Trailmobile's New Reefer Trailer PlantFinds the Beef in Southwestern Kansas

Aug. 1, 1999
Trailmobile Corporation officially opened its new $22-million refrigerated trailer assembly plant in Southwestern Kansas May 25. It more than doubles

Trailmobile Corporation officially opened its new $22-million refrigerated trailer assembly plant in Southwestern Kansas May 25. It more than doubles Trailmobile's plant capacity for refrigerated trailers.

This 235,000-sq-ft building on a 50-acre site is designed as an assembly plant, not a manufacturing plant. In fact, Edward Wanandi, chairman of Trailmobile, challenged suppliers attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony to set up satellite plants in the area to supply major components such as completed bogie assemblies or completely assembled landing gear and bracketry. Other major components such as the completely welded and primed upper coupler assembly and welded frame members for the rear door frame are being supplied by Trailmobile's large manufacturing plant in Charleston, Illinois.

Clean Air The Kansas plant specializes in the manufacture of the completely insulated van trailers, and this high-tech foaming operation is not compatible with high-volume welding operations that generate a lot of smoke and soot. Cleanliness is important in the foaming operation, especially when trying to get good adhesion between the polyurethane and the metal skins or FRP interior lining, says Wolfgang Graaff, vice-president, engineering and operations at Trailmobile. "We want to do as little welding as possible inside the plant," Graaff says.

Graaff brings a European perspective to Trailmobile's engineering team. He was at the forefront of European development of higher density foam and thinwall vans having good insulation efficiency. The polyurethane foam being used in Trailmobile's current production is the normal two-pound density, but new products under development may use higher density foam, Graaff says.

Automatic Dimensioning The new Kansas plant has a higher degree of automation in foaming individual sidewalls and ceiling panels and in assembling the insulated van. For example, the two sidewall foaming presses, the roof foaming press, and the presses for completed front ends and for rear doors are all controlled automatically for three dimensions: length, height, and thickness.

The Con-Tek machine foaming presses are heated, and all components are at the same temperature. That is, the temperature inside the plant is controlled at 68* to 70* F year around, and all materials are stored inside. Bulk tanks for the isocyanate and polyol are kept at a cooler 65* temperature, but these ingredients are brought up to the 68-70* temperature when they are pumped from the bulk tanks to the day tanks on the mezzanine above the foaming presses. These foam chemicals are pumped continuously through the lines and are water-cooled to maintain constant temperatures.

The sidewall riveting presses are controlled by computer, and they include automatic rivet feeding between hole punching and rivet upsetting. The three-head welding machine for the reefer flooring is likewise under computer control, and it is expandable to four or five welding heads to speed the seam-welding operation. All drilling of bolt holes for the rear door hardware is likewise CNC-controlled in the door assembly jig.

Automatic Line Movement The assembly line for insulated vans is set up to move automatically as soon as all the "ready buttons" for all the stations have been pushed. The computer will monitor the time each station requires to complete its job so that any station with slow-completion problems can be spotted quickly. The automatic features of the assembly line are in place but not in operation yet during the ramp-up phase and while training the hundreds of new employees required for this start-up plant. When fully implemented, the insulated van assembly line is expected to move on about a 30-minute cycle time.

Sidewall handling inside the plant is simplified by having two sidewall assembly lines. Two side-by-side automatic hole punching and rivet-setting presse s avoid having to turn panels to line up properly for left or right sides. Two foaming presses keep the right-side and left-side sidewalls lined up. Sidewall panels travel through the presses riding on pallets that are actually FRP-plywood sandwich panels similar to sidewalls for FRP-plywood trailers. The pallets protect the skin-side-down sidewall from damage when riding over conveyor wheels and when under pressure in the press.

The sidewall assembly lines start at one end of the 1,000-ft-long plant, and floor assembly starts at the other end. The lines meet in the middle of the plant where the sidewalls are mounted on the foam insulated floor assembly. This means the sidewalls and roof reverse direction in the middle of the plant, while the floor assembly continues in the same direction.

Rivetless Core Rail As is normal when assembling pre-insulated sidewalls, roof panel, and floor assembly, the small space in the joints between foam panels must be injected with more polyurethane foam to fill and seal the joint. This is done with a needle nozzle through small holes drilled in the two-piece upper siderail and the lower siderail.

The Trailmobile assembly differs from the modern standard method by using a rivetless cove rail. The snap-in-place cove needs no rivets or only a few rivets to hold it in place until the injected foam bonds it into place.

The last stations on the drag-chain assembly line include an automatic brush washing stand for the sidewalls and roof followed by a drying booth. The soap and water wash removes any dirt and also serves as a leak detection during the final inspection. When the inspection checklist and any corrections are completed, the trailer is pulled outside the plant. For refrigeration unit mounting or decal mounting, the trailer is pulled into a stall into the rear of the plant. Five stalls are set aside for reefer unit mounting and two stalls for decaling.

Dry Van Start-up Training While the Liberal plant was designed originally for production of refrigerated trailers, a dry freight van capability was added to gain market flexibility and to train new workers. All of the new workers hired locally had never built a truck trailer, so a great deal of training was required. Therefore, initial production was on dry freight vans to gain experience. Some of the first employees had been transferred temporarily to Trailmobile's Charleston, Illinois, plant for training before production started in Kansas.

By June, production was up to 10 dry freight vans and two reefers a day, using a workforce of 350. Eventual capacity is expected to be 25 to 30 refrigerated vans a day, and employment is anticipated at 450 on two shifts, Wanandi said at the official opening. By comparison, the Charleston plant has capacity for 18 reefers a day, in addition to dry freight vans.

Jay Nieszel, president of Trailmobile, explained how the new refrigerated trailer plant came about. The need for more refrigerated van capacity was discussed in a 1996 strategy meeting, following the successful opening in 1994 of Trailmobile's large-order dry freight van plant in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Sales of Trailmobile refrigerated vans were focused on the food and grocery markets, and the company did not have enough capacity to expand the long-haul or truckload segments of the reefer market.

At the same time, the city of Liberal (20,000 population) was looking for more diversification from the oil and gas industry and meat packing plants. >From Trailmobile's viewpoint, the meat packing industry was attractive. Its new plant site is on the same street as the National Beef Plant that fills some 80 to 100 refrigerated trailers a day. IBP and Farmland slaughtering plants in Garden City, Kansas, 66 miles north, have similar capacity. Guymon, Oklahoma, just 40 miles southwest, kills hogs in even greater numbers. Dodge City, Kansas, and the Texas Panhandle have other slaughtering plants. Many of the incoming trucks are empty, available to haul inbound materials for Trailmobile.

However, the meat packing industry is so successful that now a labor shortage exists in Liberal. Trailmobile is having to hire from as far as 60 miles to find qualified people. Hiring from outside the area is difficult because of the shortage of rental housing in Liberal.

One of the most successful worker recruitment efforts was a Trailmobile Job Fair that was staged on a weekend. Over 500 job seekers toured the plant and saw the air-conditioned working conditions. Of the applicants at this job fair, over 225 have already been accepted for employment, said Nieszel.

The new plant is expected to reach its capacity of 25 to 30 refrigerated trailers in about a year, Neiszel said.

About the Author

Paul Schenck | Senior Editor