Orders for and shipments of new trailers last year hit their highest annual levels in the past six years, according to data released Jan. 28 by the consulting firm ACT Research Co. The increase is a sign that the trucking industry is on the road to recovery after the deep recession that began in late 2007.
New trailer orders (excluding cancellations) hit 253,000 units in 2012, up from 245,000 in 2011, according to Columbus, Ind.-based ACT. Manufacturers shipped 240,000 new trailers in 2012, a 13-percent increase from 2011.
The six-year high in new orders was propelled by a surge in activity from November to December, according to ACT. Sequential new orders rose by 38 percent in December to 31,586 units, according to the firm's data.
The seasonal order cycle normally starts in November and runs through the next year's first quarter. Last year's order cycle, however, actually began in October, according to Frank Maly, ACT's director of Commercial Vehicle Transportation Analysis and Research and the organization's trailer guru. As a result, November's orders were historically low and created the environment for the strong month-to-month increase in December, Maly said.
According to ACT, order cancellations in 2012 totaled about 14,000 units, leaving the net new order number at 239,000 units. While the 2012 cancellation number was higher than the 8,000 units canceled in 2011, it was still a relatively modest figure, Maly said.
"The orders that are going up on the board are staying on the board," he said.
The increase in new orders and shipments reflected the need to replace older equipment as well growth in shipper demand. On average, a trailer stays on the road for 8 to 8.75 years. Refrigerated trailers, known as "reefers," generally have a shorter useful life than dry van trailers because the specialized components can lead to more frequent equipment breakdowns. Tanker trailers have a longer useful life than dry vans.
ACT tracks activity in 10 trailer types. Dry and reefer vans accounted for 80 percent of the new orders in December, Maly said.
A large portion of new orders and shipments are for replacement purposes. However, the order and shipment numbers for 2012 reflect an increase in capacity as truckers anticipate increased demand for their services, Maly said.
"A lot of the large fleets came to the party [last year]," he said.
Maly said the order numbers underscore the strength of underlying trailer demand and the improving "health of trucking fundamentals." He said the strong orders and moderate cancellation activity was impressive considering the year-end uncertainty surrounding the "fiscal cliff," a package of spending cuts and tax increases that would have hit the U.S. economy in early January had Congress and the White House not reached a deficit-reduction agreement by year's end.