Crossing the Border

Aug. 1, 2006
FOR decades, Intercontinental Truck Body has made a name for itself with its distinctive snap-together approach to van body manufacturing.

FOR decades, Intercontinental Truck Body has made a name for itself with its distinctive snap-together approach to van body manufacturing.

With plants in Canada's three westernmost provinces, Intercontinental was in a good position to serve western Canada and the northwest portion of the United States. But in recent years, American van manufacturers have opened plants in the northwest U S. Anticipating that such moves would cut into their market, management decided the time was right to head south.

The company opened its U S affiliate — TriVan Truck Body LLC — and built a plant from which to operate.

“Major companies were moving close to the Pacific Northwest and were able to serve the van body market in British Columbia,” says Marty VanDriel, president of TriVan. “We knew we had to do something in order to remain competitive.”

The result is TriVan, a company owned by (and named after) the three major shareholder families: the VanDriel brothers, the VanSeters brothers, and the VanDyke family. When you are in the van body business, it helps to have Dutch surnames.

Specifically, the company is owned by Cason, Ryan and Marty VanDriel; Aren VanDyke and son-in-law Jan Kottelenberg; brothers Arie, Peter and J.R. VanSeters and cousins Casey VanSeters and Harold Vriend.

ITB chose the TriVan name for the U S operation because another company in the U S already was using the Intercontinental Truck Body name.

In starting the new company, the families did not venture deep into the U S. They chose to locate TriVan in Ferndale, Washington, less than 30 miles from Surrey, British Columbia, and Intercontinental Truck Body's westernmost plant. Some TriVan employees — Intercontinental Truck Body veterans — continue to live in the Vancouver suburb and commute to their new jobs in the United States.

Getting started

TriVan was the dream of Aren VanDyke, long-time owner and production manager for what Intercontinental Truck Body calls ITB-BC, its operation in Surrey, British Columbia. In October 2003, the TriVan opened with 15 employees.

“Aren knew that the U S market was ripe for our system of building customized truck bodies and trailers for a myriad of applications,” VanDriel says. “After our initial growing pains, we have seen sales go from $3.5 million in 2004, to $6.25 million in 2005, and a projected $9 million in 2006. A total of 60 employees are now on board, many of whom have been with us from day one.”

Like its Canadian counterpart, TriVan manufactures van bodies and trailers using a system that the Dutch Army Corps of Engineers developed some 50 years ago for use in quick, emergency repairs of the nation's dikes. Sidewalls, floors, and front walls all can be made from nothing more than a series of interlocking aluminum extrusions. Each extrusion has a pair of parallel locking beads on one edge and an open hat section on the other edge. The hat section is placed over the parallel locking beads, and the two extrusions are snapped into place to form a smooth surface on one side. The other side results in a series of hat-section side posts on approximately one-foot centers.

The result is an exceptionally rigid sidewall that lends itself to a wide range of special applications.

“We recognize that this design is a niche,” says Cason VanDriel, sales manager. “But it also results in a body that is so strong that we can do things with it that you just can't do with a sheet-and-post design.”

Because the extrusions run vertically, TriVan van bodies do not face any practical height limit other than legal restrictions. And TriVan can keep snapping the extrusions together until the length of the truck body or trailer meets customer requirements.

Unusual examples

TriVan has found particular success when the customer needs a van with high strength and rigidity.

The rigidity of the sidewalls makes the vans well suited for applications where the entire sidewalls are hinged. With the hinges placed at the top, the sidewalls can swing up to produce a large sheltered area. When the hinges are mounted at the bottom, the walls swing down to form a stage or elevated platform. When held horizontal by support struts, the sidewalls are sufficiently strong to withstand the typical loads to which stages are subjected.

“We build a lot of demo trailers,” Cason VanDriel says. “Kenworth has selected our design to promote its new medium-duty truck.”

The van will use the truck's air system to power the sidewalls upward. For bodies with downward swinging sidewalls, TriVan uses torsion bars to make it easier to swing them back into place — an 800-pound sidewall can be lifted to the vertical position with only 20 pounds of force.

Sidewall strength also makes TriVan vans well suited for applications in which heavy equipment is installed or heavy loads attached. For example:

  • Portable document shredders. Long before Enron brought document shredding into the national spotlight, large companies have needed high-capacity paper shedders. The trucks TriVan have built for this application include a lift system that dumps bins filled with paper into a hatch mounted near the front of the body. The shredder blows the shredded paper into the rear of the body. When this compartment is full, a live floor at the rear of the body empties the contents in much the same way as a refuse transfer trailer.

  • Mobile butcher trailers. Flexibility of design combined with sidewall strength has made TriVan's product adaptable for on-site butchering of cattle. Regulations prohibit the animal from touching the ground while being processed. This requires a distance of 11 12 feet from floor to ceiling. To achieve this distance while keeping overall height of the body within legal limits, TriVan makes the floor height 26 inches with the help of low-profile tires and special Dexter trailer axles.

“We offer two styles,” Cason VanDriel says. “Our drawbar trailer has a flat floor. Our fifthwheel model has a kickup area where we can mount compressors and other equipment.”

New plant

TriVan opened its U S plant in late 2003. The company built the 42,000-sq-ft facility on 5.5 acres near Interstate 5. With it, the company is able to do under one roof what it does in four separate buildings in Surrey.

“Our vision was to have a higher-volume facility here than we have in our other plants,” Marty VanDriel says. “We wanted bays that could provide good throughput, and we gave a lot of thought to how we would stage the materials that would flow through our system.”

Four bays run the full length of the plant. The first two bays provide support services and subassemblies. These include carpentry and special fabrication (primarily for orders involving paper shredding equipment) in the first bay. The second bay houses steel and aluminum inventory, shear and brake operations, and door assembly and fabrication.

“Doors are critical to our production,” Cason VanDriel says. “Almost every unit has different sized doors. Because of the custom work we do, our doors have to be adaptable, and we have patented some of our ideas to achieve that.”

The second and third bays house the assembly and finishing processes. The third bay is divided into three stations: steel subassembly located at the head of the third bay, followed by wall assembly and the roof station. Bodies then move laterally to the first of three stations in the final bay. The first is final assembly and quality control. From there, bodies move to the paint department and prep station.

“On the whole, the plant layout has worked out very well,” Marty VanDriel says. “We have great flow without a lot of lost motion.”

New employees

While staffing the plant partially with employees from Surrey, TriVan had the unenviable job of finding skilled workers in an area with a low unemployment rate and some large employers such as Boeing.

“Staffing is one area that has limited what we can produce here,” Marty VanDriel says. “It is difficult to find people when the unemployment rate is low, and we have some special skill requirements. That's why we do a lot of diverse training such as special welding and fabrication skills.”

The company has implemented ideas designed to improve employee retention.

“Many people here have been with us since the day we opened,” Marty VanDriel says. “If we can hire them, they tend to stay.”

TriVan has found its profit sharing program to be an effective way of achieving that goal.

“We told everyone that if we make money, we will share it,” Marty VanDriel says. “We have delivered on what we said. Guys now take it upon themselves to pick up bolts and screws because they know these things cost them money.”