Maintainer Sustains Service Body Excellence Through Communication Techniques

July 1, 2001
As a service body manufacturer, Maintainer Corporation prides itself on executing orders for customized service bodies with an efficiency level that would

As a service body manufacturer, Maintainer Corporation prides itself on executing orders for customized service bodies with an efficiency level that would make many companies envious.

Maintainer has developed its efficiency by honing internal communication skills to a level that few companies attain. Executive management expended time and money to study the issue and then implemented programs that facilitated meaningful communications throughout every level of the company.

The art of seamless communication is a cornerstone philosophy for this Sheldon, Iowa, organization. That's not a bad philosophy considering that Maintainer is celebrating its 25th year in business. But the company hasn't just survived in a competitive industry it has flourished with double-digit growth for the past four years, according to Frank Norris, general manager of Maintainer Corporation of Iowa Inc.

Maintainer manufactures heavy-duty mechanics-service bodies, mobile lubrication bodies, and frame-mounted cranes for service bodies. As a company, Maintainer believes it is above-average in the way it communicates with employees, vendors, and customers. It views itself as a custom product manufacturer that builds to the customer's application and specifications.

“A great deal of our ability to manufacture custom products comes from our ability to externally and internally communicate,” says Norris. “We can't build the types of equipment that meet the exacting specifications of the customer in a timely manner without thoroughly communicating through the entire system, from the customer to the shop floor.”

Communicating with employees is high on the company's list of priorities. Cindy Tigges, marketing specialist for Maintainer, says that thorough and consistent communications boost employee morale.

Although many companies spend time conceptualizing the best way to communicate with the entire spectrum of employees, Maintainer took bold steps to ensure that its communications goals are being carried out.

LRI Management Services

The first step was to contact LRI Management Services, which specializes in identifying and responding to critical employee relations' issues and offers management consulting services. Multinationals such as Boeing, SYSCO, and Sandvik Cormont have used the firm for launching, streamlining, and monitoring employee-employer communications.

“The study analyzed many aspects of how our company communicates at various levels,” says Tigges. “Special emphasis was given to discovering how management communicates with the company as a whole, as well as what messages they communicate today, and what messages they should be communicating.”

The LRI study did effect changes at Maintainer. “After LRI, management implemented visible changes to the format and content of our internal communications at all levels of the company.

“We have a monthly meeting, aptly named the ‘all staff meeting.’ The company caters food for this meeting that's held during the lunch period. It gets everyone involved in company issues, as well as providing everyone a chance to talk with each other.”

“Probably one of the best communication tools that we use is our newsletter Positively Speaking, which is mailed to the homes of all employees,” says Tigges. “Employees will take the time to read the newsletter at home. Plus, we really make it interesting. If you're curious about what's going on at the company, you'll read the paper.”

The newsletter has the related employee birthday and anniversary information. However, Positively Speaking also provides a sincere look at the company's financial position. Management discusses the real factors that could affect employees of the company.

Positively Speaking looks at the current and forecasted condition of the company and really doesn't leave any subject untouched that might affect employees. This includes discussions about our build schedule and the analysis of what future market trends might do for the demand for our equipment.

“The newsletter or a special communiqué would even address any possibilities of having to release employees, should market conditions ever indicate that type of action might be necessary.” says Tigges. “An additional management report on the dollar amount of outstanding quotes is included, as well as our current month's executed order numbers. Everyone is involved in the health of the company, and everyone gets an idea of where we stand.”

Tigges says that senior executives and department heads agree that the very open efforts at internal communications have been partially responsible for the company's success.

“The company can react faster and more efficiently to market conditions because of the company-wide communication practices that are in place,” says Norris. “Reacting swiftly to volatile market conditions with little lead time helps the company maintain profitability.

Sales Expedience

“On the sales side, we have regional managers who oversee our national dealer network, along with our sales efforts that are aimed at OEM and national accounts who will only purchase directly from the manufacturer,” Norris says. “On the manufacturing side, we build custom units and stock units that we manufacture for our dealers. Dealers do stock some basic service body models for customer's emergency needs.”

Maintainer focuses on the heavy-duty custom body market niche. “We don't go after low margin, mass order business what we call ‘cookie cutter’ body business,” says Norris. “Once a customer has executed an order, we want to turn the product out as soon as possible. Our ability to communicate internally at a very effective level helps us to be responsive in rapidly completing the order in an accurate fashion.”

Internal communication is a paramount factor in keeping the manufacturing side balanced with the sales side of the business, says Norris. Regular meetings are held between departments to assure that specs and quality standards are met.

Meetings between department heads coordinate the workflow to ensure that sales commitments are kept, and the equipment is delivered to customers as promised, says Tigges.

“We have reviewed many of our formal systems of communications,” says Tigges. “For example, communication between the departments needed to process a customer's order can be confusing. This can cause excess materials to be ordered or other problems to occur. Our system is effective in building the body in exactly the way the customer requests without waste in material or labor.”

Maintainer's order process system is straightforward. The initial sales quote, which is reviewed by the customer, is translated into a working line drawing. Maintainer provides the customer with the line drawing and confirms the chassis specifications before the customer issues a purchase order. When the customer purchases the chassis directly from a dealer, or an older truck chassis is going to be used, Maintainer issues a written confirmation to confirm specifications of the chassis.

After the order is executed, engineering creates a design packet that has a shop work order authorizing the manufacturing process to begin. The completed design packet is sent to the purchasing department, which manages the materials inventory for Maintainer. The company keeps a close watch on the material.

“We do everything possible to cut time out of the manufacturing equation,” Tigges says. “If we can possibly cut several days from the build-out time by adding a few hours during the engineering process, it seems like a good trade.”

The order then follows the manufacturing route to be completed by a specified date.

On the Right Track

Contractors and heavy equipment distributors purchase many of Maintainer's bodies. In many cases, Maintainer equipment will piggyback on a large end-use machinery order.

Norris is particularly proud of this fact. Before joining Maintainer, Norris spent much of his career in the heavy equipment industry. His office walls are bulleted with photographs of his tenure in the heavy equipment industry. “I was with WABCO's construction and mining equipment division for a number of years. I enjoy dealing with the industry contacts that I have made over numerous years. I especially like it when we are able to put our product in one of their operations.”

Norris enjoys the company's ability to customize its bodies and satisfy customers. “We've got an unbelievably loyal customer base,” Norris says. “That's a great feeling of accomplishment, which is shared by the entire company.”

Tom Wibben, Maintainer's sales and service manager, is responsible for the field sales force, dealer network, and aftermarket service. “Heavy equipment distributors and contractors are a major part of our markets,” says Wibben. “They require dependable service and lubrication vehicles to keep production equipment running with maximum uptime. We provide the equipment to get the field service job done quickly and efficiently.

“Some of our greatest challenges have been in meeting the demands of the job requirements and a foreign country's vehicle needs, such as charging system requirements.” Wibben explains that some vehicles have needed complete electrical system changes.

“We have sent a number of trucks to China for the Three Gorges Dam project,” Wibben says. “When completed, this will be the largest dam in the world, stretching over 1.5 miles to cover the Yangtze River.” Lightheartedly, Wibben claims, “They probably need both service and lubrication trucks on both sides of the Yangtze.”

Some of the changes that have been designed into the bodies include changing the electrical system to a 24-volt, positive ground from a 12-volt, negative ground system. Special air filters and lighting systems also have been required. “For one order that was going to Russia, we had to design a heating system for all of the tool and supply compartments.”

Spartan Beginnings

From its beginnings in 1976, the company's founders recognized the need for service bodies designed for repairing equipment in the field. It all started with the BMT (Basic MainTainer) body. “We called it a shop-on-wheels,” says Tigges. “From that point forward, we have tried to be an innovator when it comes to service and lubrication bodies and accessories.”

Demand increased for the product as customer needs became more sophisticated.

In 1979, the company designed its first 6,000-lb capacity, fully hydraulic telescoping boom crane for its one-ton service body. The body, fitted with a workbench bumper design, proved to be a great success.

The success of the one-ton crane and body combination eventually led to the development of a two-ton chassis version in 1981. This body met with considerable success and incorporated an 8,000-lb capacity, full hydraulic telescoping boom crane for increased load-lifting ability.

Tigges says that the next big step for the company was the development of a two-ton class lubrication body. “The first fluid dispensing system that Maintainer utilized was air-operated. With the success of that product, Maintainer introduced an improved fully hydraulic dispensing system that provided greater discharge rates without the moisture issues associated with air-pumped systems.

“The company's hydraulic crane models now range from a 3,500-lb model all the way to a 14,000-lb model,” Tigges says. “We also offer a 2,000-lb, 12-volt electric crane model designed for applications requiring light lifting assistance.”

Maintainer has been actively manufacturing skid and trailer-mounted lubrication systems since 1988. These can provide a long-term solution for projects requiring on-site fueling and lubrication as well as providing greater mobility than a stationary gravity-fed fueling system. These highly mobile units also add a factor of convenience when it's time for their own tanks to be refilled with fluids.

How Do They Do It

Maintainer has built and expanded its manufacturing facility in concert with its growth pattern. “In 1989, the current facility was constructed to consolidate all of our operations under one roof,” says Tigges. “When the land and existing buildings were purchased at that time, we also considered a long-term growth pattern that the company would follow.

“Thus, at the time of purchase, we were able to add 15,000 square feet to the existing 13,500-sq-ft structure that was purchased. Then in 1998, we added in excess of 12,500 square feet of manufacturing space and 3,900 square feet of office space.”

Maintainer is situated on one of the main arteries in Iowa. The facility is located on an 11-acre tract that provides a visible storefront location. The land tract has ample room for further expansion.

Maintainer's manufacturing operation is tooled in a consistent manner with comparable manufacturing operations of the same size. The plant space is well appointed for the type of bodies that Maintainer builds.

“We think of ourselves as custom manufacturers,” says Gary Hibma, Maintainer's national sales manager. “When you walk around the plant, you'll see the parts actually being crafted for the body that the technicians are building at that time. If a certain size tool/storage compartment is needed in the design packet, then the steel sheet will already have been cut and formed by the shear and brake teams and ready for crafting by the technicians.”

The manufacturing area has two bridge cranes that serve the technicians including a 10-ton Whiting. Additionally, several jib cranes range from 1/2 to 1 ton in capacity.

“All of the raw materials are stored inside because of the harsh climatic conditions in Iowa,” Hibma says. “We ask that everything shipped be wrapped to protect against corrosion.”

When materials are needed, they are pulled from the storage areas and sent to the cutting and forming area. Hibma points to a Hyd-Mech model 2000, 18-inch band saw and a 16-inch Well-Saw, band saw. Both saws have feed conveyors that can handle any standard-sized bundle of material.

Maintainer uses a 1997 Standard Industrial plate shear. “This will handle a 12-foot width, which is just right for the bodies that we work on,” Hibma says.

“Our press brakes get a lot of work because we make so many items that are formed into compartments for the bodies.” Maintainer uses two Cincinnati press brakes. A 1997 model will handle a 14-foot plate and can produce 230 tons of force for forming operations. A 2001 model will accept a 12-foot plate and can produce 135 tons of force for forming and punching operations.

Ironworking machines are important at Maintainer because of the intricacies of the metal working that the bodies require. A 55-ton Mubea and a 30-ton Strippitt handle most of the punching and notching needs of Maintainer, says Hibma.

Maintainer utilizes a strategic partnership with its sister company, Link Manufacturing, to provide high-resolution plasma cutting for some of the parts used in the manufacturing of the crane systems.

“We manufacture our truck-mounted crane in-house,” says Hibma. “Nevertheless, when some special machining-tooling is required, it's just practical to form a partnership with a company that has the specific tooling or capability that you need.”

Maintainer also has a Bridgeport and a Rockwell mill that are very useful in the manufacturing of pins and bushings as well as special parts. A LaBlond lathe is utilized primarily in the manufacturing of specialized parts.

The Manufacturing Process

“Because we are a custom builder, we have to adapt very quickly to customer specifications,” says Hibma. “Some bodies with a simpler design will move through the manufacturing steps quicker than other bodies. We also realize that not all bodies will have the same dimensions, or compartment layout.”

Hibma says Maintainer uses a mixture of both line and bay manufacturing. The line manufacturing technique is more effective for bodies that have a more common manufacturing process, while the bay manufacturing process lends itself extremely well for bodies requiring specialized manufacturing processes. The manufacturing process begins after all of the required material has been prepared.

Major component groups are added to the subframe, forming the basic body design. Adding a rear bumper to the subframe can be an extensive part of the body design on a service body.

“A lot of fabricating goes on during this part of the manufacturing process,” Hibma says. “As an example, a body with an attached crane will require special bracing. This would be the time to add any specially constructed items that will be used in the storage compartments. For example, an interior compartment welding machine can be added at this time.”

Any underbody hydraulics also would be added to the body. “When the body starts looking like a body, and we get all the hydraulic plumbing in place, then it's time to add the crane. The whole thing really starts to look like something that will be put on the back of a chassis.

“By now the cabinets are in place with all the door hardware in working condition,” says Hibma. “If the truck is going to be equipped with a crane, that will be installed by this time. The crane is fully tested before it is installed. Nevertheless, it will go through several checks after it's installed on the truck. A quality control check is performed on the entire unit before the body heads to the finish preparation area.”

Close Fit, Good Finish

At this point, the body is ready for an intense washing procedure to prepare it for priming and painting. “We remove all the grease and grime from the metal, plus any welding spatter. We also check for burs and other types of sharp edges. Then the body is put through several high pressure washes, followed by a phosphate bath. This preps the surface of the body for painting.”

The finish is applied to the body using a 1998 JBI paint booth and separate bake oven. After applying the finish with Graco spray guns working from two gallon DeVelbis pots, the bodies are baked at a constant 132°F.

The body is also undercoated with a non-polymer rust-preventive finish. “If a customer requests it, we will perform a special hot spray process that will undercoat the body with another layer of specially formulated polymer, rust preventive,” says Hibma.

The completed unit is inspected for blemishes, defects, and paint mill thickness. “This is where the paint department group leader and his crew begin a thorough inspection of the unit,” says Hibma. “If there are any finish issues, this is the time to find them. We would never knowingly send a unit out with a paint blemish. That just sends a bad quality signal out the door. That's why this inspection is so important.”

After the unit passes the paint finish inspection, then any additionally required bolt-on items are installed. “If we need to add an air compressor in the bed or a generator, this is the time that we will complete that installation.” Then the body is mated with the customer's chassis or shipped out for field installation.

“After all options and accessories are installed, the body and chassis are decaled according to customer's preferences,” says Himba. “We add our decals and then the final inspection begins.

“We have a final overall review team inspection (FORT). A team consisting of at least one person from engineering, sales, and manufacturing reviews every completed unit whether mated to a chassis or body only. After the FORT inspection, the unit is readied for customer pick-up or ship-out.”


Norris says that the FORT inspection is a vitally important tool in addressing one of the company's key goals; “We want to delight our customers not just please them. That's what we constantly work to achieve.”

There isn't any doubt that the communications level at Maintainer promotes a seamless manufacturing environment in order to meet the exacting demands of a customer who is buying a custom-built product. All of the manufacturing skills at Maintainer are focused on the job because effective communications allow departments to overcome problems and complete the task of manufacturing a quality product for their customers.

About the Author

John Nahas