What’s in Print
Factory of the future agsandrew/iStock/Thinkstock

Factory of the future

“Acceleration of change” likely to fast-forward tomorrow’s manufacturing plants into an exciting transformation

What will the industry look like in the years to come?

Well, for truck body and trailer manufacturing, it very well could be a situation where the transformation in the next 10 years will be more significant than it was the previous 40 years.

The plant of the future will reflect the dramatic changes that are happening now and are paving the way for even greater changes.

“I would anticipate a continuing acceleration of change,” said Kirk Cowell, VP of operations for Reading Truck Body. “Environmental impacts, technology advances, material improvements, etc., will drive the dramatic changes.”

Trailer/Body Builders talked with a sampling of trailer and truck body manufacturers, along with other industry experts. Here’s a look at what we found.

•  What machine tools not currently in your plant make the most sense for a company your size?

Patrick Jennissen, vice president of sales and marketing for Felling Trailers: “We’re actually looking at a number of different things from a technology aspect. By the second quarter of next year, we’re going to put in a Mitsubishi fiber-optics laser, which is new technology, at least for us. First of all, it’s three times faster than what we’re currently doing. Second, it’s hard to find quality operators. For the first couple of years, we figure we only need to operate one shift instead of three shifts. It should help us grow in capacity and help us on the labor side. We’re in the market for anything that helps with automation—new robots, any kind of robotic welding. Welders and machine operators are hard to find, so anything that helps with automation is huge. The quality side with robotics and automation is amazing. We have a traditional CO2 laser and will completely scrap that. New fiber lasers are making the CO2 lasers worthless.”

Dustin Smith, senior vice president/GM of commercial trailer products for Wabash National: “Smart use of automation continues to be a growing focus for our operation. We are a high-volume, high-custom manufacturing operation where traditional automation processes were not highly feasible. As the costs of automation continue to come down, and the flexibility and open source nature of automation becomes more available, it provides more economical sense. Our primary areas of focus for the use of technology range from material flow tracking through low-cost RFID processes, to factory information systems tracking machine downtime and cycle times.”

Cowell: “Robotics for loading and unloading product into presses.”

•  What about 3D printing?

Derek Kaufman, a managing partner of Schwartz Advisors: “I think it’s interesting. About two years ago, the entire world was going to be taken over by 3D printing. Now we’ve come off the peak of that hype and come down to some of the reality. I think it will take some time from a mass production standpoint. I’m really interested in 3D printing for inventory where you have certain parts that are slow-moving that you would not set up a manufacturing plant to make any more. You would just 3D print them. I think that will be the first application of 3D printing in our business. I’m limited on 3D printing taking over the world. I think it’s probably a slower reality than we were made to think a year or two ago.”

•  How might the materials you use be different from what currently go into your products?

Jennissen: “We’re seeing a shift toward higher tensile steel. The technology in steel seems to be increasing all the time. For us, it’s trying to come up with stronger, lighter designs, which leads us into higher tensile steel applications. Our product gets a lot of traditional oak decking, but we’re looking at whether there will be some type of composite product that can replace oak. The oak supply in this area of the country is diminishing, and the quality is getting worse. So we’re seeing a degradation of quality, and prices are going up as oak becomes scarcer. We’re talking to different companies about composite or laminate-type products.”

Kaufman: “Composite materials and the ability for manufacturers to be able to work with new adhesives. Anything that’s going to make something lightweight and stronger is going to be in the game. In passenger car applications, composites have been used now in a lot of structural members on the vehicle—not necessarily the surfaces, but the structural surfaces underneath them. I don’t see why, as costs come down on composites technology, that that won’t expand in truck bodies and trailers. Then there will be some adhesives, more than metal riveting or welding, in the future. I’m interested in some of the lattice structure sidewall technology, using graphene materials. If you take a look at the patent applications for graphene applications, the curve has gone straight up. You have to see how it will actually apply, whether the super light but rigid sidewall becomes a reality. There’s uncertainty how will that evolve, but I think it does.”

Smith: “We’ve been transparent about our continued path of product innovation, most recently through the use of high-strength steels, bonding and composite material technology. Our customer base continues to seek out products that provide lighter weight and better corrosion resistance. Our ability to continue incorporating these materials into our product designs fulfills our customers’ needs.”

•  How will plant management change?

Jennissen: “When we look at different things from a plant side, there is a higher premium today, at least for us, on training and safety. We’ve spent more on just retaining people. And making sure that they’re happy and doing everything right. We’re engaging them in the process. There’s more emphasis today than ever. We want to make sure their voices are heard. There are a lot of good ideas, and the more we can bring them into process, they are happier workers, and they tend to stay and tell their friends.”

Kaufman: “This is my pet topic of the decade—how augmented reality is going to change how things are installed in the manufacturing plant, how they are serviced in the shop and just the guidance. If I think about the automation of plants and what robots will do versus what people will do, and when I think about augmented reality of being able to guide you through the installation sequence and the checks, it’s going to increase the quality and efficiency of the build rate and lower the cost of manufacturing to keep these manufacturing companies in the game.

“I think augmented reality is a major issue for the trucking industry on a number of different fronts—the driving front, service front, and manufacturing front. If you’re servicing a reefer unit, you put on safety glasses and have a camera in one of the lenses. It shows the unit you’re operating on, what the operating pressure should be, when it was last serviced, the complete service history, and then it provides a diagnosis and allows you to quickly diagnose something accurately, and then offers removal and replacement instructions. I think the future is a very large Google or YouTube tutorial. I really think from a manufacturing standpoint, it’s very much the same—that some of the guidance, the sequencing of how things need to be put on, torqued and then checked, will all be tied into your safety glasses. I see that as part of the future.”

Smith: “Our leadership continues to improve its technical savvy as well as commercial and business acumen. It is not simply about hitting production with our plant management. They run their operation on a balanced scorecard process that spans safety, quality, delivery, cost, morale and environment. Further, they are an extension of our sales force. Our plant leadership is involved in customer meetings, tours, pilot reviews, and answer to our customers directly if the need arises. Because of this evolving marketplace, a focus on business acumen is critical.”

Cowell: “We’ll be developing strong lean practitioners who have learned by doing. This includes the plant front-line leaders as the next generation of plant management.”

What is the most plausible way to improve product quality or plant productivity in the years to come?

Jennissen: “Any kind of emphasis on automation, streamlining, your normal lean-type principles is going to come into play. For us, it’s advancing our Quality Management System (QMS) throughout the plant, not just through our quality department. We’re working on pulling every employee into QMS, not just the quality guys on the floor. It’s everybody. It’s the whole system. For us, and I’m sure others, efficiency goes up if you build a quality product the first time and don’t have reworks. That’s a large emphasis on doing it right the first time.”

Kaufman: “The quality that comes out of the plant is all about the focus of the team inside the plant. I’ve always been taught on a plant tour to walk through a plant and look in the eyes of the people working on the floor. Do they engage the manager? If they do, the chances of it being a high-quality plant working in good concert from a productivity standpoint are high. If they don’t, that means the employee engagement is down and morale is down, and quality is going to follow. I think quality is all about people and the focus that management has on the individuals on the manufacturing floor. I worked with a company called Trumble that has a system for collecting quality trending information on the plant floor. The system uses sensors in the machine tools to gather information on the machines as they are running. As quality begins to drift, which it does, it provides operators information that quality is going in the wrong direction, and they can make alterations before they run a number of bad pieces.”

Smith: “A common element of focus for our operation has been, and will continue to be, process variation reduction. This spans the entire operation. It starts far upstream in the sales spec and engineering design process, and works its way all the way down to our final inspection process. The more variation we eliminate, the higher our product quality. And almost always, the byproduct of this variation reduction is productivity.”

Cowell: “Improve product design for manufacturability. Stronger lean implementation, including focus on standardized work and variation/waste reduction. Smart and selective automation supportive of the improved designs.”

•  Are you vulnerable to international competition? Why or why not?

Cowell: “We’re less vulnerable than many product offerings as our product is bulky and does not ship well over great distances. On the flip side, if the product can be designed as a knock-down product for easy, low-cost assembly in the geographic region of the end user, then we would be exposed to some vulnerability.”

•  What labor trends do you see? Is there a solution to the shortage of workers? If so, what? Who and how will they be trained?

Jennissen: “On training, our solution is that we’ve created our own inside training facility. We’re finding more and more people that do not have the skills—welders, machine operators. So if we find employees that want to take the next step up and become a welder, we’re putting them through our own internal school. We just started that over the summer, so that’s been working well so far, and we’re looking to advance that program into other machines. Also, for us, it’s reaching kids early and changing the thought process that manufacturing is tough and dirty and hard. We’re reaching out already in middle schools and bringing them in and showing them our clean facility, and saying, ‘It’s a nice place to work, and it’s not the backbreaking thing it was 20 years ago.’ ”

Cowell: “We are working with local tech schools and high schools to attract people to manufacturing jobs. We have established a welding training center to develop in-house resources for welding needs.”

•  Who buys what you build? What major changes do your customers face that will impact your position in the market?

Jennissen: “Our customers are commercial contractors. We build construction equipment trailers for anything from lawn mowers to dozers and heavy excavators. Any contractor looking at getting any piece of equipment from Point A to Point B. Every sector is represented, from home building to commercial construction to underground utility construction. If there’s any infrastructure being built, we probably build a trailer for it. That’s 90-95% of what we do.

“I’m not seeing anything major in the way of changes. One thing we’re watching is the underground fiber business. It is very good right now—putting in telecom and fiber under the ground. There’s a lot of new research on bringing Internet wirelessly. Google has been in the news a lot. They’re cutting back on all of the fiber installation projects and pushing forward with some type of wireless technology to deliver that into communities. We’re really watching that. If you no longer have to horizontal drill to put in fiber, and it’s now wireless, that’s obviously going to impact our business. If that technology takes off, that obviously is going to slow us down. But a change on how construction equipment is moved from Point A to Point B is not something that would happen really quickly overnight.”

Cowell: “We can support our customers in their quest for weight reduction to meet fuel-efficiency targets. We will also support a more national presence for customers with needs that stretch across the country.”

•  What potential external force do you think could radically change your market for the better—or for the worse?

Cowell: “Economic recessions always have an impact for varying periods of time, so that is always to be watched and to prepare for. A lower number of retail sources due to internet sales could support growth in mobile service providers, which could result in the need for additional service truck bodies.”

Smith: “The vast majority of America moves via trucks and trailers. While rail and intermodal will always be an important mode of transportation, it will never vastly change the truck/trailer model, not in our lifetimes. But something as consumer-focused as online commerce and home delivery can and will greatly impact our industry. This has begun to disrupt the supply chain—less ‘port to large distribution center to major retail store’ and more ‘port to distribution center to multiple smaller regional fulfillment centers to your home.’ This last leg of transportation—the ‘Final Mile’ or ‘Last Mile’—is growing exponentially, and carriers are trying to figure out the optimal balance of capacity and equipment to designate to this growing space. And as any emerging market, this has no defined playbook. We publicly announced in 2015 that we are very interested in better understanding the Final Mile space and plan to be there to help our customers be profitable as it evolves.”

Kaufman: “I never am complacent about the disruptive factors in an industry. I’m always concerned about the threats to companies. I think the industry really needs to look at understanding the patents and the protection of designs so that it’s not as easy to basically duplicate a design or infringe on the patents that exist.”

Schaller: “Virtually all intermodal containers are made in China, as opposed to normal van bodies and tank bodies made in North America. I see a real awkward scenario that has arisen, as I understand it. The greenhouse requirements are being put in place that affect dry van and other vocational trailers, but don’t impact containers at all. They’re not considered a trailer. I don’t know whether that will ever play out to the point where some people might want to run a container just because, ‘I don’t have to bother complying with other laws.’ ”  ♦

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