Killer 3D Printing Apps: Horse Trailers, Part One

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A horse trailer is not an enticing video extolling the virtues of Seabiscuit 2 or a Black Beauty reboot. Rather, it is a towed vehicle used for transporting horses. I also think that it is one of the top true 3D printing killer applications. After orthopedic implants, bridges and crowns, invisible aligners, jigs and fixtures, jewelry molds, housings, and rocket engines I believe that horse trailers could be the next big thing in 3D printing.

Killer Apps

Now, killer apps are a bit of an obsession for the Sand Hill Road, internet startup set. The idea is that a particular applications will drive forward a new paradigm or hardware tool. The classic example is that the spreadsheet program Lotus Notes 123 was so embedded in certain business processes and so beloved that it made the PC the dominant computer in business productivity (or that it did so for MSDOS). I do believe that, whereas this kind of thinking could be very valuable in internet thinking, it makes little sense in the broader tech world. Indeed, it could either be a good thought experiment or it could severely limit your thinking.

Take 3D printing as a whole. What is the killer app?

With additive manufacturing (AM), in a given location, you can quickly make and iterate short run items with certain unique properties and textures, while reducing part count and integrating functionality. This could generally be said to be true of most truly successful products in 3D printing.

While orthopedics hit many advantages, other fields (e.g., military maintenance, repair, and overhaul) may only use one or two of advantages. Though 3D printing could be seen as having jigs as a killer app, we could see this in a certain different sense and imagine such tools to be a killer app for material extrusion AM alone—or specifically for material extrusion in enterprise. Or we could think broader and see enterprise 3D printing as a Duck Tape improvisational tool for your business.

The proviso here is that we’re using the language and thinking of a bygone era of software/operating system/hardware to describe a wholly new and divergent technology with different characteristics. Ultimately, the killer app for 3D printing is the core ability of the technology to play a part in the digitization of all things.

Horse Trailer Market Overview

With that proviso out of the way, we can go on to look at horse trailers. A horse trailer is an often customized, towed vehicle that is comparatively niche. Trailers generally are much more prevalent. The global automotive trailer market is a bit of a strange beast, as companies either think it has a revenue of $2 billion when it is seen as a light trailer market or $20 billion when considering all trailers for cars. Meanwhile, semi- and other trucks have trailers, as well. The horse trailer market has little in the way of data.

Dedicated estimates were last made in 2008 and found a $751 million market with 40,000 units. Export HSS/HSN code information is spotty and unreliable at best, but exports seem to hover at around 100,000 units.  Horse trailers themselves can be very valuable, with prized versions featuring living quarters or units for four horses that exceed $250,000. There’s a very definite ¨money no object¨ segment to the horse industry ,but also a lot of relatively asset-less individuals who need or love horses. Therefore, trailers can have all the bells and whistles or they can be inexpensive. A casual perusal of eBay reveals cheap, ratty-looking, second-hand examples as well as new four-horse trailers available for over $120,000.

Three Lakota Trailers with housing units.

Construction and Manufacturing

A Boeckmann trailer.

Generally, construction of these products is performed by hand using aluminum panels. Often, an aluminum frame supports panels build on top of a trailer. Companies include larger trailer manufacturers, local shops, and specialized manufacturers. Some firms, such Lakota Trailers, specialize in those with living quarters ,which can include showers, bathrooms, outdoor kitchens, TVs and more. And yes, this would be an American firm and a very American trailer.

Specializing in horse trailers, UK-based Equi-Trek has much smaller unites for two equines starting at $6,000 and going up to those with much more quotidian living quarters for $27,000. Meanwhile, Ifor Williams, its largest competitor, also makes flatbed trailers and even a log-splitter trailer. Germany’s Böckmann Fahrzeugwerke also produces van trailers and refrigeration trailers.

On the whole we can say that a lot of businesses are local, manufacture in their home nations (even if these are high income countries), and a lot of businesses are relatively small. When businesses diversify they tend to do so in very similar vehicles. Companies making similar vehicles such as camper vans or specialty vehicles rarely stray into making horse trailers. Winnebago trailers is a notable exception.

Trailers can be custom or customized. There is comparatively little in automation present in the manufacturing of horse trailers. Volumes appear to be far lower than in other vehicle segments. We’re assuming that the startup costs are low for this industry. We would expect competition from near markets, such as in the US from Mexican firms or movements of component manufacturing from Germany to Czechia.

Horse Trailer Market Dynamics and Considerations

The global horse trailer market is fragmented. The larger equine industry itself is worth $300 billion worldwide. Growth of the sector is generally considered to be very slow to non-existent overall. Households owning horses seems to be declining. The horse trailer industry is also a different animal from the industry as a whole.

Trailerable horses and horse trailers are a function of horse competitions and transport. If there were to be more local and regional horse competitions all of a sudden, the need for trailers would grow. If there were more professional horse races or betting locations where prize races were to take place, there would be more trailer growth, as well. If the horse betting market increased, one might expect more races but this does not have to be the case. More bets or betting volume could happen for the same amount of fixtures for example.

Fuel prices seem to negatively affect competition entry and reduce the numbers of competitions attended. Disposable income reduction also reduces the number of attendees. Showing and dressage are a big part of the need for horse trailers, but the U.S. Dressage Association is losing in membership, according to the University of Kentucky (U of K). A rival association for Eventing was also seeing an annual decrease in members.

On the whole, however, U of K research concluded that the Great Recession did not have huge effects on the industry. Generally, however the study compared horse ownership and registration numbers for several bodies and saw horse numbers increase while patrons were being reduced. Competitions seemed to be steady with a die-hard group continuing despite recessions, along with a worrying decline in participation. Macro events like COVID and reductions in horse shows and attendance would specifically affect this market heavily.

There are perhaps over 9 million horses in the U.S. and 6 million in Europe, but comparatively few trailers. Horses for some are a luxury and status symbol, while, for others, they are a working animal. Still others consider them something between a family member and a pet.

Much of the world stores its horses at equestrian centers, horse clubs, and riding schools. More of these centers would increase the market for trailers as their ownership of such a solution would be desirable for the center and its clients. On the other hand, by storing a horse there, the need for trailers by individual families is reduced.

There is little reliable data on horse usage patterns. Horse sales are either inherently local for lower cost animals or truly global for pedigree horses that are meant for breeding or race winning. There doesn’t seem to be a global horse market overall, but rather an intensely regional one compared to a high-value global one. There do not seem to be extensive services to transport horses locally, but there are International transport companies for horses as livestock and others for horses as prized race winners.

Part of the horse owning community exists outside the business cycle and is impervious to swings, but Florida auction sales of horses fell by 38 percent in 20089, when compared to 2008. We can, therefore, assume that much of the market is cyclical, while other parts are unaffected, making extracting useful data difficult.

Sales of horse trailers are partially online and informal with some national retailers existing, such as NTS, which has ten locations and an online presence. Some constructors sell direct, while others sell through RV and auto dealerships. In the U.S., financing is available, but in other places, cash seems king.

Market Data Issues

I don’t really believe that it will be possible to get reliable market data and assumptions about the horse trailer industry. A dearth of data and limited understanding of the industry is part of what keeps it so small and fragmented. A firm such as Krone, which does manufactures goods like semi trailers has a revenue of over $2 billion, but if it were to look at this market, it would seem small and, crucially, not growing. As a result, horse trailers would not be a likely target for expansion for Krone.

With a reduction in container shipping prices, however, one could easily see long term possibilities for Mexican or Chinese firms entering the market in more significant numbers in the coming years, leading to lower prices. In essence, a lack of understanding of the horse trailer market is driving specialization and keeping out competition. And a cursory glance into the market as makes it look like it is destined for trouble and tribulations. This also keeps out competition, paradoxically making it a relatively protected environment.

I couldn’t really come up with a useful prediction of the market as a whole. However, we can try to extrapolate from U.S.-only horse trailer data from 2008, enclosed trailer market data from 2017, and compare this to horse numbers and the horse industry. Now this is much more of a guess than I would normally be comfortable to use. This is not only because this is far from my area of expertise, but because usually we can find significantly more data with which to correlate and collate assumptions than we did in this case. So, a big guess it is.

Our guesstimate puts us at a global annual market of around 100,000 horse trailers sold per year. If each would retail for a conservative $15,000, the sales market would be worth a cool $1.5 billion. Take a moment to appreciate here that a slightly higher average unit revenue would have huge market size effects. So, the horse trailer market may look like a dog, but, in reality, it is a jewel.

In the next part of this series, we’ll take a closer look at how 3D printing specifically can take advantage of this niche sector.

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