PowerTorque profiles Barker Trailers of Woodend, Victoria
Barker Trailers has long held its reputation for building strong, long-lasting trailers, built to the specific needs of its customers. From its main factory in Woodend, an hour north of Melbourne, the company has built almost ten thousand trailers since manufacturing started in 1975, and, while the market and the products have evolved, a Barker trailer is still something many operators aspire to own.
To find out what is so different about Barker trailers, I took a trip to the factory, and caught up with Ned Jeffery, national sales and marketing manager for Barker Trailers.
Barker employs around 200 people between its main Woodend factory and a second metal fabricating facility in nearby Maryborough. The growth of the company meant finding good staff from the surrounding area to keep up with demand became difficult, which lead to the company looking for an alternate site where quality metal workers were in good supply.
Maryborough provided a good opportunity to source the right staff, and so a plant was established to draw on the available talent in the area. This not only provided a productivity boost for Barker, but also a good employment opportunity to many in the Maryborough region.
While the company has grown, Barker has stuck to its guns in terms of offering a quality product. This includes sourcing materials and products that may not be the cheapest, but are chosen for their quality and longevity. This is true for everything from the chassis rails to the lights, and means that there may be a small price premium in buying a Barker trailer over some of their competitors. As Mr. Jeffery put it, “We’re not a cheap, bargain basement manufacturer”.
Taking a look through the factory is probably the best way to experience the Barker difference. From the outset, a Barker trailer is manufactured onsite, with everything from chassis rails to paint done in-house. The main strength of any Barker trailer is in the chassis rails, which are cut and have the top and bottom flanges fitted in-house. As Mr. Jeffery explained, “We cut, and produce, all our own main beams. We’re one of the last major manufacturers to produce every set of main beams right here”.
On the topic of material used, he proudly stated, “If it’s mild steel, it’s all Australian steel. There’s no imported mild steel, the only steel we have to import is the high-tensile material, which comes out of Sweden”.
While the straight beams can be constructed automatically on specialised machines, any curved or odd shaped beams have the top and bottom flanges fitted by hand to ensure the fit is right, and the beam as strong as possible.
“We choose, when we’re building a set of main beams, exactly how strong it needs to be, and we can pick and choose (the thickness of) our top and bottom flanges accordingly,” Mr. Jeffery said. “You can see that they’re all Australian steel, and we bring our customers around and show them that it’s all Australian steel they’re getting”.
Once the main rails are complete, they are moved over to the metal fabrication department.
“They meet up with a separate set of paperwork at this point, which comes with a full engineering plan of how it’s going to look,” Mr. Jeffery said. “Then the guys have to lay it out, and then it’s just all steel fabrication work basically”.
As opposed to most manufacturing plants that use a production line scenario, a Barker trailer is fabricated in the same bay from go to whoa, only leaving that bay when it is ready for paint preparation.
“A trailer will come in here and get blasted, and then it goes into one booth for priming, and another for finishing,” Mr. Jeffery explained. “We get a very good finish on our paint, it’s one of the things we pride ourselves on. It’s almost an automotive finish – you can see your face in our paintwork”.
With walking-floor trailers making up a big part of the Barker business, it’s no surprise to find that a large section of the factory is dedicated to aluminium work.
“We’re probably the biggest walking-floor manufacturer in Australia,” Mr. Jeffery pointed out.
“A lot of that is to do with our extruded sections. We’ve got exclusive use of our own moulds, so we can extrude what we need. Over the years, we’ve put together some good extrusions that enable us to put together a good floor”.
The wall panels are imported from Europe, with Mr Jeffery saying that, “The widest mould in Australia is 300 mm, so we’ve got a 600 mm imported wall board, which comes out of Europe.
“Our wall panels and top hats all come out of our moulds, so we can pick and choose what we’re going to use”.
The entire assembly process is done on-site, with Mr. Jeffery saying, “We make all the doors, front walls, rear walls, top headers and stuff separately. It’s all done right here”.
Curtainsiders also make up a big part of the transport fleet, and, therefore, are a big part of Barker’s business. Front walls, rear walls, and roof sections are built on-site, with Barker using pre-cambered steel roof beams to increase the strength and lifespan of their roof sections.
While a lot of trailer manufacturers use aluminium roof beams to reduce tare weight, Mr. Jeffery explained the benefits of the heavier steel beams, saying that, “The other manufacturers say that our roofs are heavy, because they’ve got two big steel beams in them. But, over the entire life of a trailer, a Barker trailer will always keep that beautiful camber in it. The others, you’ll find, will sag in the middle over time because the aluminium doesn’t spring back”.
These steel beams are wrapped in Barker’s own design of aluminium extrusion, which runs the full length of the trailer and incorporates a channel for hanging gate rollers, a channel for the curtain rollers and a channel for the rubber flashing that provides protection from the weather.
The final area of the factory is the finishing area, where all the other equipment is fitted to a trailer. This includes suspension and axles, mudguards, toolboxes and all air and electrical lines, including lights.
Ironically, as we walked through this section, the Final Countdown started playing on the radio that was piped through the factory. This is the area where a trailer really comes to completion, with the many different designs all lined up side-by-side showcasing the variety of Barker’s range. Flat tops, curtainsiders, widening drop decks and walking-floor trailers, in various configurations, were all being prepared for delivery in the same area. Anywhere from 400 to 600 trailers roll out the doors of the factory every year, depending on demand.
Sitting just outside the factory doors was one very different looking trailer. This was the first Barker trailer ever built, which has now been bought back by the company and refurbished in the lead up to them celebrating trailer number 10,000.
The differences in design are obvious, but the fact that this trailer is still around is a testament to the endurance a Barker trailer. Having rolled out of the same factory over 40 years ago, it would seem like some sort of homecoming for the old girl, and a fitting way to commemorate the upcoming company milestone.
At a time when we are seeing a massive decline in Australian manufacturing, it is encouraging to see a family business that can remain successful and competitive in a hard-fought market.
With the influx of imported trailers, and the mass production capability of some other local manufacturers, Barker has managed to carve its own place in the market by providing a solid, long-lasting product, designed specifically to each customer’s needs. What’s more, it is keeping Australians in a job and using Australian materials in the process.