Function and form
Far removed from its humble origins as an aftermarket add-on, the modern bullbar is a highly sophisticated component that is designed, built and tested as an integral part of the vehicle.
Long gone are the days when engineering firms would fabricate bullbars with the express purpose of providing the strongest possible barrier in order to fend off damage to vehicles from the likes of animal strikes and minor collisions.
As with everything, the relentless march of technology has hastened the development of the once rudimentary bullbar. While its primary purpose of protecting the vehicle from damage remains, the bullbar must now be compatible with other vehicle systems and safeguards including airbags, and front under-run protection (FUPS).
What’s more, it is essentially a large-scale mascot or signature of the truck, and its owner/ driver. Therefore, the more it aesthetically blends with the lines of the vehicle and looks as though it’s meant to be there, the better.
This is an aspect that has seen significant advancement in recent times. Truck bullbars of yore were traditionally constructed with horizontal and vertical members mostly intersecting at right-angles. Sure they did the job for which they were intended, but they essentially had the visual appeal of a cattle grid.
In contrast, many of the bullbars of today could be considered, to some eyes, works of art; featuring structural members fashioned from a variety of cross sections, interconnecting to form an array of interesting shapes, angles and curves, all working together to provide the necessary protection while also integrating with the lines of the vehicle.
One such example on a recently road-tested Mercedes-Benz 2658 prime mover really caught our eyes. It’s produced by AJ’s Total Truck Gear at Torrington, an outlying suburb of Toowoomba in Queensland.
A visit to the manufacturing facility reveals a thoroughly modern yet labour intensive operation, which produces some of the finest looking bullbars in the business.
The company supplies the bars as dealer-fitted accessories for most of the European makes as well as Kenworth, Freightliner and Western Star. At the other end of the scale, they also build one-off bespoke designs for customers such as the owner of a 25 year old Marmon prime mover, a now defunct North American brand of which there are only a handful left in Australia.
Owners Anthony and Andelys Thrush have built AJ’s Total Truck Gear from its humble origins 25 years ago. Initially an aluminium-polishing outfit with one employee operating from two shipping containers on the Thrush’s property, the business has steadily evolved into the thriving hub it is today, with more than 30 people on the payroll. To keep up with the burgeoning demand for bullbars, AJ’s recently enlarged its premises, taking on the shed next door.
The company has also expanded interstate with the purchase of Melbourne-based Kentweld Bullbars, providing a sister operation to AJ’s and considerably expanding its presence in the southern states. There are currently 17 employees at this site.
Meeting with AJ’s Sales Manager, Steve Toms, the passion for perfection that permeates the business comes shining through.
Steve’s knowledge of bullbar manufacturing has grown exponentially in unison with the business, given his first job when he started with AJ’s in 2006 was polishing bullbars. At that stage bullbar repairs and polishing made up the core business.
“We were doing repairs and polishing and someone asked us to build some Sterling bullbars which we did,” Steve explains. “Then people started seeing our work and asked us to build bars for other brands and we also bought some design plans from an engineering firm that had stopped making bullbars. That gave us a quick leg-in and helped us with the background of building the bars.
“Our big break came in 2007 when Western Star commissioned us to build all the front bumpers initially and, later, bullbars for their trucks. Our products are Original Equipment (OE) for Australian spec Western Stars, which are shipped from the US factory with no front bumper.
“That gave us a good kick-start and we proceeded to evolve the products as we went along. It’s a philosophy we adhere to with all of our products.”
As the conversation continues, Steve alludes to another founding principle of the company that continues unabated, that of customer engagement. In other words, the company does its utmost to accommodate the requests of customers within the realms of possibility.
This is being borne out with a new Kentweld Bullbar facility, around the corner from Kenworth’s expansive factory at Bayswater, Victoria, which has been specifically designed for customer walk-throughs.
“We’re moving Kentweld into a big new workshop where customers can come through and see their bars being built,” Steve says. “Kenworth customers, in particular, enjoy seeing their trucks being built so now they will also be able to come next door and watch the progress of their bullbars.
“Especially in Victoria, truck operators love to customise and personalise their vehicles. We welcome customer feedback because it helps us learn their ideas and find new and better ways to do things. Our ongoing goal is one of continual refinement, to keep reinventing our products to best suit our customers’ wants and needs.”
As with any quality product, the high standard of the raw materials used is what sets the scene for every AJ’s bullbar. A tour of the factory reveals quality at every turn, starting with the flat sheets of high-tensile marine grade aluminium that are folded to form the foundation of the bar.
“We find it holds up the best but it is really rigid and hard to bend,” Steve explains. “That’s why our bars have larger radius bends – if you try to do 90 degree bends it will crack.”
He proceeds to elaborate on other advantages saying that while it’s harder to polish, the shine lasts longer and is less prone to pitting and scratching, as well as the surface clouding or oxidation common with softer aluminium.
Next up is the backing plate division, which is the steel frame behind the bar that connects it to the truck’s chassis. While it’s unseen from the outside, this component is critical to the performance of the bullbar in providing a rigid mount and absorbing energy from an impact.
The various pieces are precisely laser cut using a computer numerical control (CNC) machine before being manually welded together using specifically designed jigs that ensure the finished product is dimensionally accurate.
As with the bars, the backing plates for the European brands are quite complex in design with multi-faceted bracing which ensures maximum strength with minimum weight. As such, it takes a skilled welder around two hours to fabricate each backing plate.
Keeping the weight down is critical due to the fact that the European brands tend to be heavier on the steer axle. Therefore, it’s imperative that the all-up weight of the bullbar doesn’t tip the axle weight over the 6.5 tonne limit.
As we finish the workshop tour and head out the front, Steve is keen to show us an innovation that is the brainchild of AJ’s owner, Anthony Thrush.
Known as Wedge Lock, the system does away with the two heavy-duty eyebolts that must be unscrewed in order to tilt the bar. Instead, there are steel wedges, one each side, connected to air actuators that slide the wedges into pockets in the backing plate. Therefore, locking and unlocking the bar for tilting is achieved by the flick of a switch rather than the laborious and time-consuming task of turning eyebolts out and in.
As previously mentioned, Steve points out that the ever-present spectre of steer axle weight limits means the Wedge Lock system has been engineered to add minimal weight to the assembly.
“These guys are usually already pressed for weight,” he says. “So we are always mindful of this when designing accessories for the bullbars.”
He goes on to say that research and development is extremely important, with the company continually striving to improve its products to meet the ever-changing requirements of the truck manufacturers and their customers.
“The basic designs of the bars carry over but there are elements that need to be modified when a new model truck is released,” Steve continues. “We use 3D modelling extensively and the truck manufacturers give us 3D images of the fronts of their trucks so we can work out exactly what needs to change on the computer rather than having to physically change things by trial and error.”
In regards to building FUPS-compatible bullbars, Steve says it’s a matter of following the guidelines including making sure the bar is the same height off the ground as the truck’s existing FUPS. Completed units are then sent to an engineer who checks them for compliance and issues a certificate.
A recent technology-related challenge has been to successfully protect the radar units used for adaptive cruise and auto emergency braking on the newer trucks. They have specific mounting and location requirements to ensure correct operation.
“They are worth about $5,000 so we’re working with a plastic supplier to come up with a grid pattern mesh cover that will protect the unit while still allowing airflow to keep it cool,” Steve says.
As bullbar repair makes up a significant part of the business, Steve acknowledges that this provides the ideal scenario to analyse the damage and work out ways to improve the designs. That said, he points out that the bars and backing plates are designed to deform a certain amount under high impact in order to absorb the energy and minimise driver and passenger injury while still protecting the front of the truck.
Seeing first-hand the precise techniques that combine to produce an AJ’s bullbar makes it easier to appreciate just how technically advanced this industry is.
In the never-ending pursuit of excellence, the AJ’s team is turning out products that serve the dual purpose of enhancing the vehicle’s looks while providing protection from damage. In this respect it’s the ultimate win-win for the customer