Astoria Industries Uses Product Testing, University Research in Quality Quest

EXTENSIVE TESTING procedures and control of manufacturing processes help Astoria Industries of Iowa Inc improve the quality of the company's fiberglass service bodies.

Astoria works closely with the engineering programs of Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa in developing and testing the materials it uses in fiberglass bodies. Bob Wolf, chief executive officer, is on the Industrial Advisory Council for the Iowa Manufacturing Technology Center (IMTC), which is directly involved with the engineering departments at both schools. Wolf also assists nearby community colleges by helping to develop an accreditation program for design draftsmen.

"This will eventually help our company by supplying designers with engineering skills at a lower cost than a full fledged engineer," says Wolf.

Three years ago, the company moved to Chariton, Iowa, from Jackson, Minnesota. After purchasing Astoria from Raven Industries, Linda and Bob Wolf moved the company to a 10-acre facility containing a 54,000-sq-ft building. Linda Wolf is president and controlling partner. Bob Wolf had previously been employed as the president and CEO of Northwest Bodies.

Astoria bodies are distributed through a 75-company distributor network that spans the US and Canada. Some bodies are also sold in export markets such as Israel, Egypt, and the Pacific Rim.

Working with Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa has allowed Astoria to incorporate into its final product what it has learned in testing. The schools have worked with Astoria in improving the strength and durability of materials as well as the manufacturing processes.

The University of Northern Iowa conducted impact and flexural tests on Astoria body materials.

"These tests are critical to fleet users who walk on the sidepacks and store heavy items in cabinets," says Jack Brannan, chief engineer.

Iowa State University has worked with Astoria to control the dust generated in its grind shop and to develop ultrasonic thickness tests of its materials.

"Iowa State is working on methods to help us keep dust in the grind area and control it within that department," says Brannan. "A downdraft system is being developed."

Iowa State also has developed a specialized method of measuring the thickness of Astoria's body materials. The ultrasonic test can distinguish between gelcoat and resin in a body and calculate their individual or combined thickness. Iowa State recommended a specialized handheld instrument that Astoria uses to measure thickness.

Special Processes Astoria applies what it learns from testing to its manufacturing process in several areas. The first step in manufacturing Astoria bodies is the mold preparation. Molds are first cleaned and then covered with a mold release agent before paper masking is applied to needed areas.

Gelcoat is the first material sprayed into molds at a thickness of .018 to .022 of an inch. Thickness varies depending on location and the part being constructed, according to Brannan. The color of the gelcoat determines the color of the body.

The company is working with its supplier on a primer-gray colored paintable gelcoat that will allow it to manufacture generic color bodies.

"The ability of our distributors to paint bodies to suit will increase sales," says Brannan.

Once gelcoat is applied, a ceramic liquid resin is painted into corners and other areas that are difficult for gelcoat and conventional resin to penetrate.

"The ceramic component greatly reduces the possibility of air being molded into the body," says Brannan. "Air pockets weaken fiberglass structures and can allow a body to be easily damaged."

Sandwich Construction After gelcoat is applied, body molds are moved to a booth where they are sprayed with a combination of resin, two-inch-long chopped fiberglass strand, and catalyst. Chop and resin are then rolled flat and into corners to remove entrapped air.

"Chop thickness depends on the strength needed in the piece being manufactured," says Brannan. "Thickness varies greatly between .090 and .5 inch."

Chipboard is installed in body sidepacks to form compartments according to model and size body being built.

"We use foam only in certain applications where impact strength is not a consideration," says Brannan.

The 96-inch and 108-inch standard bodies have chipboard on both sides and top of compartments. This acts as reinforcement in high stress areas. After curing with chipboard in place, sidepack molds are taken back into the chop booth to be resprayed with chop, resin, and catalyst to form a sandwich structure.

"Sandwich construction is what gives Astoria bodies strength," says Brannan.

Astoria's doors are constructed in a similar manner. The inside and outside panels of two-piece doors are molded separately and then bonded together with adhesive to form a single homogenous unit. Coremat is molded into the outer door piece, as are aluminum bolting plates used for hinge mounting. Holes for hinge mounting are pre-embossed for easy locating in final assembly.

"The result is a nearly indestructible, torsionally rigid door," says Brannan. "One customer was convinced after he gave the doors a hammer test. He replaces chassis every five years but expects service bodies to last 20 years."

Before going to final assembly areas, excess material is trimmed away in the grind shop. The sidepack assembly area brings together sidepacks and subframe assemblies and doors on some models. Beds can be customized with treadplate aluminum or steel or a non-slip fiberglass surface that combines sand with the gelcoat.

In final assembly, all remaining doors are mounted as well as interior and exterior lighting, ladder racks, shelving, and bumpers. Versatile Design

Astoria produces many models of fiberglass utility bodies plus one universal topper. Each model is available in different lengths and compartment configurations. The company builds a 132-inch-long low-profile model and the 24-inch tall Stor'n Tow body, which is designed for vehicles pulling fifthwheel trailers. Astoria also builds standard models in 96-inch to 150-inch lengths.

The Vari-Tool is Astoria's most versatile model. Astoria designed a custom mold with adjustable gates for the Vari-Tool, which allows the body to be built in any size within certain parameters. The mold allows Astoria to manufacture sidepacks between 24 inches and 240 inches long, according to Scott Metzger, inside sales manager.

"The mold is used at 24 inches to build individual tool packs and can expand to form a 240-inch sidepack," says Metzger. "Compartments vary depending on where wood bulkheads are placed."

Astoria also has proprietary extrusions for shelves and drawers. The design allows shelves and drawers to be fitted to any size compartment. Drawers move in and out on slides designed to carry customer loads.

Astoria implemented its quality assurance program to ensure that defects are found at their point of origin, according to Brannan.

"Products do not leave each department until they are right," says Brannan. "We have individuals in each section of the plant that identify problems before parts leave the department."

Products from all departments are double-checked in final assembly. Additionally, all bumpers and installation kits undergo a pre-delivery inspection.

In the steel fabrication department, all welds are inspected for appearance and absence of undercutting. The gelcoat and chop are process controlled to assure proper mixing and pattern. Gelcoat and chop are also checked for the proper application thickness. Chop is inspected to be sure that it is rolled properly, and structural ceramics are checked when ceramic reinforcement is required.

Door installation procedures demand that specific hinges of the proper material be matched to appropriate latches. One key must fit all doors. In final assembly, lights are checked for proper operation, and bodies are subjected to a water test.

All Astoria bodies are weighed before shipping as a final check to assure manufacturing consistency.

"We recently shipped an order of four identical bodies," says Brannan. "All four bodies weighed approximately 680 lb with less than 31/2 lb variation."

Astoria takes great care when matching colors for customers. Customers first supply a color code, which is matched by Astoria's gelcoat supplier. A sample chip is sent to the customer before manufacturing begins to ensure a match. In total, three chips are created. One is kept on-site at Astoria, the supplier keeps one, and the third is sent to the customer for approval.

"This system prevents the possibility of manufacturing a body that doesn't match a customer's existing fleet," says Metzger.

Latest Developments Astoria recently introduced its Versa Top fiberglass light-truck topper. The Versa Top is designed to fit full-size Chevy, Ford, and Dodge trucks. It uses all stainless steel hardware and has flip-up rear and side doors supported by gas struts.

"Many communication companies have shown interest in the topper because of its flip-up sides," says Brannan. The topper is available with side compartments for equipment storage.

Astoria currently is developing a swing-out rack that will hold three jackhammers in utility bodies. The fully enclosed rack will come out of a side compartment and will be lockable.

Other products are in development stages at Astoria as the company plans expansion. A second shift has been planned for the near future, and the company has plans for additional building modifications to keep up with future production demands.

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