China was never known for state-of-the-art trucks
China was never known for state-of-the-art trucks
Birger Nicolai

BERLIN - This truck has been shipped from China, where it was bought from the country’s biggest truck maker, CIMC. It looks just like the kind of truck a child would draw: bright red, very long, very high, with massive wheels. Everything about it is just a tad too big for German roads.

The truck is nearly 46 feet long (14 meters) and weighs 7.5 tons – which makes it about one and a half times heavier than a similar vehicle in Germany. But that’s the only way it could haul 50 to 60 tons, which is what it would be loaded with in China – a weight the air suspension commonly used for European trucks couldn’t handle.

The Chinese truck’s days are numbered. It’s standing at the Schmitz Cargobull test center in Altenberge (North Rhine-Westphalia), and engineers at this large manufacturer of trailer trucks are going to dismantle it completely. The family company is going to be launched on the Chinese market, and it needs to understand the kind of trucks that are sold there.

With names like Schmitz Cargobull but also Krone and Kögel, Germany is one of the world’s top trailer truck-producing nations. Last year, the industry turned over more than 8 billion euros. Between January and June of this year, Schmitz Cargobull – which manufactures semitrailers, platform and sliding floor trailers, tippers, and swap bodies – produced 26,585 vehicles which is about 2% more than the preceding year.

The medium-sized enterprise is successful because it adapted auto industry production methods, mainly from Japan, to the truck industry, which means it can assemble a truck in a matter of minutes. But German companies are no less susceptible to the ambient economic climate than others, and the effect of fewer sales is slowing things down on the production line. And when Daimler Trucks and MAN announce, as they just have, that their orders have gone back by a double digit percentage, the medium-sized companies start getting even more nervous.

Even at VW they do “analysis of foreign products”

Although the German Ministry of Transportation is saying that truck transport in Germany should increase by 50% between 2010 and 2025, new orders in the sector are way below expectation. So companies are looking to Asia where the chances of growth are significant.

In the case of Schmitz Cargobull, it has already committed to a joint venture with a Chinese partner -- First Automotive Works (FAW), the largest maker of diesel motors, busses and trucks in China. Each company holds 50% of the shares in the new venture. If all goes to plan, they will be producing their first trucks by 2014. Three years later, the Wuang factory should be producing 30,000 vehicles.

So the destruction of the Chinese truck in Altenberge has a creative reason. "We want to know in detail how a truck like this is built in China, and what the load-bearing capacity is," says test center boss Michael Wildhagen.

In machine building, copying from one another is not considered dishonorable as long as no laws are broken. At VW, there are allegedly 60 workers engaged in the “analysis of foreign products,” as Volkswagen calls it.

At Schmitz Cargobull, a dozen technicians are working on the same thing. And in the case of the Chinese truck, which in many respects is “built the way German companies were building trucks 30 years ago,” says Wildhagen, the findings include a dozen thick strips of steel mounted between the axle and the floor that enable the truck to carry (albeit illegally) double the load as compared to a German truck.

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