Canadian Trailer Manufacturer Expands Market with New Minnesota Plant

A NEW MANUFACTURING plant in Litchfield, Minnesota, is helping the Aspen Trailer Group expand into the US market.

Aspen, a Canadian manufacturer of over-the-road and custom off-highway trailers, is moving its corporate headquarters to a new plant in Minnesota and operating with the name Aspen Trailer Inc.

The new 30,000-sq-ft plant opened in January 1998 to build trailers with a 50-ton capacity or less. The company chose to locate the plant in Litchfield for several reasons.

"City officials wanted the business in Litchfield, and the city has the right tax base for our kind of operation," says Bob Johnston, vice-president of sales at Aspen. The new plant is the first in the city's new light industrial area. The 10-acre site gives the plant ample room to grow.

"The plant can grow to 120,000 sq ft, twice as wide and twice as long as it is now," says Johnston.

"Aspen currently has two other manufacturing plants in Nisku, Alberta, and Surrey, British Columbia," says Johnston. "Aspen sees itself as a North American manufacturer, so the central US location suits the company well."

"Aspen is planning a distributor network that will cover all of the US and Canada, so a plant in the north-central US makes sense," says Don Koebnick, regional sales manager. Previous distribution was factory direct.

Aspen is planning rapid increases in production during the Litchfield plant's first year of operation.

New Employee Training "Increasing production depends on how quickly we can assemble our labor-saving devices and train new employees," says Tom Bunkers, plant manager.

Production will take a substantial leap forward with the addition of a submerged arc wire-feed welder. Other wire-feed welders will be mounted on trolleys attached to 15-ft I-beam booms. Wires will be routed through conduit to the above-ground welders. Weld wire will be supplied to welders via a drum instead of a spool when they are moved above ground level.

"This will reduce the frequency with which we must replace wire," says Bunkers. The boom and trolley will allow plant workers more freedom of movement when welding.

Training plant workers to build trailers is another hurdle in outfitting a new production facility. Experienced workers are paired with trainees until they learn all necessary skills. After being familiarized with the job, assemblers train new employees.

"We have to be careful when people are first learning to build our trailers," says Bunkers. "We must add new employees at a rate that increases production and doesn't hinder quality. It's easy to create inefficiencies in the process by adding people too fast."

Trailer Dedicated Labor Aspen's goal eventually is to have dedicated builders for each model produced at the Litchfield plant. "This depends on market demand for each model," says Bunkers.

Aspen trailers are stall built. "A team of two workers stays with the trailer from the beginning to the end," says Bunkers. Aspen will expand from five to 11 assembly stalls within four to five months, depending on availability of materials and employees.

Adjustable fixtures are used to construct mechanical upper decks, fixed necks, and wheel areas. The company also will use fixtures to build hydraulic neck trailers.

Unlike some manufacturers, Aspen mechanical and hydraulic detachable trailers use a load pin that is heat shrunk.The company doesn't use a bushing around the pin that is heated after being put in position.

"Heat shrinking provides superior strength at the most critical stress point in the trailer," says Koebnick.

Aspen uses T-1 steel in all flanges and webs to increase the strength-to-weight ratio. "All Aspen trailers are designed with tare weight in mind," says Koebnick. "Customers often ask about weight before they ask about price."

Aspen uses local suppliers at the new plant. Sandblasting and painting are done by a locally owned company. Aspen's painter picks up trailers and returns them fully painted and ready for decking.

"It's not likely that our facility will ever be used to paint trailers," says Koebnick. "EPA regulations make it cost prohibitive to paint the trailers on-site." After being painted, trailers are returned to the plant where they are floored and fitted with conspicuity tape.

Aspen practices just-in-time manufacturing to keep inventory levels low and overhead costs down. "Timing from our vendors is critical to be sure we keep production up without components sitting for too long," says Bunkers.

Trailers undergo extensive inspection. Aspen inspectors use a checklist for quality control. Inspection points include welds, dimensions, ABS, and electrical and air systems before being painted. After being painted, trailers undergo an on-site federal highway inspection. Aspen employs two inspectors for this job. The company provides a one-year warranty for its trailers.

Company Goals Aspen plans to double the size of the Litchfield plant in two to three years. The company now employs 16 workers in the shop and a total of 25 people at the whole facility. Expectations are for a total of 100 employees at the facility when operating at full strength.

"We anticipate employing 64 plant workers working in two shifts by August 1 of this year," says Koebnick.

The new plant is currently building Aspen's hydraulic and mechanical goosenecks, double drops, and double drop extendible trailers. The company plans to add two new models before the end of 1998.

Aspen is building two trailers per week and has plans in place to increase production to one per day by August. Current projections are for 96 trailers to be produced by September 1.

"Increased efficiency in the manufacturing process, lots of steel on the floor, and the addition of new employees will allow us to meet these goals," says Johnston.

Twenty years ago, Aspen began producing 50-ton capacity forestry trailers that were able to withstand the stresses of Canadian logging. Murray Johnston, company owner, designed Aspen's initial trailers. Johnston's designs proved durable enough that the company rapidly built a reputation as a builder of off-highway trailers that could stand the test of time.

The company expanded operations to a plant in Surrey to handle demand for the forestry trailers. The plant now builds many specialty trailers and trailers used to haul heavy loads at mines. Aspen now builds a 175-350-ton transporter, which is used to haul large surface mining equipment. All trailers built at the 100-employee Surrey plant are multi-axle, heavy-haul trailers such as 9-, 10-, 12- and 13-axle transporters.

About five years ago, Aspen opened a second plant, converting an existing 20,000-sq-ft building in Nisku. In response to growing demand, the Nisku plant was expanded in 1997 and again earlier this year. The Nisku plant, now 42,500 sq ft, employs about 100 people. It produces primarily off-highway trailers for the oil and gas industry, but also builds some over-the-road trailers.

As the company grew and became more widely known, product demand increased. Bob Johnston joined Aspen in 1995 to help expand the company's access into Canada and the US.

"We use a high level of engineering at Aspen with over 100 man-years of qualified engineering in-house that gives our customers confidence in the product," says Johnston. o

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