Carpenter Builds Walk-in Vans in Fast Startup at Indiana School Bus Plant

CARPENTER Industries scored an immediate success with a new walk-in van it developed, in part to spread overhead costs among two product lines in its massive 730,000-sq-ft school bus assembly plant in Richmond, Indiana.

Carpenter finished building the prototype walk-in van in October 1996, and showed the vehicle the same month at the National Automatic Merchandising Association convention in St Louis, Missouri. Based on the favorable reception of this Crown walk-in van at the convention, Carpenter accelerated production plans.

"We wrote 27 orders in the exhibit hall during the convention," says Bob Otto, executive vice-president of the Crown Step Van Division.

>From the 15 shows where the Crown walk-in van was exhibited in 1997, Carpenter gathered about 1,500 viable sales leads, Otto says. The largest walk-in van order received by Carpenter in 1997 was for 190 purchased by the federal government.

During 1997, Carpenter concentrated on selling walk-in vans to the hand tool and vending machine industries, Otto says. This year, Carpenter will focus on walk-in van sales to bakery, linen, snack food, and parcel delivery businesses. Almost all sales of the Crown walk-in van are made either directly from the plant or by regional sales managers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; and Charlotte, North Carolina. Other sales are made by some of Carpenter's 50 school bus dealers, plus a number of GM truck dealers located throughout the US.

New Division Otto was hired by Dr Beurt SerVaas, a co-owner of Carpenter, in July 1996 to start a separate division for manufacturing walk-in vans. The other co-owners of Carpenter are Recovery Equity Investors, an investment company in San Mateo, California, and Spartan Motors Inc, a medium- and heavy-duty chassis manufacturer in Charlotte, Michigan. The stripped chassis on which Crown walk-in vans are built are purchased from Spartan, Freightliner, GMC, and Chevrolet.

Because of his extensive experience working for walk-in van manufacturers, Otto was able to achieve a fast start-up of production. Shortly after beginning work at Carpenter, Otto hired 10 of his former co-workers and managers.

The new management and production team had the knowledge necessary to begin walk-in van production quickly within Carpenter's existing school bus plant, Otto says. Beside the school bus assembly lines, two U-shaped production lines were set up to build the Crown walk-in van.

On the "A" assembly line, the body of the Crown walk-in van is built alongside full-size school buses. On the "C" assembly line, walk-in van interiors, wiring, and heaters are installed. The Crown walk-in van has an 80,000-btu heater, which is the largest standard heater in the industry.

Special van interiors including shelving and cabinets are built and installed in a 250,000-sq-ft plant nearby in Mitchell, Indiana. Carpenter moved school bus production from the Mitchell plant to Richmond in 1992, when thecompany bought the former Wayne school bus plant.

Offsetting Seasonal Production The Crown walk-in van will help Carpenter offset school bus production cycles at the large plant, Otto says. Providing steady work is a priority at the Richmond plant, which employs 600 people.

Carpenter's heaviest production cycle for school buses is from April through August 15, he says. Walk-in vans are built year-round. But production for walk-in vans peaks from September to November and February to May.

"The beauty is that when peak seasons overlap for school buses and walk-in vans, we can use our work force to build which ever product we have the most orders for," Otto says. "Production employees are trained to build both school buses and walk-in vans."

Before starting up the assembly line, the production prototype was built in February 1997. The next month, the first production models rolled off the assembly line.

The Crown walk-in van was developed with input from a special 16-member customer-focus group that identified several needs and concerns of current walk-in van designs, Otto says. The primary concerns of the group were for fuel economy, driver productivity, and driver safety.

"These concerns are worth a lot in dollars," Otto says.

The Crown walk-in van is designed to make drivers safer, he says. To give drivers better protection in front-end collisions, Carpenter adapted the 1 1/2-inch tubular steel front driver's cage of its Cadet school bus to the Crown walk-in van. The steel cage is used in the Cadet to comply with federal motor vehicle safety standards for school bus driver safety.

Protecting Drivers In the floor of the driver's cage, galvanized steel sheet adds strength, Otto says. But the steel floor and driver's cage increase the weight of the walk-in van by 350 lb. However, the focus group said the added weight was worth the increase in safety.

The Crown walk-in van was designed with features to enhance driver productivity, Otto says. The driver's compartment was enlarged by nine inches from the engine cowl to the rear bulkhead.

The extra space can be used for storing packages ready for delivery in a route truck. Trays hold clipboards or a laptop computer. Cupholders are molded into the dash area and engine cowl. Other areas near the driver have shelves and cabinets.

Sidewalls of Crown walk-in vans equipped for beverage delivery have Diamond rollup doors for compartments on each side that hold 55 cases of 24 12-ounce cans. Higher door openings are installed in trucks that carry cases of 20-ounce bottles.

Construction of a Crown walk-in van begins with preparation of a stripped chassis for body mounting. After the chassis is prepped, it is moved to the assembly line.

At the first station, a 1 1/2-inch tubular steel front driver's cage is assembled and installed on the stripped chassis. The same cage is used on the Cadet school bus to comply with federal regulations for school bus driver safety.

Next to this station, the floor is welded. The 14-gauge steel sheet used to build the floor is formed in 1,000-ton presses made by US Industries Inc. The same pieces are used to build floors for walk-in vans and Carpenter Cadet school buses.

"The floor comes in as flat stock, and we form, weld, and seal it," Otto says.

Common Subassemblies Most of the subassemblies used to build the Crown walk-in van and the Cadet school bus are made in Carpenter's fabrication shop. Other components such as wiring harnesses and seats are made for both vehicles in the same plant. School bus doors assembled in the fabrication shop for the Cadet are the same doors used in the Crown walk-in van.

"The subassembly parts made in Carpenter's fabrication department account for about 30% of the total parts used in the Crown walk-in van," says Ron Moore, general plant superintendent.

Sidewalls for walk-in vans are made of .125-inch aluminum sheet with aluminum sideposts on 24-inch centers. On sidewall fixtures, each pin stop for metal sheet is for a different height body. At the same station, openings for wheels wells are cut with a handrouter and a template.

Assembly-Line Production The rear door frame is assembled in a fixture at the next station. Rear corner post extrusions, the aluminum door header, and the sill are riveted together in the fixture. Sidewalls, rear door frames, and roofs are installed on the chassis at separate stations on the assembly line.

"Once the rear door and sidewalls are installed, the walk-in van is 70% complete," Moore says.

Windshields and windows are installed after the body is assembled, gritblasted, primed, and painted. A molded fiberglass hood is the last body piece installed.

Many of the design features of the Crown walk-in van were first incorporated into the Cadet school bus, Otto says. But he is quick to point out that the Crown is not just a modified school-bus design. The walk-in van division has its own engineering department.

Both vehicles share the same school-bus-style entrance doors. With the push of an exterior button, the electronic doors open inward. By pushing a button on a key fob, the doors can be opened electronically from 50 feet. Depending on the size of the van body, the entrance step is about 17 inches off the ground and 37 inches wide, Otto says. The step is wider and lower than those on most walk-in vans.

Aerodynamic Design The fiberglass hood used on the Cadet bus and Crown walk-in van are similar, Otto says. The hood was designed originally to make the Crown walk-in van more aerodynamic by moving air up and to each side as the vehicle travels down the road.

The windshield is raked at 30 degrees to achieve this aerodynamic design, Otto says. For greater visibility, the windshield glass is three inches taller than glass used most often for walk-in van windshields.

At the rear of the vehicle, just below the rear cargo door, Carpenter can install optional steps that fold out and down to within five inches of the ground. The three 24-inch wide steps are operated with a switch on the dashboard or at the rear of the vehicle. A two-step version is available also.

The extra steps are a popular option with the vending, bakery, and linen industries, Otto says. During the winter, the steps provide greater safety because drivers avoid stepping on slippery rear bumpers when handling cargo.

The design of the Carpenter Crown walk-in van and its options have made it a popular route-delivery vehicle, Otto says. Besides the large purchase order from the federal government, the company has received other large orders from Coca-Cola and MAC tools.

During 1997, Carpenter built 650 Crown walk-in vans. The plant can build 10 walk-in vans per day. But the current build rate is five vehicles per day. Otto says Carpenter expects to build 1,300 walk-in vans in 1998, and 2,600 walk-in vans in 1999.

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