Hog heaven

July 1, 2007
LIKE the path livestock take into a truck trailer, the new M H Eby plant in Story City, Iowa, has undergone a gradual ramp-up process. The 45,000-sq-ft

LIKE the path livestock take into a truck trailer, the new M H Eby plant in Story City, Iowa, has undergone a gradual ramp-up process.

The 45,000-sq-ft plant has been a long-term dream for M H Eby, a truck body and trailer manufacturer based in Blue Ball, Pennsylvania.

The company decided to add a plant back in 2000, and plans were beginning to crystallize when the events of 9/11 occurred. Mad cow disease and an overall decline in the trailer manufacturing industry followed, which also clouded the future of a plant designed to produce livestock semi-trailers.

“All of this worked against the commercial livestock trailer market,” says Travis Eby, vice-president of operations.

M H Eby uses aluminum to manufacture a variety of ag-related products, including truck bodies, gooseneck and bumper-hitch trailers, and a line of truck trailers. But the company's future as a truck trailer manufacturer was limited until the Iowa plant gave Eby the production capacity it needed.

“We knew we had to have another plant if we were going to remain in the big semi-trailer market,” Eby says. “Our plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio manufacture other products including gooseneck livestock trailers, and our ability to produce truck trailers was limited. Plus, it was tough for us to serve the western livestock market from Pennsylvania. We needed a plant here. This is where our market for large trailers is.”

Eby says the company selected Iowa as the venue for the plant because of the strong customer base that the company had developed in the state. The 17-acre Story City site north of Des Moines puts the company in the heart of that market. Kirk Swensen, sales manager at Eby's Ohio location, was instrumental in identifying the Story City site.

But beyond being in the center of one of its core markets, the location helps M H Eby serve dealers in Minnesota, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Canada.

Build it, sell it

M H Eby serves as its own retailer for the area surrounding its manufacturing plants and uses a dealer network to extend its marketing reach.

“We operate a retail sales and service facility within our plants,” says Menno Eby, president. At one point, we considered opening a retail store on Interstate 35 and a manufacturing plant in the middle of nowhere. But we were able to find this location, which gives us everything under one roof.”

The 17-acre site is adjacent to the northbound side of Interstate 35. Good signage, including a large one on the side of the building, makes the facility easily seen — which is helping the company sell new trailers, parts, and even Eby-branded clothing such as hats and jackets.

“Our retail operation makes us a little unorthodox,” Travis Eby says. “For most trailer manufacturers, a trailer plant is a trailer plant. They don't have a retail operation located inside. If they sell their products at retail in their local area around their plant, they tend to have a separate building.

“But this is the model we have always used. We do the same thing in Pennsylvania and at our plant in Ohio. By having everything under one roof, we operate more efficiently. Retail and manufacturing can share human resources, telephone system, and other services that otherwise would have to be performed separately for the two operations.”

Each location sells the full line of Eby products, even if those products are made at another Eby plant. M H Eby acts as its own retailer only in the area surrounding its plants, Travis Eby says. The company relies on a strong network of dealers in markets outside of its local retail territories.

Custom specs, custom tools

Since M H Eby's founding in 1938, innovation has been a driving force in the company's development of new product designs. It was one of the first manufacturers of aluminum livestock trailers and continues to pioneer features in transportation equipment for agricultural commodities and livestock.

The livestock trailers that M H Eby produces in Story City are highly customized. For example, sides are produced from aluminum sheet, with punched holes that provide ventilation for livestock. The ventilation varies according to the animal being transported — pigs or cattle — as well as the geographic area in which the trailer will operate. Warmer climates demand larger openings (more ventilation), while colder climates want less.

Because of the variations in the trailers that the plant produces, M H Eby searched for a way to fabricate components with high levels of accuracy and minimum setup time.

To do that, Eby personnel, led by executive manufacturing manager Gary Musselman, and Pullmax engineers collaborated to develop a special version of the Pullmax hydraulic punching machine.

“We can make a complete side with the Pullmax,” Travis Eby says. “And if a customer wrecks a trailer and needs a new side, we can produce one quickly and accurately.”

Eby's machine is a modified version of the Pullmax Pullmatic 720 hydraulic punch press. The difference, however, is in the special forming station adjacent to the standard tool changer. The standard Pullmatic machine can punch a 3 ½" envelope, but the M H Eby design calls for some oblong holes that are 6" × 12". The special forming station not only cuts the hole, but also produces a double-embossed edge surrounding the holes. These flanges add strength to the side panels.

The modification complements the Pullmatic 720, a machine that can punch sheets up to 1500 × 3000 mm in 8 mm (.31") material without repositioning. It generates 220 kN (4,946 lb) of punching force. Maximum table speed is 128 meters per minute (84 inches per second).

Positioned behind the punch head is a rotating tool magazine. All 20 tool stations are designed to hold any size tool, up to a maximum tool diameter of 90 mm, which is why M H Eby required a special tool to produce oversized holes. Changing tools in the punch head takes five seconds or less.

Pressing issues

Also playing a key role in the new plant is the Accupress press brake that M H Eby bought for the Story City facility.

The CNC press features hydraulic clamping, precision ground tooling, five-axis backgauge, and high-end controller with offline programming capability. The company uses the press brake to fabricate precision parts.

“The Accupress provided us with the most bang for the buck,” Travis Eby says. “Other press brakes are a little more precise — but at a much higher purchase price. This machine matched our accuracy requirements and was the best value for our application.”

The plant also is equipped with a Cincinnati press brake, which Eby calls “a big sledge hammer,” to set rivets. While using a press brake to set rivets is nothing new for a van trailer manufacturer, M H Eby also uses it in assembling the floors.

“We press floor rivets just like we do the sides,” says Erin Varley, vice-president of the company's Iowa division. “Where we can, we use rivets in place of welding. By using rivets, we eliminate heat-affected zones that can contribute to cracking.”

M H Eby uses the same tooling for setting rivets in either the sides or floors. Changing the press from one application to the other requires approximately 10 minutes. The key is the special quick-change tooling set designed by plant manager Adam Anderson that Eby says is more valuable than the press brake itself. But the tooling, combined with the press brake, is a productive combination.

“We try to do as much with the press as we can,” Varley says.

The Story City plant manufactures livestock semitrailers, specializing in two colorfully named models — the Bull Ride and TransPork for transporting cattle and swine, respectively. Both brands feature the punched-side models that M H Eby introduced a decade ago.

The standard TransPork trailer measures 53' × 102" × 13'6". Standard specs also include slip-resistant flooring made of 6061 aluminum, tubular crossmembers and hexagonal tubular gates, and smooth interior designed for reduced seams.

“All of this is designed to preserve the health of the livestock,” Travis Eby says. “Bio-security has become very important to customers. We have redesigned our trailers to minimize the places where bacteria can accumulate.”

The company also has designed a winter closure system to reduce air flow through the trailer.

Like the TransPork, the Bull Ride model uses punched sides and a design geared to reducing injuries and maximizing bio-security.

“These trailers haul a load and they are then washed, disinfected, and sometimes baked,” Eby says. “We redesigned the trailers to eliminate as many nooks and crannies as we could. This gives bacteria fewer places to hide, and it also makes the trailers easier to clean. With less time required to clean, they can get back on the road faster.”

Sometimes the focus on bio-security is a win-win for livestock and for the folks a little higher up the food chain. For example, M H Eby has developed a two-piece roof rail through which trailer wiring is routed. The design eliminates a track where bacteria can build up — which helps protect the health of the livestock. But it also protects the wiring of the trailer — and with it the time of those who maintain trailers. The wiring is protected from the regular blasts from pressure washers, yet it is easily accessible when the roof rail is disassembled.

All at once

Much of the product redesign occurred when the plant was built.

“We rolled out new versions of our trailers at the same time we were building the plant that would produce them,” Travis Eby says.

Management credits the cross-functional teams led by Nicholas Eby, vice president of engineering, that were assembled to enable the company to accomplish both tasks simultaneously.

“We brought in people from all parts of the company,” Eby says. “We wanted the expertise of individuals to help us make this work. What were the key things customers were looking for in the types of trailers we produce? We wanted to make sure those were built into the design of the product. What were some things we could do to make the trailers easier to repair? We involved people on the team that had the answers. How could we design the trailer — and the plant — for ease of manufacture?

Ramping up

The Story City plant has been gradually ramping up production since completing its first trailer in 2005.

Much of the gradual increase has been the result of a need to make sure employees are properly trained.

“There are not a lot of trailer manufacturers around here, and there aren't a lot of people living nearby who knew how to build them,” Menno Eby says. “It took us four weeks to build our first trailer — a 53-ft spread-axle model. But we did it right. A customer 10 miles down the road from us bought it, and he has since bought 10 more. He likes the trailers, and he likes the idea that he is so close to a place where he can get factory service.”

Employees from the headquarters facility in Blue Ball, Pennsylvania, played a key role in helping the Story City plant get started, as did employees from the West Jefferson, Ohio, operation.

“We started from scratch,” Travis Eby says. “We had to cycle foremen in from our other locations to train our new staff how to build trailers. We started the training process in July 2005 at the same time we were building jigs and fixtures.”

Helping hands

M H Eby now has approximately 65 people working at the Story City plant, including two shifts.

In addition to the special training provided by other M H Eby personnel, Story City employees received general training on topics such as welding and basic plant safety from the local community college.

The plant is just north of Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State University.

“We are just up the interstate from one of the best agriculture and engineering schools in the United States,” Travis Eby says. “We have found through staffing our Ohio plant how our close proximity to Ohio State University has provided a lot of talented employees and that colleges can be strong resources for us.”

Eby says that Iowa State has provided members of the company's sales and engineering departments.

“We have awesome people here,” Travis Eby says. “It's a tight-knit group that has worked hard to get this plant started.”

Already expanded

M H Eby already has expanded the Story City plant. The facility began as a 35,000-sq-ft building, but the company recently added 10,000 square feet. The expansion gives the company dedicated space for its service department to repair trailers.

In its present configuration, the expansion gives M H Eby three service bays and an additional three bays that are being used for material storage. The storage bays, however, can easily be switched over for use as service bays when volume requires it.

“We have plenty of room to grow here,” Travis Eby says. “We have 17 acres, and we are only using seven. Things are coming together nicely. We definitely are getting out of start-up mode and are looking forward to tomorrow.”