can only be a good thing, and as the electrification of vehicle fleets becomes more prevalent, vehicle weights will become a key focus to the range and longevity of delivery possibilities.”

Although he names electrification as a trend that is on the horizon, Taylor says Maxi-Low is yet to experience a great upturn in interest from customers.

However, he says the firm will be well placed when this does arrive.

“We haven’t yet seen a large increase of demand for the electric models but we are working in conjunction with a number of mainstream manufactures on our future lightweight build developments.

“We have a number of scheduled projects for Q4 this year, which we hope to release in time for the Commercial Vehicle Show in 2021.”

Looking to the future, Taylor says that the introduction of Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP) emissions testing is another reason that efficiency will become more important to the industry.

He adds: “As transportation looks for ways to become greener in its outputs, we believe that we are already able to offer a solution to assist these companies, and with the roll out of our new models it’s a very exciting time to be a leading light in this industry.”

It’s not just full converters who are looking to benefit from an increase in demand for temperature-controlled vans. We also spoke to Eberspächer, which sells temperature-controlled units that can be installed in standard vans without needing a full conversion.


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