Union City Body Company Plans Future Growth With New Management Philosophy

Aug. 1, 1998
AFTER Andrew Taitz purchased Union City Body Company in 1992 and returned it to profitability from bankruptcy, he decided to reestablish the company as

AFTER Andrew Taitz purchased Union City Body Company in 1992 and returned it to profitability from bankruptcy, he decided to reestablish the company as a builder of thousands of walk-in vans rather than a small-order manufacturer.

"We want to mirror the auto industry," says Alan Farash, director of engineering at Union City Body Company in Union City, Indiana.

Union City is returning to its roots during its 100 year anniversary, says Rick Laney, marketing director at Union City Body Company. In 1898, Union City Body Company began building horse-drawn carriages in Union City on the Ohio state line near Muncie, Indiana.

Major changes are being implemented to return Union City to its roots as a manufacturer of mass orders for walk-in vans, Laney says. The company no longer builds whatever a customer requests without first considering how it will affect the entire production process.

"We have to be smarter about the options we offer," Farash says. "We're reevaluating everything and asking ourselves how can we do it better.

"We have to change the philosophy of the company and institutionalize these changes throughout the corporation. That's what we're charged with."

Automotive-Grade Manufacturing Taitz hired Farash from Ford Powertrain Operations where he was an engineer and program manager in Detroit, Michigan. Part of the reason for hiring Farash was to modernize and streamline the production and assembly line process at Union City.

In its heyday from 1940 to 1990, Union City derived most of its work from a contract to build Step Vans for General Motors Corporation, Farash says. Up to 1,700 employees built the forward-control vans made of aluminum sheet, posts, and extrusions. The vans are mounted on chassis built by General Motors, Chevrolet, Freightliner, and Navistar.

"We're trying to change the mindset at Union City so that all the employees realize better ways exist to design and build trucks," Farash says. "The technology associated with building this truck is 30 to 40 years old."

Union City is incorporating the newest technology in the design and manufacturing processes for its walk-in van, he says. Engineers at Union City use SDRC AutoCAD software to design walk-in vans. The software has three-dimensional presentation and modeling capabilities.

A pattern room designs and builds assembly fixtures and assists the engineering department with building pilot vehicles, Farash says. Union City uses a concept of concurrent engineering that involves a design and manufacturing group working together. This ensures a product can be manufactured.

"Customers such as bakery and linen companies that order hundreds of trucks have functional requirements we must meet," Farash says. "Our company exists because of variations in doors and racking systems."

Building UPS Vans A separate engineering group designs walk-in vans for United Parcel Service (UPS), Farash says. Because of the strike against UPS in 1997, Union City was asked to spread its build schedule through the 1998 production year.

Currently, the UPS group is working on changes for the 1999 model year walk-in vans, he says. Union City builds each part of UPS trucks except for the fiberglass hoods and roofs, which are purchased from a supplier.

Some truck body manufacturers fail to address the needs of these fleet customers, Farash says. Union City is offering truck fleets customization that is cost effective and does not interfere greatly with the production process.

The company is incorporating option offerings into its assembly line, he says. Previously, trucks were sent to a special equipment area for installation of options ordered by customers. Union City is standardizing available options to reduce the complexities in the vehicle assembly process.

"The assembly line is being adapted so custom work can be completed on-line where it is more cost-effective rather than rerouting vehicles to an area for installation of special equipment," Farash says.

Each model year, chassis manufacturers make minor changes to their vehicles, he says. Major changes are made to chassis every four or five years.

The task of coordinating chassis changes with body changes falls on Union City, Farash says. The manufacturer often has a supply of hundreds of chassis to manufacture its walk-in vans.

"From when the order is taken to delivery, we have a two-week turnaround time if the chassis is in stock," says Farash.

Continuous Improvement Union City builds 48 to 50 walk-in vans a day in its 200,000-sq-ft plant two miles from the company's corporate offices, Laney says. In each area of manufacturing, Union City has continuous quality improvement teams with decision-making authority.

"We're driving decision-making down within the employee ranks," says Duane Dostie, director of manufacturing at Union City. "Employees and group leaders on the plant floor make decisions about how customer specifications can best be met so they're not waiting for someone to tell them what to do."

Dostie credits the quality improvement teams with reducing the overall number of vehicle defects, he says. Since Taitz purchased the company, Union City has decreased the number of defects from 18 to 1.72 minor defects per vehicle.

Vehicle defects fall into the categories of service defects, safety defects, and cosmetic defects, Dostie says. In a recent accounting, Union City found zero safety and service defects in the vehicles inspected. The cosmetic defects found were minor problems such as dirt on the floor of a vehicle or a paint run on a rivet.

"Safety and service defects are unacceptable," Dostie says.

Cosmetic defects are often quickly remedied before the walk-in van leaves the production plant, he says. If defects are found, it is at the end of the production, paint, or final inspection lines.

Solving Problems One of the most serious defects identified and corrected after Taitz bought Union City was with the wiring harness in the walk-in van, Dostie says. The company solved the wiring harness problem by replacing a field splice with a joint made in the factory.

"Basically, we reengineered the electrical system of the vehicle," Laney says.

Since 1950 when Union City introduced the walk-in van, the company estimates it has built 500,000 of the vehicles, Laney says. Union City claims to be the largest independent producer in the United States of aluminum walk-in van bodies.

Today, the company has 1,500 customers including large fleets such as Airborne Express, Aramark, Federal Express, Frito-Lay, the US Government, and UPS. Competition for this business is intense but limited to a few companies such as Northrop Grumman in Sturgis, Michigan, and Carpenter Industries in Richmond, Indiana.

Following Taitz purchase of Union City, sales have increased 200%, Laney says. To shore up profits and provide a steady workflow, Union City acquired other companies in 1997 to diversify its product offering.

Union City acquired Centennial Body, a manufacturer of beverage truck bodies; Atlas Body, a manufacturer of refrigerated van trailers; and Nationwide Fleet Services, a company that repairs and sells truck bodies and trailers.

"We're expanding beyond just the walk-in van business," Laney says. "Our efforts are focused on building a strong future for Union City and its employees."

About the Author

Mark Nutter