New Knapheide Plant Geared For New Business Realities

Dec. 1, 1998
IT SEEMED like a tragedy at the time. But the devastating Mississippi River flood that virtually submerged the Knapheide Manufacturing plant in Quincy,

IT SEEMED like a tragedy at the time. But the devastating Mississippi River flood that virtually submerged the Knapheide Manufacturing plant in Quincy, Illinois, five years ago has given the 150-year-old company a fresh start and a bright future.

Central to that fresh start is a 382,630-sq-ft manufacturing facility designed to reflect the way truck body business will be conducted in the next century. And while the plant includes state-of-the-art equipment and processes, it also includes expanded staff to provide the services that a changing market requires. These include additional engineers and technical support personnel.

"Truck bodies used to be built to their own set of standards that were different from the chassis," says H W "Knap" Knapheide III, president. "Today we are being held to the same standards as the automotive industry. And it's not just physical, manufacturing standards. We must be sure that our products meet engineering and certification requirements.

"We have put a lot of effort into engineering. It's not enough to design a truck body and say that it looks like it will do the job. Decisions and designs must be based on objective criteria.

"In addition to their own performance standards, truck bodies have to function in concert with the chassis. We are spending a lot more time now with chassis manufacturers to make sure that their products and ours can work together to the customer's satisfaction."

Emphasis on Engineering Market changes are driving Knapheide's emphasis on engineering.

"Major fleets such as railroads, telephone, and other utilities no longer have large staffs," Knapheide says. "Many are run by lawyers or financial people. They have looked at their fleets and have decided they don't want to be in the truck business. As a result, they are looking to the truck body and equipment industry to provide the services they used to do themselves. They are looking to us to be engineers and not just metal benders."

Knapheide's engineering department has grown significantly since the company moved into the new location. It also has been divided into two areas: product development engineering and application engineering. John Evans now heads up a product development staff of four engineers and four drafters, along with part-time personnel as needed.

"We have added an engineer primarily to work on compliance issues," Evans says. "Responsibilities include calculating our product weights and centers of gravity and to keep up programs that we use to determine our compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards. He also supports our customer service organization, analyzing special jobs that come into that department and keeping the existing product line current with changes being made to truck chassis."

A staff of nine in application engineering handles requests for custom products. Knapheide's "Option Fit" program offers distributors an extensive menu of standardized options. The AutoCAD system delivers customized bodies quickly and cost efficiently.

Customer Support With a large number of employees involved in the production of a single order, it can be difficult to coordinate the status of a particular job. To address this, Knapheide recently named Dave Kater vice-president of customer support. Under his department, customers have a single contact to call.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for the distributor to do business with us," Kater says. "The idea is to have one person to contact so that the distributor does not have to make multiple calls. If there is any running around to do, we do it internally so the distributor doesn't have to."

Among the services provided: * Quotations. * Custom engineering. This may be required if the proposed truck body requires unusual specifications. * Order entry. * Scheduling. Should the order go as a complete trailer load or as a split load? * Technical support. The department offers suggestions for mounting the particular body, how much time to allow, and other nuts-and-bolts issues. * Warranty support. * Field travel. Personnel from this department provide on-site training of distributor employees. * Fleet services. * Chassis pools.

"We have had this system in place for two years," Kater says. "It's amazing how much time we can save distributors when we have everything they need under one umbrella."

Chassis Pools Knapheide operates chassis pools out of its Quincy and Kansas City locations. The company has Chevrolet, GMC, Ford, and Dodge pools.

"The use of chassis pools is growing," Knapheide says. "That includes popularity with national accounts. We drive sales to national accounts back through our distributors."

"Distributors can order a complete truck from us," Kater says. "We can pull the chassis, mount the body, and ship to the local dealer. The dealer gets all the incentives he normally receives from the factory. The distributor gets profit from the sale and does not have his shop tied up."

"It used to be that each step in the chain was independent," Knapheide says. "Now these steps are becoming more and more integrated-not by what we in the truck body industry are trying to do, but by the customer and what is happening to him."

Focused Factories To supply truck bodies to this changing market, Knapheide built a sprawling manufacturing facility that is structured to contain four factories under the same roof.

"We didn't want the entire operation to be centralized," Knapheide says. "We were concerned that a plant this size could become unwieldy. This is no longer a small company-we are 80% larger than we were at the time of the flood in 1993. Focused factories make it easier for our employees to feel that they belong here. They aren't just individuals working in a 650-person company."

The four factories within the factory are: * Parts fabrication * Platform and side assembly * Service body * E-coat and finishing.

To a large extent, each factory is self-contained. The four factories have their own support staffs, including manufacturing engineering, industrial engineering, quality assurance, and production control.

The factories are organized into work teams. Each team has a facilitator and separate coordinators for each of the following areas: quality, safety, and productivity.

The periodic team meetings last 30 minutes. The facilitator sets the agenda and allots a specific time for each item scheduled for discussion.

"I am on one of the service body teams," Knapheide says. "It's a good way for me to know what's going on in the entire plant. My role is to be part of the team. I am not even the facilitator on my team. I'm just one of the guys."

Focus on Fabrication The fabrication factory is the starting point for truck body manufacturing at the Knapheide plant. An average of 26 trailerloads of steel are used each week. Material comes in the north end of the building and is kept-briefly-on an extensive array of shelves.

"We have a home for every type of steel we use," says Mark Gedstad, fabrication shop manager. "The shelves make different steels more accessible. It's easy for us to rotate stock, first in, first out."

The company's MRP software determines the necessary parts and the material required to produce them.

Four Amada numerically controlled punch presses cut the pieces that become truck body parts. They include two Amada Vipros 368 machines that have 60" x 80" tables. The 58-turret machines produce parts at a rate of 1,200 hits per minute.

"The Vipros 368s do not require the material to be repositioned," Gedstad says. "This really helps to reduce our cycle time."

While much of the equipment came from the company's previous plant, Knapheide bought one Vipros 368 and two Amada press brakes specifically for the new plant. Also numerically controlled, the 14-ft Promecam press brakes have eight-axis control and 220-ton capacity.

About 75% of the parts that comprise a Knapheide service body are fabricated on a duplex roll mill. The dual heads of the machine enable the mill to form two shapes on the part simultaneously. The mill has 20 stations that combine to shape flat pieces of steel into service body parts.

"Heilmann built this mill specifically for us," Gedstad says. "The 20 stations are required to roll 14-gauge steel-a typical thickness that we use."

Among the parts that the roll mill fabricates are end panels, top, back, and shelves. The most significant exception is doors. These are fabricated on one of the Amada press brakes.

Automated Coating Line The e-coat and finishing factory contains one of the major advancements of the new plant. The automated e-coat system is massive, capable of applying an epoxy primer on assemblies as large as 22 feet x 12 feet x 10 feet and weighing as much as 4,200 lb.

An automated conveyor line moves bodies through the entire process, submerging the bodies and components in each of 12 tanks.

"The transfer efficiency is excellent," says Jim Barnett, finishing factory manager. "A typical spray transfer is only about 50% efficient, which means that almost half the material is wasted. The transfer efficiency of our e-coat system is 98%. All but 2% of the coating goes directly onto the product. And with e-coat systems, VOC emissions are not a concern."

Taking a Dip The conveyor system automatically moves the bodies and parts through the tanks as follows:

1.Spray wash. Oscillating spray heads and an alkaline cleaner held at 140 feet F scour the steel surfaces to remove impurities. 2.Immersion clean. This is designed to remove impurities that the line-of-sight spray cleaner cannot reach. 3.Spray rinse. 4.Immersion rinse. 5.Zinc phosphate pretreatment. Knapheide uses Chemfoss 700 from PPG 6.Rinse 7.Sealing rinse. This applies a light protective coating over the crystalline substrate that the phosphate pretreatment produces. 8.Deionized water rinse. 9.E-coat. Knapheide uses Powercron 648 from PPG. "By getting all chemicals from a single supplier, we have single-source accountability," Barnett says. The material is kept at 88 feet F. This particular tank must be chilled to maintain 88 feet F because of the much higher temperatures required earlier in the e-coat process. 10.Immersion rinse. 11.Spray rinse. 12. Immersion rinse. The three rinsing stations remove the e-coat that clings to the steel without being plated to it. 13. Always Moving Knapheide keeps its 36,000-gallon e-coat vat churning constantly.

"Of the 36,000 gallons in the tank, only 15,000 is actually e-coat. The rest is water," Barnett says. "The e-coat never dissolves-it is in suspension and will settle quickly if it is not constantly agitated 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Each tank has two pumps to circulate the fluid-one to do the work, and the other to serve as a backup. Company personnel can change pumps in about 30 minutes. To make sure the pumps receive a constant supply of power, Knapheide has a backup generator exclusively for the e-coat system.

Another critical element in the e-coat process is the electrical charge that attracts the coating to the steel. To drive the e-coat onto the steel, Knapheide applies a charge of up to 400 volts at 800 amps. The tank is charged positively, and the steel receives a negative charge. The larger the component being coated, the stronger the electrical charge.

Voltage in the Knapheide e-coat system is automatically modulated. The system automatically calculates the square footage of the parts placed on each load bar and adjusts the charge accordingly.

"We apply between 1.2 to 1.4 mils of coating, regardless of the size of the part," Barnett says. "Mil build is extremely controllable and repeatable. The coating follows the electricity. Once the easily coated areas of the part are covered, the coating tends to insulate the steel. This forces the e-coat to travel to areas that have less coating."

Solid Coating After the coated parts leave the last rinse tank, they travel to an oven for curing. They are baked at 350 feet F for 40 minutes.

"This is really what cures the coating," Barnett says. "The heat forces the molecules to cross-link. The result is to tie them together so that they form a single coat."

The coated components are then sent to a cool-down chamber for 25 minutes. A large fan speeds the process. Volume of air passing through the cool-down chamber can be adjusted according to the ambient temperature of the air.

The conveyor then takes the coated pieces to one of four spurs for unloading, one spur for each of the following: service bodies, platforms, smaller topcoated components, and miscellaneous parts.

Looking Ahead Knap Knapheide believes the new plant will allow the company to serve its customers and distributors more effectively as the company begins its next 150 years.

"Our industry is changing in so many ways," he says. "Chassis manufacturers are driving some of these changes. They have been making tremendous investments in light-duty trucks and have a lot at stake when our industry installs bodies and equipment on them.

"Distributors are becoming more concentrated. There are fewer full-line distributors now than there were in 1980 when every major market had several good ones. Part of that is the result of consolidation with their customers. The Bell telephone companies, for example, are reconsolidating. There are now only four major railroads in the United States. And gas companies are merging with electric utilities. All of these trends are driven by large external forces. They are affecting us because they are affecting our customers and our customers' customers.

"Times like these call for closer relationships between manufacturers and distributors. Both parties will need to be strong because they will be under pressure from a lot of different directions. Some distributors have expressed fear that some truck body manufacturers are becoming too strong. But a distributor's real fear should be that his business partner is a manufacturer that's not in the game. With our new plant, we have made sure that we are in the game for years to come."

About the Author

Bruce Sauer | Editor

Bruce Sauer has been writing about the truck trailer, truck body and truck equipment industries since joining Trailer/Body Builders as an associate editor in 1974. During his career at Trailer/Body Builders, he has served as the magazine's managing editor and executive editor before being named editor of the magazine in 1999. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Texas at Austin.