“Those are AK-47 hits,” says James Bandy, vice-president and general manager of Supreme Armored, pointing toward a slab of ballistic steel that was barely nicked in testing done at HP White in Maryland and US Test Labs in Kansas.
“This is the same material, but with .50-calibre hits,” he says, pointing to a slab that has been penetrated by roughly one-fourth of the thickness.
The conversations with customers also take on a far different feel than at other Supreme plants.
“If they come in and tell us what they want to stop, we're OK,” he says. “But if they come in and say, ‘Give me something bulletproof’ … well, nothing is bulletproof. Everything is bullet-resistant. There's not one thing that you can build that somebody can't shoot through with something.”
Supreme never had any master plan to tap into the armored industry. It just happened.
One day in 1997, the director of fleet maintenance operations for a large cash-in-transit company called Bandy at Supreme's plant in Cleburne, Texas — 27 miles south of Fort Worth — and explained that the company was disbanding its own manufacturing process — like many cash-in-transit operations, it wanted to focus solely on hauling valuables. The director wondered if Bandy could build an aluminum armored car.
“I thought, ‘That's the neatest thing I've ever heard of. No problem,’ ” Bandy says.
Using one bay at that facility, Bandy cut up and copied the vehicle that had been delivered, ultimately producing multiple units. Bandy's plan was to stop right there, but another cash-in-transit company came calling, asking Supreme to build an all-aluminum, cash-in-transit body. And then another.
It wasn't long before Supreme had expanded to 12 bays and was producing Vanguard Executive/Diplomat Armored Suburbans that were going mostly to contractors like DynCorp and Triple Canopy, working for the government overseas.
Early in 2004, Supreme Armored moved to a 70,000-square-foot facility. Bandy's original plan was to rent out half of the building. But the business kept booming — so much that Supreme purchased a $1 million Bystronic 4400 laser, a robotics system, and a SolidWorks CAD operation, which have dramatically altered the manufacturing process and made it possible to triple production capabilities.
Chaos a catalyst
The catalyst behind the growth was the chaos that erupted in the aftermath of 9/11. The world became a much more dangerous place. The stepped-up US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq — not to mention the increased security risk in America — demanded a proliferation of protective vehicles. The Columbine High School massacre cast school systems as easy targets. Then the massacre at Virginia Tech University.
“One thing about the armored industry: It grows every day,” Bandy says. “After 9/11, Homeland Security came in with their grants so that the same people who were getting fire engines can now get armored vehicles. I don't look for this industry to get any smaller as we go along. Every time somebody says Osama (bin Laden) is thinking about something, people want to buy these vehicles, and armored picks up.”
Says Bandy's wife, Genie, the national events and OEM manager, “A few weeks ago, I visited with an executive from a huge energy company on the East Coast. He has to acquire two heavily armored vehicles to haul people around the power plants — one for the people and one for backup. If something happens to the first vehicle, they need to move the key people quickly and safely.”
The counties surrounding Cleburne are a growing hotbed for the Barnett Shale — the second-largest onshore natural-gas field in the US — and that has opened up another market for the Vanguard. Many oil and gas executives and bankers feel like they need extra security for their families and employees.
“A lot of people are making a lot of money,” Bandy says. “So they need the Suburbans to keep from getting robbed and to protect their families from kidnapping attempts. Now, there's always somebody who wants your money. If you have a lot of it, somebody wants it.”
Armored Suburbans are being used in Iraq to make the drive from Baghdad's city center to the airport. There's even a market for armored wreckers to tow the Suburbans. Bandy says a military plane arrives twice each week at an airport north of Fort Worth to transport the Vanguards to Iraq.
“More and more mayors of US cities are looking at the Vanguard as something to use for personal protection for dignitaries in town,” says David Taylor, national sales manager for Supreme Specialty Vehicles. “I'm sure there are some rap stars and athletes who use them. People in the US haven't had quite as much reason to use them as in places like Mexico and South America, where kidnappings are so common. But at a show last year, a county prosecutor was talking to us about beefing up his vehicles because his family had been receiving death threats as a result of a case he was prosecuting. This interests such an incredible variety of people with security concerns.”
The Vanguard looks like your garden-variety Suburban, but it is capable of stopping anything any of Supreme's other vehicles can stop.
Door hinges are replaced with HD-reinforced hinges with all doors having overlaps, splash rings, and synthetic door guides. Rear springs are upgraded with super springs. Floor armor provides protection from M-67 grenades. The rear armored bulkhead provides National Institute of Justice Level III protection, eliminating excessive weight from the rear hatch door.
Supreme uses a 2005 Suburban 4×4 with an 8.1-liter V-8 gas engine. Technicians cut out the floor, lower the interior by two inches and reduce the width by one-half inch to accommodate the armor.
“We make a complete cocoon inside the body,” Taylor says. “You basically just build another vehicle inside of it. Running down the street, no one would even know it's an armored vehicle.”
Some other units that have been successful for Supreme:
The Avenger Tactical Armored Transport.
Available with an optional rotating gun turret upfit, it has a length of 21'6”, provides secure transportation for 10-12 tactical responders, and has all the features needed in a hot counter-fire situation.
The height-adjustable elevated turret platform provides a commanding view for returning fire or controlling a volatile situation. A full-width grip strut bumper provides sure-footed entry and exit. It also has a four-wheel drive powertrain and handles maximum highway speeds for pursuit.
Driver and passenger doors have gun ports and swing to the rear, allowing unobstructed use of the door opening.
The Mobile Armored Device (MAD).
It was designed to deal with situations like the one that erupted on Christmas Eve 2000, when two dozen employees were tied up in the back of an Oshman's sporting goods store in Irving by a group of inmates who had escaped from the maximum-security Connally Unit Prison near San Antonio. Irving Police Officer Aubrey Hawkins was killed behind the store as he approached the robbers.
The MAD unit — which looks like an armored golf cart — is enhanced with the ability to enter a hostile fire zone immediately after arriving at the scene. Designed to enter a building through doors and sized for elevator use, it protects the tactical officer. The motorized unit provides the protection and counter-fire capability needed in hostile firefight and hostage situations. It offers visibility in all directions, has five gun ports for complete counter-fire coverage, a radio unit, and pepper spray. A swivel boat seat allows tactical use of all gun ports.
A 12-volt motor operates hydraulic pumps, which operate the rear rive wheels independently (the operator can literally spin in a circle). Foot pedals control the direction, freeing the operator's hands to fire his weapon and to use radio equipment.
“This unit can come through a door and down the aisles of a store, and it stops everything an armored vehicle can,” Bandy says. “This type of thing was never thought of before.”
It's a huge hit. In some instances, the MAD unit has drawn more attention than the larger vehicles when Supreme has taken it to The Work Truck Show.
They are the bread-and-butter for Supreme, which makes an estimated 30% of all units manufactured in the US. Out on the 32-acre spread, there are dozens of units lined up, awaiting delivery.
“They keep us busy,” Bandy says.
Prisoner Transport Vehicles (PTV) and prisoner Transport Buses (PTB).
They have become very popular, with many cities choosing to transport inmates from county or city jails to the courthouse for arraignments.
“Cities send patrol cars home because they want people to see them on the street,” Bandy says. “But the same car that the policeman takes his wife to church in on Sunday carried drunks in the back seat on Saturday night. So cities buy police cars and then have these prisoner transport buses to pick up drunks, rather than having their cars torn up.”
The PTVs are constructed of non-corrosive, easy-to-clean FRP. They're available with driver and passenger removable Plexiglas side window protectors that can be used as riot shields. Double-locking curb-side doors open to segregated compartments.
“There is no plant in the US I know of that builds as many different things as we do,” Bandy says. “You'll find one that builds cash-in-transits, or the Avenger. But not normally such a broad scope. Most of them concentrate on one thing.
“There are not a lot of things we haven't attempted. We do a lot of individual builds. It seems like there's a never-ending type of armored vehicles. We really didn't know it'd get going this fast.”
The manufacturing process is unlike any other in Supreme, for a number of reasons.
For one, Supreme Armored's customers don't want their type of armaments spread around to other companies. The cash-in-transit companies don't want anybody to be able to get into their vehicles, so Supreme builds to each company's specific design parameters. All government vehicles have to be cleared by the Department of Defense.
“Every customer we have has been in this business for years,” production manager Jeff McPherson says. “They have built their own vehicles and have their own ideas. If you look at all of them, the only thing that makes them alike is that they have an armored exterior. The layout of the trucks are different, the interiors are different, and there are different types of locking systems.”
It's not easy, because in most cases the vehicles are not rolling down an assembly line in cookie-cutter style.
“Right now, I'm trying to stay away from designing new trucks,” McPherson says. “We own the design work on all of these trucks, so if a customer comes in, I'd prefer he pick one of those. Otherwise, we have to get the chalk out and start drawing. And that gets very expensive.”
It's expensive enough just doing a vehicle that features a design that Supreme already has built. That's because the ballistic metal can cost up to seven times as much as a normal metal.
“So you have to be sure which material you're cutting,” Bandy says. “You're talking about metal that costs $8 a pound. I can't weld it back together. The Suburbans, for instance, have about 125 different cuts on the inside. So if we change one particular thing, everything on the vehicle changes.”
The SolidWorks CAD operation and the Bystronic 4400 laser have helped dramatically in the process.
The three-man engineering staff programs SolidWorks by telling it the per-foot cost of the metal being used, then as the design progresses, the program tells the engineer the running cost of the body.
“As I'm building it, I know how much it weighs,” engineer James Chase says. “Right now, I'm at 7500 lb on this one. We don't have any problems because I build it right here. I can see as I'm doing it. In Autocad, it's more difficult because that's 2D. Here, I can how see everything fits together.”
SolidWorks sends the operation instructions to the laser, which takes it from there.
Before Supreme purchased the laser, everything was done with plasma cutters.
“When you're talking about drilling into ballistic steel, that's a hard thing to do,” Bandy says. “With the laser, if you have any error, it was made by the guy running the CAD.
“We build everything for the truck with the laser. Anything you see in this plant that has a hole in it all comes out of our laser system. Every bolt hole and window is cut out of the laser. We make all door locks and assemblies, be it Kevlar or metals. Most everything we do is stainless or aluminum. We keep our inventories separate between Supreme and Supreme Armored. Nothing that works over there works here. It's a completely separate organization.
“In our industry, lasers are not that popular because they're really expensive, but it's the best piece of equipment I've ever had the opportunity to be around.”
Bandy says the laser has allowed Supreme to produce three times as many vehicles with the same amount of workers.
“It's unbelievable, the amount of potential quality problems it took care of,” he says. “It paid for itself in less than one year. We were expecting three to four years.”
Supreme runs the laser 24 hours a day. He says it “pretty wells takes care of itself,” but if it does break down, it will tell the operator exactly what's wrong.
“It runs mostly on a nitrogen-oxygen mixture and a light meter,” he says. “That's about it. It's like taking a magnifying glass and letting the light shine through. And there's no warpage of the materials being cut because there's no heat.”
When Supreme first got into the armored industry, it relied on word of mouth to sell its cash-in-transit vehicles — and since it's a “very closed niche” with a limited number of companies, according to Bandy, it wasn't really difficult. Supreme Armored didn't even have a sales force.
Supreme Armored joined organizations, such as the Independent Armored Car Operators Association (IACOA), but those conventions were nothing like The Work Truck Show — 25 members instead of 1000.
Once Supreme Armored branched into multiple products, it knew it needed a strong sales force.
“You can build the cash-in-transits as a fleet business — something that comes along every year,” Taylor says. “But with the government, business may be good one day and then we decide to withdraw from a foreign country the next, and then we're out of business with a particular project.”
Bandy says Supreme over the years has put together a stellar sales staff, now headed by Taylor.
“You have to have a sales force if you want to expand,” he says. “I'm all into relationships. You go to the individual customer and then to the dealer. A customer is not going to drive up to the local truck dealer and say, ‘I like that Mobile Command Center, and I think I'll buy one.’ These things start a year in advance.”
What we have here is a developing situation. The world is a complicated place. As long as it is filled with money and mayhem, Supreme Armored is going to be one busy company.
“This is not something Supreme ever thought of getting into,” Bandy says, “but it's something we're going to keep doing.”