Almost automatic

MANUFACTURING platform trailers at the new Benson International plant still requires a lot more than just pushing a button on one end of the plant and watching trailers come out the other.

But not nearly as much as before.

The platform and dump trailer manufacturer celebrated the grand opening of its fourth manufacturing plant in October, ramping up what is the company's most automated production facility. By far.

Robots now play a major role at the new operation, producing side rails, welding aluminum flooring, and (soon to be operational) producing main beams. Other automated equipment drills the nailing strips, inserts the screws, and drives them to secure the apitong nailers to the crossmembers.

As the plant in Cadiz, Kentucky, ramps up to assemble trailers, it also is becoming a fabrication center. Under Benson's current system, the main facility in Mineral Wells, West Virginia, supplies fabricated parts to other locations. But that is changing now that the Cadiz fabrication department is operational. With the nearby Cadiz operation meeting some of the plant's fabrication needs, Benson can remove some of the production demands from its Mineral Wells plant and not have to transport trailer components all the way from West Virginia.

“Light boxes, mudflap brackets, gussets, belly pans, winch assemblies. These are all components that we produce, along with about 400 main beams per month,” says Marvin Whitt, plant manager.

The Cadiz facility is not quite self-sufficient from a fabrication standpoint. Upper coupler plates still come from Mineral Wells, but that, too, will change when additional equipment arrives in the near future.

Keeping it simple

The facility, just shy of 200,000 square feet, includes 180,000 square feet of production area. The remainder of the floor space includes 9,000 square feet for offices and a separate 7,000-sq-ft finishing building that houses a wash bay, sandblast booth, and paint booth.

If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, Benson designed the plant to be as short as possible. Material comes in the north end of the plant through a single door. It leaves out another door at the south end of the plant as a completed trailer.

But while the north end of the plant (where incoming materials arrive) contains only one door, the south end has two. One of those doors is for finished goods to leave the plant, while the other is for delivery trucks to exit the building.

Trucks enter the plant, then drive parallel to the assembly lines, dropping off material as close to where it is needed as possible. They continue driving straight through the plant and out the designated exit door.

In its present configuration, the plant has three assembly lines. The most automated is the high-volume line where Benson manufactures its standard tandem-axle aluminum platform trailer. Parallel to the standard line are two others: a custom trailer line and another for drop-decks and multi-axle platform trailers.

The automated line at the Cadiz plant consists of six stations:

  • Frame-up. Main beams, produced near the beginning of the automated line, are staged here. They, along with cross sills, are placed here, squared up, and welded.

  • Side rail installation.

  • Decking. Aluminum decking is automatically welded at a specially designed station. Four welding torches suspended on a gantry travel the length of the trailer to weld the decking with just one pass.

Trailing behind the welding gantry is a second one that drills the apitong nailers. Also included is an automated fastener feed system that places screws in the newly drilled holes and drives the screws through the wood and into the cross sills.

  • Mechanics I. Here the company installs wiring, lights, and plumbing. It is here, too, that holes are drilled for mounting the suspension, coupler plate, and landing gear.

  • Mechanics II. Suspensions, upper coupler plates, landing gear, and tire carriers are installed here.

  • Wash and detail.

  • Once off the line, trailers move to a separate building for finishing. The structure includes three 20' × 64' booths — one each for shotblast booth, paint spray booth, and a bake oven. Sherwin Williams acrylic enamel is bakes for 20-25 minutes at 200-210° F.

As the plant continues to ramp up production, the shotblast booth will see increased activity. Early output has been exclusively aluminum, but the company also will mount steel dump bodies in Cadiz.

Setting Objectives

Benson wanted a highly automated plant, and the design drew heavily from President Donnie Holland's background with suppliers to Ford, General Motors, and Toyota.

“This is the third plant to manage and my second start-up,” Whitt says. “The support I received was great. I made a list of what I thought we needed to enable this plant to do what we wanted it to. We got everything on the list. Getting this plant started was a very pleasant process.”

In addition to the heavy use of robotic positioning and welding, Benson equipped the plant with an array of machine tools. Among them: a 750-ton press brake capable of handling ¾" steel, a 20-ft shear, new pyramid rolls for producing the radii on bulkheads, a 22' × 13' high-definition plasma cutting table from Thermal Dynamics, and CNC band saws from Hyd-Mech Group Ltd. The fabrication area also includes 16' × 16' spray booth for painting parts.

Tennessee Rand, a consulting company based in Chattanooga, helped Benson set up the robotic applications. Equipment suppliers also provided input.

“It's surprising how little experience there is out there on automating aluminum welding,” Whitt says. “The automotive industry really has a lot of experience with robotic welding, but their experience has been almost exclusively with steel. There aren't a lot of companies that have really done much with automated aluminum welding.”

Getting results

Benson is well on its way to automating the welding of its aluminum trailers. For example, side rail production typically is labor-intensive. But the Cadiz plant uses robots to automatically produce the side rails of its platform trailers. Starting with a tray of parts, two Panasonic robots pick the spools and position them — welding spools, stake pockets, and rub rails into a single component.

As previously mentioned, additional robots weld the extruded aluminum decking. Additional equipment is on order that will automate the welding of main beams.

For any automated welding operation, precise positioning of the weldments is mandatory. Positioning also is important to improve weld quality and productivity for those applications that must be done manually.

To put pieces exactly where they need to be, Benson bought rotators from Pandjiris Inc. Tennessee Rand built the carts that serve as mobile fixtures on which the trailers move through the assembly line. They can rotate 360° to place the trailers at a comfortable position for manual welding.

The carts, which under current production demand move every two hours, are guided through the plant on a floor-mounted track. Overhead cranes pick assemble trailers off the carts.

Benson paid special attention to material handling, trying to minimize it through its straight-line assembly layout and by off-loading as much material from the delivery truck directly to the assembly line. But material still has to move, and three special cranes with built-in counterbalances keep long loads from swinging.

Growing company

The Cadiz facility is the latest in a series of plants that Benson operates. And in addition to its manufacturing facilities, Benson recently completed a $500,000 expansion of its repair facility in Lowmansville, Kentucky, to convert it into a parts and service operation.

“We are a growing company,” says Mike Monroe, vice-president of operations. “We have five field regional managers, two dump body specialists and three inside sales persons now who work with our network of dealers and fleets, and they are getting results. Companywide, we will build 1,700 platforms and about 400 dump trailers in 2006. In 2006, we already have met the goal that we set for ourselves to reach in 2008.”

Equipped for fabrication

Benson's Cadiz, Kentucky, plant was designed to meet its own fabrication needs and to produce parts for a sister facility as well. The fabrication department, shown in this panel of photographs, includes:

  1. A set of pyramid rolls for producing radiused bulkheads, a 20' shear and a press brake capable of processing ¾" steel.

  2. The department has its own 16' × 16' paint booth for painting the parts that it fabricates.

  3. CNC controls of this Hyd-Mech saw can be programmed to automatically cut steel or aluminum to various lengths.

  4. A 13' × 22' cutting table with high-definition plasma provides precise, quality parts.

Benson celebrates in Cadiz

Benson International commemorated the opening of its Cadiz, Kentucky, plant with a special celebration that included plant tours, appearances and remarks by business and governmental dignitaries and a ribbon cutting ceremony.

Benson broke ground a little over a year ago for the 180,000 square-foot facility and opened its doors for production on January 3, 2006. The plant employs more than 100 individuals.

James “Buck” Harless, chairman of the board of International Industries, Benson's parent company, shared some remarks before opening the doors to Benson's corporate office. The celebration also marked the transition of Benson's corporate headquarters from Mineral Wells, West Virginia to Cadiz.

“Benson International is proud to have its headquarters located in the Cadiz community,” said Donnie Holland, president of Benson International.

Several key members of the staff have moved to Cadiz from Mineral Wells.

Benson used the event to debut it new 524 & 724 platform trailer literature, Web site, (www.bensonintl.com) and new brand identity — elements of an ongoing branding campaign.

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