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Mike Pierce, left, of Lippert Components Inc., and Rick James, of Outkast Kustom, discuss the aluminum-framed slide-out before recently installing it in a semi at Outkast Kustom in Mooresville, N.C. (Supplied)

Mike Pierce, of Lippert Components Inc., shows how the company's new semi slideout extends at Outkast Kustom in Mooresville, N.C. (Supplied)
Elkhart-based RV supplier seeks new market in trucking

Posted on March 4, 2014 at 5:57 p.m.

An Elkhart-based company with a knack for creating more space inside RVs wants to start doing the same for semi tractors.

Lippert Components Inc., the leading manufacturer of slide-outs for recreational vehicles, is developing a slide-out for semis to give long-haul truck drivers more living and storage space, said Scott McKinnon, specialty sales manager.

“There’s not too many truck stops with playgrounds and picnic tables and outside lounging areas where you can have a campfire or anything like an RV,” McKinnon said. “They’re pretty much locked into sleeping, staying and being in that truck.”

McKinnon said he’s been researching and developing the “heavy truck slide-out project” for eight months. He and a few Lippert colleagues recently traveled to Mooresville, N.C., a Charlotte suburb, to work on two test semis that Lippert uses to haul products.

Mooresville is the home of Outkast Kustoms, where semi mechanic Kelvin Locklear customizes semis, along with repairing semis and RVs that have been damaged in collisions. McKinnon said Locklear's will be the first shop to install the slide-outs as an aftermarket product. The plan is for Locklear to then find shops on the West and East coasts who also will be certified installers, and ultimately, to have semi manufacturers installing them as an option.

Semi manufacturers such as Freightliner, Volvo and Peterbilt like to see new products proven successful in the aftermarket first, as was done with aluminum wheels, fender flairs and running boards, McKinnon said.

Locklear was lead designer on “Trick My Truck,” the Country Music Television series in which semi mechanics and painters gave extreme makeovers to semis. He's also been a pitchman for auto insurance giant Progressive.

“If you say Kelvin Locklear, every trucker knows who he is, because they sit in their trucks and watch satellite TV and watch shows about truckers that were down on their luck and got a brand new truck from Kelvin Locklear,” McKinnon said.

The slide-out will extend from the back of the cab and can only be deployed when the semi is stopped. It will measure 38 inches deep by 64 inches wide, by 70 inches tall. That will allow space for a sofa sleeper, with a king-size option, or a dinette with booth seating that converts into a bed. Lippert also is developing a second bed and storage furniture that will pull down from the aero-dynamic space above the ceiling, space that is now wasted.

“We feel this is something the industry will latch on to very soon,” Locklear said. “It’s definitely cutting edge. Drivers are always trying to get more room, but you really can’t make the trucks any longer.”

Locklear said the slide-outs shouldn’t cost more than 10 percent of a truck’s value, which should keep them affordable, and they will take about seven business days to complete. They should add about 200 pounds of weight, which shouldn’t be an obstacle, he said.

Both owner-operators and trucking companies are target markets.

Jeff Congdon, president of Richmond, Va.-based Old Dominion Truck Leasing, said he's excited about the concept. He is considering putting slide-outs in the rigs he leases to private companies who haul their own products.

In an industry with high turnover because of the long hours spent away from home, Congdon said he can see the slide-out being an effective tool for recruiting drivers.

“Driver recruitment for over-the-road drivers who are going to be gone for a week or two at a time is getting to be tough lately,” Congdon said. “If we can make them as comfortable as possible, that’s what we want to do.”

Congdon said Lippert has successfully addressed two engineering concerns that he had: Making sure the slide-out extended from the rear, rather than the side, because parking space at truck rest stops is at such a premium; and ensuring the slide-out can close manually in case the mechanics for automated closure break down out on the road.

McKinnon worked 20 years in the RV industry before Lippert hired him in July 2012. He divides his time between RVs and finding new markets for the company’s products that aren’t related to RVs.

Another company with an Elkhart presence,  Modesto, Calif.-based Boyd Corp., could also be involved with the product. Boyd, which now makes a weather-sealant system for RV slideouts at its Elkhart plant, hopes to do the same for semi slideouts, said Boyd president and CEO Mitch Aiello.

The project’s first marketing opportunity comes later this month at the Mid-American Trucking Show, March 27-29, in Louisville, Ky. It's the largest trade show in the trucking industry. McKinnon said he is considering having someone drive around the show in one of the two Lippert pilot semis, displaying Outkast Kustoms’ contact information. McKinnon plans to have an exhibition booth at next year’s show.

Locklear said he plans to also display one of the trucks at the Shell Rotella SuperRigs custom semi show May 15-17 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

If the semi slideout takes off as envisioned, it would be built at the Goshen plant, which now makes RV slideouts, starting this fall, with the hope of having truck manufacturers incorporating it into their production processes by March 2015, McKinnon said.

Gary Langston, president of the Indiana Motor Truck Association, a trucking company trade group, said he sees some potential, particularly in light of a “huge” projected driver shortage.

“The American Trucking Association says we’ll need to hire 100,000 drivers a year over the next 10 years, that's a million drivers, just to keep pace,” Langston said. “Companies are desperately seeking a toolkit they can use to recruit and retain their workforce because it’s a big problem. It’s an interesting concept and I can see the applications where it might be attractive.”