New Plant Equipment Increases Production at Felling Trailers

WITH new machinery and welding fixtures, Felling Trailers increased production to about 1,500 trailers a year at its 50,000-sq-ft plant in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

Felling added 50% more shop equipment in the past three years and updated all of its fixtures. The new equipment is designed for more efficient, faster trailer production.

For example, new welders are trolley-mounted to slide easily between work stations on overhead rails, leaving more floor space for workers. An L-TEC four-head oxygen-acetylene cutting table has an AST Tracer system that uses a laser-light system to follow a welding pattern.

"We want to speed up and improve our whole manufacturing process," says Merle J Felling, president of Felling Trailers.

Besides new welders, the company purchased two 150-ton ironworkers and a 350-ton Cincinnati pressbrake to replace a 230-ton pressbrake. With the new pressbrake, Felling can fabricate frame rails in lengths up to 16 feet.

"By updating our dies and equipment every three to five years, we get better consistency and higher quality components," Felling says. "The new dies and other equipment help provide more accurate bends. Marginal equipment cannot hold a true 90 degree bend for the whole length of the material."

Rollover Welding Fixtures When the company redesigned the welding fixtures used to build its trailers, much effort went into what Felling calls its rollover fixtures. The fixtures were designed by Merle Felling, Larry Kleinschmidt, and Ken Esler.

The rollover fixtures are used primarily for drop-deck utility trailers such as a Felling FT 10P pan-deck trailer. Many of the trailers Felling builds have GVWR up to 60,000 lb or more.

Assembly begins with a trailer upside down in the rollover fixture, which has two large hydraulic cylinders and a hinge point on one side. After the bottom welds are completed, the hydraulic cylinders flip the fixture and trailer over so the top welds can be made on the trailer.

It takes one man less than five minutes to reposition a trailer. Before using the rollover fixtures, it took two workers four times longer to reposition some light trailers using overhead cranes.

"Our fixtures provide more consistency in manufacturing and are more efficient," Felling says.

Felling builds a wide variety of trailers including utility trailers with 2,000-lb axles, up to 35-ton capacity lowbed trailers with rigid or detachable goosenecks, and eight to nine car transport trailers. The automobile transports are 49-ft open-and-ramped trailers.

Auto Transport Trailers The auto transports are hitched by a stinger fifthwheel on the truck. Fully loaded, the truck and trailer can haul up to 13 compact cars or 11 to 12 full-size autos.

Felling auto transports are designed for strength, says Merle Felling. Instead of formed metal, the trailers are built with square tubing, which provides more strength. To keep weight down, the trailers have aluminum loading ramps and aluminum hydraulic cylinders.

Because Felling expects an increased demand for trailers in the next five years, the company is expanding its manufacturing space to 75,000 square feet with a 25,000-sq-ft addition. The building will be completed in 1998 and will house more fixtures and plant equipment for manufacturing and assembly.

The addition will have a 20-ft by 60-ft paint booth to complement Felling's existing 54-ft Binks paint booth. Inside the Binks paint booth, four overhead cranes with two- and four-ton capacities lift trailers high enough so undersides can be painted easily.

Sandblasting, Painting Trailers Before trailers are painted at Felling, they are washed with a degreaser and sandblasted. Felling used to pre trailers by spraying with a liquid acid-etching agent, but now has purchased an Atlas Copco air compressor for sandblasting.

Preparing metal surfaces by sandblasting provides very good adhesion, says Dallas Knight of United Industrial Coatings in Fargo, North Dakota. Paint adhesion can be a problem in the trailer manufacturing industry because of improper surface preparation. According to Knight, sandblasting is the best method.

To obtain the best finish on a trailer Knight recommends using a high-solids, low-VOC urethane primer and a high-solids, low-VOC urethane topcoat. These products have good resistance to road salt and are supplied to Felling by PPG through United Industrial Coatings.

"Since we began using PPG products, the cosmetic look of our trailers is improved greatly," says Marlon Leischner, comptroller at Felling Trailers. "Paint is very important to the life of a trailer. All customers expect a top-quality finish."

Felling began building trailers in 1974 after purchasing Sauk Centre Welding and renaming the company Felling Trailers. Since then, the company's growth has been dramatic. Felling Trailers remained at the downtown welding shop until 1978 and moved to its larger, present location in 1987.

Building More Trailers In the last 2 1/2 years Felling has doubled employment. Many have been hired in the last six months. The expanded workforce is producing more trailers in less time.

In 1993, the company built 600 trailers with 30 shop employees. In 1997, Felling expects to build 1,500 trailers with 50 shop employees. This is an even greater accomplishment considering that trailers the company builds today are larger and more complex than the trailers it built in 1993.

A dump trailer with four 30,000-lb axles was recently built for the Potlatch Corporation near Duluth in Cloquet, Minnesota. The Potlatch trailer is 12 feet wide, 30 feet long, and eight feet deep. It was designed and built by Felling for hauling ash from waste wood burned at the Potlatch paper-processing plant.

Another specialty trailer was built to haul snowmobiles for Nelson Marine Inc, a snowmobile dealer for Polaris and Arctic Cat in New London, Minnesota. Nelson Marine works with a local tour operator that arranges vacations to the western United States for snowmobile owners.

The 53-ft triple-deck tandem-axle semitrailer can transport up to 50 snowmobiles. Aluminum ramps used to load the snowmobiles from either side of the trailer are stored in a belly compartment beneath the first deck. After the snowmobiles are loaded, nylon curtains roll down over the sides of the trailer.

Besides the trailers it builds, Felling sells livestock and horse trailers built by Featherlite and Kiefer. Felling Trailers also sells tag and gooseneck cargo trailers, snowmobile trailers, and car transports built by United and Featherlite. Felling has been a Featherlite dealer for eight years, a United dealer for nine years, and a Kiefer dealer for 10 years.

25-Page Internet Website Felling has its own network of trailer dealers in over 30 states, and they are supervised by five territory managers. Besides its dealers, the company's products receive additional exposure in a 25-page Internet website (Felling.com) designed by Felling's son, Merle C.

Felling's website has been up since the beginning of 1997. Webpages on the site provide a general overview of Felling's product line showing different photographs of trailers.

Customers can send e-mail directly to Felling from links on the website.

"A website helps a company stay ahead of its competitors who don't have an Internet website," says Felling.

Besides the website, Felling is working on a computerized quote system to track a trailer from the quote and sale through final assembly. From the bill of sale, materials and parts will be allocated. Then the trailer will be scheduled into the manufacturing plant. Upon completion, the manufacturer's statement of origin (MSO) and other paperwork will be generated from the same computer file. Felling plans to begin using the system after Thanksgiving.

"We maintain an ongoing process to improve efficiency," Felling says. "It helps our company accommodate our strong dealer network, to grow and become more efficient."

Felling's biggest year for growth was in 1993. The company had a 40% increase in gross sales, to the $4.5 million level.

"Our growth has been very consistent," he says. "The company is now nearly double its 1993 sales."

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