Viking Recreational Vehicles Inc. has introduced the first all-plastic body on a tent camper, paving the way for further growth of ABS materials in the camping industry.
After more than a year of painstaking tests, the Centreville, Mich.-based company launched its new, 17-foot-long, fold-down camping trailer in early December, said Viking President Clint Rumble. The customized camper's exterior is made from engineered ABS, coextruded in sheets and bonded to a wood substrate.
Viking, a division of Coachmen Industries Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., soon could have competition in the emergent ABS market for camper exteriors. Several leading producers recently have begun a shift away from aluminum and fiberglass trailer exterior parts to more scratch- and dent-resistant ABS skins.
However, Rumble said he had never heard of another company attempting commercial production of an entire camper from plastic. That fact was verified by officials with several other camping trailer companies.
Working with Pittsburgh-based ABS supplier Bayer Corp., Viking tested the fold-down trailer by parking it in the Arizona sun for 10 months and firing special arrows at it.
``We did an awful lot of testing because we wanted to make sure it would perform in an outdoor environment,'' Rumble said. ``We really put it through an acid test to check for durability and weatherability. It passed with flying colors.''
ABS has pitched tent with several other companies. Camper market leaders Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. of Riverside, Calif., and Jayco Corp. of Middlebury, Ind., have started making thermoformed ABS roofs filled with urethane foam as a lower-cost substitute for aluminum, said John Green, Fleetwood's director of engineering.
Fleetwood, which started making plastic camper roofs in 1995, also expects to begin making ABS skins by the 2000 model year, Green said in a telephone interview from the company's Somerset, Pa., fold-down trailer operation. The company is working with Pittsfield, Mass.-based GE Plastics to develop the ABS trailers, he said.
Fleetwood and other producers also use ABS for front and rear camper body panels to avoid the problem of dents, Green said.
``We know you can take a plastic sheet and have no scratches or dents,'' Green said. ``But as the technology gets better, we'll be able to get rid of a lot of parts by using ABS. There are over 2,500 parts in a camping trailer, and it would make us all a little happier to get rid of some of them.''
Viking has a leg up on the competition by being the first company to take the ABS concept to the whole exterior, Rumble said. ``We've still got some work to do, but we want to give the No. 1 guy a run for the money,'' he said.
The company, which Rumble said is the fifth-largest camper maker, with an expected $25 million in 1997 sales, first had to find a workable material and process.
Bayer engineers formulated a combination of the supplier's Lustran ABS with its Centrex weatherable polymer to create a material that holds up to high temperatures without fading, said Fred Zaganaicz, Bayer business manager for its extrusion group. Centrex substitutes butadiene rubber in the ABS material with a more-weatherable ethylene propylene diene monomer rubber.
``It really is a unique use of plastics,'' Zaganaicz said. ``It gives us the opportunity to replace other metals with ABS and opens the door for its greater use in the recreation market.''
The companies considered thermoforming the material — much like the work done on ABS camper roofs — but abandoned that due to the time and machinery expense. Instead, they turned to Spartech Corp. of Clayton, Mo., to coextrude the ABS sheets with thicknesses of 0.040-0.045 inch.
Spartech coextruded the sheets at its Paulding, Ohio, plant, said Bill Phillips, Spartech's sales and marketing director. Spartech also makes thermoformed ABS sheets for Fleetwood's one-piece roof and inside panel used for its Coleman camper line, he said.
``That was the first big product transformation in the [camping trailer] industry,'' Phillips said. ``If the pie is only so big, what we have to do is make the pie bigger by taking products in metal, glass and wood and converting them to plastic.''
Viking pressure laminates the Spartech sheets to a polystyrene-bead board to make the camper roofs and bonds the material to the wood substrate for the body panels.
Before the work was completed, both Bayer and Viking conducted lengthy tests on both the material and the ABS camper. The work included putting the substance through temperature changes from minus 40° F to 160° F and spending hundreds of hours ``banging and pounding away'' on the body panels, Zaganaicz said.
The camper was introduced in December at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky. The company already has sold 272 campers since the show, after making an initial production run of 310 units, Rumble said. Viking is considering using the ABS skin on its other campers, he added.
``Doing this particular trailer, we found out a lot about ABS that could generate new product leads in other directions,'' Rumble said. ``That's up in the air, but we are filling quite a few orders now for the campers.''