A Sea Of Yellow

Nov. 1, 2001
IF you stand near one end of the new International Bus Vehicle Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the building would appear to end somewhere in the suburb of

IF you stand near one end of the new International Bus Vehicle Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the building would appear to end somewhere in the suburb of Broken Arrow.

The building is almost one mile long, with International's portion of the space stretching for 4,000 feet. If you wanted to create an end-to-end line using International's longest bus, you'd need 100 buses.

The company needed a plant this cavernous because it is the first to be built solely for the production of the International IC school bus, the industry's first integrated conventional school bus that combines assembly of the chassis and the bus body, in a continuous operation, under one roof.

“The customer doesn't have to go to two different companies and say, ‘Who's responsible?’” says Dwight Zeman, release management coordinator. “We've got it all here. If it was built here, we did it. There's no pointing. We built this facility for that reason and this product for that reason. We've had several tours come through here, and I've talked to customers about our integrated philosophy. They really like the idea that there aren't separate body and chassis facilities.”

International Truck and Engine Corp is the operating company of Navistar International Corp, which is headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Warrenville, and had sales and revenue of $8.5 billion in 2000. International Truck and Engine is a leading producer of mid-range diesel engines, medium trucks, school buses, heavy trucks, severe service vehicles, and parts and services sold under the International brand by a large dealer and distribution organization. The company also is a private label designer and manufacturer of diesel engines for the pickup truck, van, and SUV markets.

Tulsa operations manager Grant Pick says International, a leader in school bus chassis since 1916, now has 60% of the market on chassis and 34% on bodies, and the goal is to increase the market share for bodies to 50% or 60%.

“We want to get to the point where if they get their chassis from us, they get the body from us, too,” Pick says. “If our quality is that good, they'd want our complete product, including the International engine.”

Inside the massive facility — it's more than 13 football fields long and more than three football fields wide, with 85-foot-high ceilings — more than 350 employees are producing 17 buses a day after opening in April. The company expects to produce 30 a day by next February — a feasible number, given that it expects to have more than 500 employees by then, and will have worked out any kinks in the new building's production process.

“People who have been to other bus plants generally say this plant is the most awesome one they've seen,” Pick says. “It's hard to believe this plant's 59 years old.”

A Link to Bombers

The history of the facility is a fascinating slice of Americana.

It was finished 19 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Douglas Aircraft Company began operations on land adjacent to the municipal airport that the city had purchased in 1940. During World War II, the plant was used to assemble aircraft — including B-24 Liberator bombers, TBM Avengers, and A-26 attack bombers — for the Army Air Corps.

The Tulsa plant produced a significant portion of the 18,000 Liberators built during World War II. Liberators were used for bombing, naval reconnaissance, antisubmarine warfare, and transport, but primarily for bombing in the Pacific.

The plant was used for storage from 1945 to 1950, when it was reactivated for the manufacture of B-47 Stratojets. In 1962, Rockwell International began leasing 30% of the plant to manufacture aerospace products, with the remaining 70% used by McDonnell Douglas for maintenance of military and commercial aircraft and the manufacturing of aircraft components. McDonnell Douglas terminated its lease in June 1994, but Rockwell stayed.

The city of Tulsa became the primary tenant in September 1994, subleasing 20% to Rockwell, leaving 80% unused. Additional space was subleased to Rockwell, now Boeing, for airfreight and warehousing operations. International Truck and Engine acquired the property from the city in December 1999.

“The city gave us $5 million to take over this building, and we're leasing it for $1 a year for 40 years,” Pick says. “But the initial wave of economics for the city was huge. When you bring in 60 crews to set everything up, and they have 40 to 50 guys, there are over 500 people in the plant at any given time — all outside contractors. That lasted from November 1, 2000, to January 22, 2001. So I think the $5 million was returned to the city pretty early.

“It's kind of a win-win situation for International, which was looking in Mississippi and Kentucky. We're not really close to our suppliers. But with the offer and the building perfectly designed for bus building, this was the place.”

There is an interesting historical tie between International and the facility: The Pratt and Whitney radial engines for the bombers were manufactured at a facility in Melrose Park, Illinois, that is now owned by International Truck and Engine Corp and used to manufacture DT 466 engines for the International IC school bus.

“So it's kind of like, ‘From bombers to buses,’” Pick says.

Production Capacity Improvements

Starting with an unobstructed plant floor, International had the advantage of being able to design the facility, tools, and procedures with an emphasis on lean manufacturing process control, product consistency, and quality. A team of International experts with over 300 combined years of vehicle manufacturing experience came in and instituted the following production capacity improvements:

  • The chassis and body are built under one roof in a continuously linked and coordinated assembly line — integrated construction. There is no cross-country transportation or outdoor storage of bare chassis, which International says is a first in the conventional (Type C) bus market.

  • The chassis-body assembly line length is increased over previous facilities to provide continuous flow of components and installation processes and to provide more time at each station.

  • State-of-the-art automated paint facility is 800 feet long. Valspar, International's paint supplier, paid half of the cost. Body paint is applied with track-mounted controlled reciprocating sprayers. The paint is cured in radiant (heat) wall ovens — a process that provides consistent cure rates and avoids contamination of the paint surface because of low air-flow rates in the ovens. Hoods and rub rails are painted with computer-controlled robot sprayers.

    The frame rails, fuel tank, and cage are powder-coated, and the completed frame assembly is given an overall paint finish after assembly, providing the maximum in frame-corrosion protection.

    An articulating arm paints the buses yellow. The next stage for many of the buses produced in Tulsa is a station that paints a white roof. (The Southern states, in particular, prefer it because it reflects a greater portion of the sun's rays.) After that, robots paint the rub rails.

    The workers who apply the undercoating have a tough job. Sometime in the future, International might expand the paint booth and install stationary jets that apply the undercoat.

    How different can a bus be? Very different. There are 286 different programs in the painting process.

  • Sophisticated roll-form equipment produces side sheets, floor panels, rub rails, and other items. The equipment is located directly at the point of installation on the body-assembly line.

  • Automated robotic welding systems for the floor, sills, and seat frames.

  • The seat frames are formed with computer numerical controlled (CNC) bending machines that provide improved consistency in frame strength and shape.

  • Computer-controlled nut runners for wheel-nut and frame-bolt installation, ensuring consistent torque control on critical fasteners.

  • The chassis frame is assembled in a special squaring fixture, ensuring that the foundation of the bus assembly is straight, square, and flat.

  • 156 jigs are used in the subassemblies. Each fixture can be locked in after any adjustment is made by removing or adding shims to these special fixtures.

  • The engine, transmission, and cooling-system components are preassembled into a module before installation in the chassis. This process provides assemblers with better access to critical fasteners and coolant-hose connections for consistent assembly and freedom from leaks.

The Plant's Layout

The main line of the manufacturing floor is 2,500' from start to finish and includes 60 stations on a raised pedestal conveyor system. Every bus body moves with a “traveler” — paperwork that lists material shortages on one side and quality concerns on the other, along with floor plans and a features list. Each team leader signs a “responsibility card” in his area, signifying that the quality is good.

Most of the equipment is mounted overhead, minimizing the clutter on the floor and the chance of injury. International spent $45 million for new equipment and processes.

The building was designed with lean manufacturing concepts. To reduce material handling, on-site warehouses feed the various production areas. International also installed seven docks so suppliers can deliver directly to the point of use. That means the company needs to operate only 25 forklifts, reducing the number of movements, and therefore, the congestion that typically permeates an operation of this size. Less inventory is required and less warehouse space is occupied.

The work shift consists of a four-day week at 10 hours a day. Pick says jobs are rotated, which provides ergonomic relief for some of the workers — particularly bucklers, who stand inside the bus and place a solid metal hammer against the rivet, mushrooming it and locking it into place. There are 2,500 rivets between the drip rail and what goes on the ceiling.

“You may be a welder, but in the same breath, you may be a welder, electrician, gluer, riveter,” Pick says. “We've only got one assembly-line classification in the whole plant. Then we have material people and maintenance people.”

International has ordered a roof-bow driller that will travel with the bus bodies and peck holes. It will find the bow ultrasonically and drill a hole every inch, from the top inwards, as opposed to a person doing it and then having to burnish it out.

“When you peck from the inside out, you have a burr that you have to smooth out,” Pick says. “You need teamwork. You get a rhythm and pattern going. There's a buckler underneath and a riveter on top. You do that 10 hours a day and you're pretty tired.”

Mobile Chassis

In the production of chassis, actually a large module, International tries to complete a unit one day before it needs to mount a body on it. The frame rails come from Venezuela, the axles from Dana, the automatic transmissions from Allison, the engines from the sister plants in Melrose Park, Illinois, and Indianapolis, and the fuel tanks from Springfield, Ohio.

“One of the things we have — and it's a condition of our design — is a chassis that is mobile and drivable,” Zeman says. “That was one of our design concerns. If it's not drivable, then we have no way of moving it. All the electrical aspects and the power come from that, and we've got to get it to the body.”

There are seven different wheelbases (276" is the longest), and International puts 33 different body lengths on those, with seating ranging from 28 to 71.

After the body is attached to the chassis, workers hook up the heater and instrument panels. After that, the bus is inspected for leaks, moisture, seepage, with particular attention paid to preventing rust from the inside out. The buses are taken through a station with a rigorous water test, then on to green zones where notations or repairs are made. After passing through Pre-Delivery Inspection, they are cleared to be transported back to the schools by drivers.

It all started in 1999, when Tulsa was selected as the second manufacturing site for the production of the International IC, joining Conway, Arkansas. (Conway is an assembly plant that is becoming more of a fabrication shop. All luggage boxes and bows are made there, so many of the subassemblies are finished there. There are no press brakes or plate shears in Tulsa — Conway has those.)

In January 2000, International placed an advertisement in the Tulsa World newspaper. By 1 pm the first day, over 1,000 people had called the toll-free number to inquire about a job. International narrowed the number by doing a phone screen and two-hour computer test. The ones who passed through that stage were invited to the plant, where they were interviewed and were asked to complete a door-building test, given only written instructions. After those tests, they hired over 350 employees out of the 440-applicant base.

Each new hire undergoes a 40-hour “assimilation process” to learn the culture, safety, quality, and supply systems and processes of a school bus manufacturing facility. By the end of this year, they will have completed 6,000 instructional hours.

Team Resources

Manufacturing business teams for body and chassis are set up to include the following resources to run each area: manufacturing team leaders, product engineer, quality team leader, maintenance team leader, warehouse team leader, and financial analyst.

Twenty-five retired International supervisors were hired from Springfield, Ohio, and Chatham, Ontario, Canada, and sent to the Conway plant for a six-month evaluation. The basic question that had to be answered: How can we take what we have in Conway and improve on it?

“Those 25 guys made it almost turn-key here,” Pick says. “Everything was pretty much in place.”

Ten International retirees with over 300 combined years of manufacturing and engineering experience collaborated with Tulsa employees to help with the design process, the assimilation process, and the development of visual aids and process sheets.

A quality plan is in place to secure QS 9000 Certification next year. Through this plan, employees will analyze quality data from the weekly top five quality issues during chassis manufacturing, an audit of 386 units from a major customer's fleet, identification of quality issues by management team, and mature warranty data.

“To put this into perspective, there are about 350 people in the plant, and less than a year ago, not one of them probably had ever had anything to do with building a bus,” Pick says. “We brought five people from Conway. Everybody else was new to the process. So the importance of having written processes and visual aids was super important in starting up a company like this. And with over 500 buses in the field, the feedback has been very favorable.”

Providing Value

International is targeting customer value by utilizing design and construction concepts in Tulsa in these categories:

  • Driver comfort/retention: A patented integrated crossing arm is built into the bumper as standard equipment, which will help guide students into the drivers' line of sight. A patented ergonomically designed linear door opener surrounds the instrument panel to help reduce driver fatigue and improve performance. The door opener has been designed with the assistance of physical therapists to minimize repetitive movement problems. The accelerator, brake pedals, and switch panel were redesigned for optimum operation.

  • Enhanced visibility: The hood profile is five inches lower to bring the forward sightline closer to the driver. The driver's position has been moved forward, upward and closer to the outboard side to provide an additional eight feet of visibility, also improving the driver's sightline on both sides of the bus. The windshield is 23% larger, giving the driver a more commanding view of the road.

  • Balance of performance: The IC comes equipped with the International T44E engine or the DT466 six-cylinder diesel. The fast warm-up device on the T444E helps the engine develop more heat in less time for superior body heater performance in cold climates.

  • Increased rider comfort: A 3' wide entry door, which International says is the largest in the industry, and a wide three-step entryway provide a large entrance and exit path for riders and a clear view of the curb for the driver.

Based on International's “Q” reputation and the world economic picture, the plan is to ultimately expand production to 60 units a day.

So a large operation could get even larger.

In the end, though, the primary object isn't necessarily to produce more buses as much as it is to produce a consistently good product.

As Zeman stands next to a long row of completed buses, his eyes move from unit to unit.

“We really don't want anyone to be able to pick out the difference between these buses,” he says.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.