Inside AxleTech Aftermarket, a ‘Unique Place’

AxleTech doesn’t have the word brake in its name – but the company produces a huge variety of ways to stop moving vehicles.

“If you visit AxleTech’s facility in Troy, Michigan,” says Robin Stow, “it’s probably the only facility in the world that’s making drum wedge brakes, and cam brakes, and air disc brakes, as well as hydraulic disc brakes, hydraulically actuated wedge brakes, parking brakes, as well as components for wet disc brakes. So it really is a very unique place.”

Stow is the company’s vice president for global aftermarket sales. He explains that AxleTech’s off-highway and defense businesses constitute a large percentage of its sales. In this space, “people buy a complete system. Every axle that we sell for off-highway or military as an axle manufacturer comes with a brake. The vast majority of those brakes are AxleTech brakes.”

Robin Stow

When asked to give a sense of how diverse AxleTech’s products are, Stow offers two extremes. “Our smallest axle goes on airport baggage tow tractors. The brake is a hydraulic disc brake about the same size as what you’d find on a pickup truck. The other bookend is a 220,000-pound-capacity loaded container handler axle with a wet disc brake you couldn’t pick up if you needed to.”

He also cites a military-use brake to show the range of what AxleTech produces.

“The U.S. military has a vehicle made by Navistar Defense called the MAXXPRO® that has an air disc brake that we manufacture. It’s inboard mounted. Almost all our axles have hub reduction on them.  If you look at the axle shaft speed on this brake, it’s going four times the wheel speed. That’s a brake on a military vehicle that’s going F1-motorsport-type speed.”

“A large percent of our business is military. The requirements that get put on the braking system for a military vehicle are arguably second to none.”

Growth Areas

In 2008, AxleTech acquired Truck Trailer Transit (TTT). The brand accounts for some of the company’s on-highway aftermarket sales. Its products are used by many of the largest transit authorities in the country, including those in New York and Detroit. Stow explains that even though on-highway “is not a new thing for us,” it’s been circled as a growth area. “We will be successful and we’re looking for partners,” Stow says.

A specific growth area within on-highway is remanufactured air disc brake calipers. “We are an air disc brake manufacturer,” Stow says. “So we apply that knowledge. I’d say we’re at the right time for remanufacturing. It’s just now gotten to the point where fleets are buying enough air disc brakes, they’re starting to come out of warranty. They’re trying to find a good-quality remanufactured product, and we can fit that need.”

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Another trend at AxleTech is an increased reliance on making brakes as opposed to buying brakes. A handful of the company’s axles still carry third-party brakes, but fewer than in the past. “Instead of buying a complete brake assembly,” Stow says, “we might be buying just brake pads from a brake pad supplier or friction material from a block supplier and then we rivet it to the brake shoes in this building.”

Unique Business Climate

The nature of AxleTech’s business requires agility. “We’re a small company compared to some of the big axle guys,” Stow says, “but we have over 100 engineers across AxleTech. That team wakes up every day thinking about the niche businesses. We have a team of brake engineers here. They need to constantly figure out how to applicate which brake to which axle to build the final axle product that meets the customer need.”

Serving the military aftermarket creates particular business challenges. “They’re much more proactive with their maintenance,” Stow says. “They need to have a fleet readiness level that’s well north of 95 percent, so those vehicles are ready to go. But at the same time their budgets aren’t the same as the commercial guys. They might buy nothing and then suddenly buy thousands of brake parts, and then for six months buy nothing. So they do operate a little unusually when it comes to their buy frequency.” Stow adds that working with military buyers means “We have to be ready to grow very, very quickly, as well as shrink, and we’ve done both.”

There is an advantage, though. The niche is hard to enter, and the requirement for high quality products means there’s no race to the bottom in terms of price. “It’s a little bit of a different animal. If you’re the military procurement guy, when that vehicle is spec’d, it’s disclosed which manufacturer made the brakes on the original vehicle, and you can’t just go shopping to save a dollar. If some other brake manufacturer wants to go after the aftermarket on military, they have to foot the bill to test and really truly validate their product, and that keeps a lot of guys out.”

Stow worked at Meritor for 14 years and spent six years at Marmon-Herrington. He’s also worked for WABCO. “Working in the traditional on-highway business, you find a lot of days are pretty similar,” he says. “Working in the niche, specialty sort of business, every day is a different day.”

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Ben Nussbaum
Ben Nussbaum

Ben Nussbaum, Chief Content Officer of The Brake Report, has more than 20 years experience in publishing. He was the founding editor for USA Today's line of special interest magazines and the founding editor for i5 Publishing's newsstand one-off magazine program. He lives outside Washington, D.C. Email him at [email protected].