Columbia Body Manufacturing Is Revived, Product Line Redesigned

Dec. 1, 1997
TOM Scranton is leading Columbia Body Manufacturing Company to the position it once held as a major West Coast dump body manufacturer.In the early 1970s

TOM Scranton is leading Columbia Body Manufacturing Company to the position it once held as a major West Coast dump body manufacturer.

In the early 1970s and 1980s, Columbia dominated the dump body market within 100 miles of Portland, Oregon, Scranton says. The company had about 80% of the market. Scranton and the Hanel family purchased the company in 1994 and are establishing a strong market position.

The biggest step Columbia Body took toward regaining its spot as a market leader is moving into a new location in 1997. The company moved from a cramped 18,000-sq-ft building into a renovated 60,000-sq-ft building on a 6 1/2-acre site in Clackamas, near Portland.

"The lack of space reduced our gross profit margins," says Todd Lessner, chief financial officer at Columbia. "We lost price discounts because we didn't have enough storage space for quantity purchases of parts. Production was restricted because of space limitations and man-hours spent repositioning work in progress."

Increasing Efficiency Overall efficiency has increased dramatically in the new plant, Lessner says. Besides having over three times more space, Columbia invested in new machinery and plant equipment.

The new equipment includes a 250-ton press brake, a 1/2-inch shear that can handle material up to 12-ft long, a metal worker, 26 welders, three plasma cutters, drill presses, and band saws. New bridge cranes span almost every square foot of plant space.

Columbia purchased a new paint booth 54-ft long, 18-ft wide, and 18-ft high. The paint booth is equipped with gas dryers that can raise the temperature inside the booth to 180 degrees F.

"This company is laying the groundwork for more production capacity," Lessner says. "Everything, including office equipment, tools, and machinery, was upgraded to take us into the year 2000."

When it moved into its new offices, Columbia installed a Digital NT server with 14 personal computer work stations and a local area network (LAN), Scranton says. A database program is being incorporated with a CAD program.

"Incorporating the database and CAD programs will provide the long-term benefit of being able to automatically predict cash flow and track inventory," Lessner says.

Computer-Aided Sales In the future, sales orders will be entered into Columbia's computer system via laptop computers equipped with modems. After an order is entered, the computer database will allocate inventory for each Columbia product so the same components are always used.

"We will realize greater economies of scale because Columbia will always be purchasing the same components to build its products," Lessner says.

With its new production facility, the company is already expanding its share of the dump body market, Scranton says. Occasionally, Columbia sells its dump truck and trailer combinations to customers located 500 miles from Portland.

"Columbia's reputation for top quality was rooted in a labor force that included some of the best fitter welders on the West Coast," Scranton says.

Now, rather than relying on fitter welders to build its products, Columbia is using more welding fixtures, says Terry Potter, an engineer at Columbia. Welding fixtures provide better product consistency.

"When it comes to building dump bodies, we're getting away from a job shop approach to more of a production line process so every welder doesn't have to be a fitter," Potter says. "We don't want a product totally dependent on one employee."

By using more welding fixtures, Columbia was able to streamline production and reduce the setup time needed to weld a workpiece, says Potter. Other changes reduced production time such as standardization of parts.

Dump Body Designs The Columbia dump body design has a distinctive look with concave sidepanels on its truck body and pup trailer. Between the concave sidepanels and inner wall on the dump bodies and pup trailers is a 3/4-inch space. This air space insulates hot products such as asphalt and provides a clean exterior appearance since loads cannot damage the exterior concave sidepanel.

In the 1960s, Columbia began building this dump body and pup trailer combination, incorporating a sidewall, top rail, and bottom rail formed from one piece of steel. After Scranton purchased Columbia, he immediately began redesigning the pup trailer.

The frames of the pup trailer and dump body were overbuilt, Scranton says. For strength, the original design had extra crossmembers and bracing.

"It was a sound design, but we found through engineering analysis that the benefit didn't outweigh the weight gain," Scranton says. "The original pup trailer and dump body designs hauled more metal around, and it really wasn't doing anything."

The new dump body and pup trailer frame is 30% stronger and uses eight-inch T-1 steel frame rails instead of 10-inch frame rails, Scranton says. This helped reduce by 600 lb the weight of the new truck and trailer combination compared to the original design.

Stronger, Lighter Bodies Columbia's tub-shaped elliptical body is 600 to 900 lb lighter than the company's original dump body, Scranton says. Dump bodies built by Columbia are made of 3/16- by 1/4-inch Formalloy steel with a 400 brinnel hardness made by Oregon Steel Mills in Portland.

"Formalloy is easier to form, and it maintains its hardness and yield strength after bending," Scranton says.

Columbia purchases steel in the maximum length for its dump bodies. This is more cost effective than purchasing several different lengths of sheet from the steel mill.

"The cost of five different lengths of pre-cut metal sheet can outweigh the forming costs," Potter says. "We're trying to reduce machinery setup costs for different body lengths. The company is trying to budget more money for jigs, fixtures, and tooling."

Standard Width Frames Another major change Scranton made was switching to a standard 34-inch wide frame for the dump body and pup trailer. Dump bodies in the assembly process can now be mounted on either a truck or trailer frame.

The side height of the new dump bodies was reduced, Scranton said. Columbia Body's engineers determined the center of gravity was too high on the dump body.

"The overall design now has more stability," Scranton says.

A minor change Scranton made to the pup trailer was switching to cast steel undermounted spring hangers, he said. On Columbia's pup trailer, the most extensive changes were made to the drawbar. Scranton designed a hinged drawbar to replace the drawbar previously used on the pup trailer.

Because the new drawbar is hinged and has a spring-loaded double-acting cylinder on each side, it absorbs the harmonic motion when hauling a heavy load on a rough road, Scranton says. The cylinders in Columbia's proprietary dampening system allow 5 1/2 inches of travel when the drawbar moves up or down.

The build time for dump trailer drawbars was reduced by using a welding fixture thus eliminating a long setup time, Potter says.

"But we increased the build time by adding two hours for Huck-bolting a glove reinforcement and bracing in the drawbar," Potter says.

Better Drawbar Design Columbia's drawbars are designed so the Huck bolts and glove reinforcement handle fatigue while the welds provide additional strength, Potter says. Gussets are Huck-bolted inside the drawbar where it attaches to the trailer.

The drawbar design was first tested on two truck-and-trailer combinations Columbia built for Randalls Sand & Gravel in Puyallup, Washington. The truck-and-trailer rigs are used primarily off-road in rock quarries. In this severe service, Columbia's drawbars are holding up well compared to traditional fixed drawbars found on most pup trailers.

Besides its drawbar, other design work at Columbia has concentrated on new products such as the five- to six-yard dump body for single-axle chassis, Scranton says. This dump body is being manufactured primarily for installation by Columbia distributors.

Scranton's redesign of Columbia's truck-and-trailer combination has been an on-going process since 1994, he said. During this process, Columbia has been producing limited quantities of truck body and trailer sets a year.

"Production was limited until we could have enough history to validate our engineering and design work," Scranton says. "Now we can release our drawbar and frame design into full production."

Production Increasing Since Scranton purchased the company, Columbia has increased production every year. In 1994, the company built 40 dump truck-and-trailer combinations. In 1995, it built 60. In 1996, Columbia built 150, and in 1997 the company expects to build 400 dump truck-and-trailer combinations.

Each year since 1994, Columbia's gross sales have doubled, Lessner says. Columbia's sales result in an annual profit before taxes.

"Because of our increased production capacity, we expect this upward trend to continue," Lessner says. "One of the benefits of Columbia's increased capacity is that the company can accept larger contracts."

About the Author

Mark Nutter