A LARGE-SCALE manufacturer of truck caps with a 256,000-sq-ft plant, another 109,000-sq-ft plant, and 530 employees builds each truck cap to order for individual customers.
"Everything coming down the line is custom built," says Gene McBroom, marketing manager at ARE Inc in Massillon, Ohio. "We're a mass producer of custom bodies."
At the end of each business day, ARE's 340 dealers call or fax orders to the corporate office in Massillon. McBroom says the most important issue for dealers is matching the paint color of the truck cap to the customer's truck.
With the paint on any vehicle, there are variances in colors from one vehicle to the next, McBroom says. ARE's paint supplier, DuPont, provides charts with shades of different colors and a computerized system to accurately match the truck and cap color.
The best color match between a truck cap and vehicle is obtained when the customer ships a gas cap panel or interior tailgate panel to ARE, McBroom says. After receiving a vehicle panel, the company uses a DuPont Chromavision device that takes readings in three different spots on the sample vehicle panel.
An average of the three readings is entered into a personal computer, which searches a database with 30,000 different paint codes, McBroom says. The computer then suggests a paint code or a formula for blending the paint to match the cap and truck color.
Color Match Specialists If the exact paint code for a color match cannot be found, the paint is hand blended by a color match specialist to match the truck cap and the vehicle, McBroom says. As a result, only one percent of ARE truck caps are returned by customers because of color-match problems.
"ARE offers free color matching to help keep us ahead of the competition," McBroom says.
ARE truck caps and tonneau covers are as individual as the vehicles they are made for, McBroom says. Besides thousands of different colors, the company has 850 different molds for truck caps, and builds 300 truck caps a day, each of which can be different.
After each use, molds for fiberglass truck caps and tonneau covers are cleaned and put in a two-story warehouse where they are moved between floors by an elevator. With proper maintenance, the molds will provide years of service.
Before resin for ARE truck caps and covers is pumped from delivery trucks into either of two holding tanks, it is tested in the company's quality control lab, McBroom says.
Primer Gelcoat is sprayed first. Fiberglass strands are fed from spools to chop guns that shred and spray resin and fibers into the truck cap or cover mold. The material in the mold is smoothed with hand rollers to remove air bubbles before the mixture hardens. This process is performed twice on each mold with reinforcement materials placed between the two laminates.
Manufacturing Truck Caps The molds are then placed in line where a conveyor moves the products through a timed curing tunnel. A 1/2-ton capacity crane pulls caps and covers from the molds. Then an aluminum mounting rail is installed in the truck caps.
As an option, some of the truck caps are lined with polyester fabric material. Then the caps are moved to a conveyor line where a 50,000-psi water jet cuts window openings in the front, sides, and back of the truck cap.
"We're automating as much of the process as possible so employees are not lifting anything," McBroom says. "Just a fiberglass tonneau cover can weigh 90 to 100 lb, and truck caps weigh much more."
After window openings are cut, the caps and covers are sanded before being primed and painted in a Binks Pyramid spray booth.
Two different color caps or covers can be painted at the same time in the downdraft spray booth. The caps and covers are baked at 140( F for 20 minutes, which equals 48 hours of drying time at an ambient room temperature.
Cleaning Up VOCs Vapors from the spray booth and the fiberglass operation are vented into a Regenerative Thermal Oxidizer (RTO) emissions-abatement system. The RTO destroys all volatile organic compounds in the air streams put there as a result of atomizing resins and paints. Solvents in these products are air pollutants.
"Solvents in paint and styrene in resins make the products viscous," says Ralph Gatti, a co-owner at ARE. "The natural-gas-fired RTO emissions-abatement system is like a big incinerator.
"Contaminated air is ducted into the system and heated to 1,500(F to destroy all VOCs. Then the clean air can be released into the atmosphere. The RTO is typical of an emissions abatement system in an auto plant or bakery."
Other areas of the plant use more sophisticated automation, he says. Truck cap builders need automated plants to supply the demand for caps and other accessories created by the wide variety of pickup trucks being sold.
"It takes six weeks to produce the first mold for a new truck cap," McBroom says. "With our new CAD system we will reduce this time to three weeks. Our current goal is to have new products ready in six weeks after a new vehicle introduction."
ARE wants to avoid the same delays it suffered when designing truck caps and tonneau covers for the redesigned Ford F-150, he says. Because of difficulties obtaining CAD system information from Ford, it took ARE 13 months to design truck caps for the Ford F-150 longbed, shortbed, flareside, regular and extended cab models.
Five-Axis Milling Machine Before building a truck cap mold, a full-size Styrofoam model is shaped by a five-axis CNC milling machine. Engineers then place the truck cap model on a pickup truck to determine if other design changes are needed.
In the design phase, Surfware animates the path of the cutting tool on the workpiece. The movement of the five-axis milling machine on a computer screen is controlled by Surfware as the tool moves over a virtual truck cap surface.
"Surfware generates the numerical code that controls the five-axis cutting machine on an x, y, and z coordinate plus two rotational axis," says Todd Van Gorder of ARE. "This is the newest way to make plugs for truck caps and tonneau covers.
"ARE switched to a faster way of making plugs. With the five-axis machine, we want to take the five- to six-week process of plug creation and reduce it to one or two weeks. Speed, accuracy, and uniformity are a big advantage in this process."
In August, the backlog of truck caps was 2,550, which is about eight days of work, McBroom says. This is a slow month when vehicles are introduced for the new model year and production slows as molds are designed and produced for new truck caps.
Production backlog in busy months such as July can reach 3,500 units, McBroom says. The average monthly backlog is 1,200 to 2,000 units, which results in a 10- to 14-day period from order to delivery. A consistent flow of orders is critical in order to ship full trailer loads to dealers.
"We work best in a backlog range of 1,200 to 2,000 truck caps," McBroom says.
In recent years, sales at ARE have grown consistently, McBroom says. In 1997, the company produced 60,000 fiberglass caps and covers. ARE expects production of 67,000 in 1998 and sales of 75,000 in 1999.