Contract Manufacturing Little Trailers on a Big Scale

Driving on Highway 177 from Ardmore to Madill, Oklahoma, is reminiscent of driving down Music Row just outside of downtown Nashville. But don't expect to see country-western music stars and recording studios on Hwy 177. What you will see is row after row of livestock trailers and trailer manufacturers, and they're as tightly packed in as the studios on Music Row.

The Contract Manufacturer Inc (CM Trailers) operation is easily distinguishable from some of the other trailer manufacturers.

First, the size of the CM manufacturing facility in Madill, Oklahoma, is impressive. It's a 275,000-square-foot plant facility with an additional 50,000-square-foot detached plant situated on just under 49 acres of land Secondly, because CM manufactures many varieties of trailers, its storage yard is covered with several different types and sizes of trailers.

And lastly, when there's a new person in the town of Madill, everything and everyone seem to point towards the CM facility as if they know that's what you're looking for.

Additionally, CM opened the aluminum trailer manufacturing facility in Chickasha, Oklahoma. The facility, in excess of 59,000 square feet, is equipped with clean-floor manufacturing space with extensive interior air filtration system.

“We wanted a location that would almost provide a clean-floor type of atmosphere for the construction of the aluminum product. We found that in Chickasha,” says Ronald Jackson, principal of CM Trailers. With Michael Terry adding his expertise to the company, we have gained quite a bit of extrusion and construction expertise.” Terry joins CM as principal and vice-president of CM's aluminum division in Chickasha, Oklahoma.

Jackson says that the horse and utility trailer manufacturing business is a little different from the larger trailers because of the high degree of preassembly work involved in the product.

“We've got to spend time putting together the door frames, window frames, interior items such as the saddle racks, and hitch assemblies,” says Jackson. “We schedule the line manufacturing and watch everything from our elevated tower. From there we can see just about all of the different departments in the plant. It's very similar to a control tower at an airport.”

Sawing, shear, brake, and plasma cutting operations are the first step in the manufacturing process. Raw materials such as sheet metal can range from 36 to 60 inches wide and from 74 to 120 inches long. CM also maintains over 75 different types of metal sheet material. CM pays extra to have the sheets shipped with a PVC lining to help reduce handling damage.

“We also get all of our standard preassembled pieces ready for installation. They include all of the door jams, window frames, gate and divider frames, brush trays, boot boxes, and other parts that are necessary ingredients for the construction of a typical horse or stock trailer,” says Donnie Huffman, Madill's fabrication and production supervisor.

“Actually the subassemblies are some of the most critical work for us,” says Huffman. “When a trailer owner has a problem with a trailer, in many cases it can be from a door sealing problem, or a door or window framing not standing up to the use of the customer. We try to head that problem off by examining the quality of the subassemblies as they are manufactured. Rear gates and gooseneck assemblies are big time consumers. We get those welded up and get them ready to install while the different trailer lengths are being built.

Frame-Up

“The floor piece jig provides a square rigid fixture with alignment tools to provide us with consistent floor manufacturing,” says Huffman. “We assemble the floor in what would normally be called an “upside down” position. This provides the best welding area for us to work with, and it is in the best position for us to install the axle assembly.”

The floor frame is then transferred to one of three manufacturing lines. “This is where the Madill operations differ from what is done at Chickasha,” says Huffman. “After this, the process for manufacturing an aluminum trailer is a little different from manufacturing a steel trailer.”

At Madill, the floor piece is then placed on steel casters. The caster's wheels are indented so that they ride on the angle iron's web area. The Chickasha operation uses a dedicated bay system for manufacturing the trailer.

The sidewalls of the steel trailer are attached, but the method used depends on the type of trailer that is being manufactured. For gooseneck trailers, the neck is attached and squared to the trailer. For bumper pull trailers the sidewalls are attached first, and then the front bulkhead is attached by installing the front sidepost.

Once the installation of the side post has been completed, the trailer receives its roof bows. The roof bows are attached in much the same fashion that an over-the-road trailer would be manufactured. The bows complete the framing operation of the steel trailer, and it is now ready to receive the skin.

The Madill facility can manufacture all of the varied varieties of trailers that CM has in their line. “What makes trailer building different at this level is in looking at the application that the trailer is going to perform,” says Huffman. “For example, a livestock trailer isn't going to receive a skin the full length of the trailer. Some may be scheduled to receive a slat skin for the first half of the trailer, followed by steel tube above that to the roof of the trailer. Other trailers may have window or feed opening put in the trailer, which would mean further modification to the sidewalls.”

Aluminum Shine

For CM's aluminum line, the process is similar, except that the Chickasha facility doesn't use a manufacturing line. The trailer floor is taken to a dedicated assembly stall where the trailer is completed.

“Each production bay has two dedicated assemblers who stay with the trailer through its assembly process, until it's ready for the interior build out,” says Michael Terry, principal and vice-president of CM's aluminum division.

Once the floor has the axle attached and is brought into a bay, it is leveled so that further manufacturing steps can be taken. Once this is done, the gooseneck is attached to the trailer and TIG welded into place.

The assemblers then set the front post and attach them to the floor frame. Once the front posts have been attached, the top rail is attached in place. The remaining side posts are laid out and attached as the trailer design requires. Then, roof bows are set in place.

For the aluminum assemblers, the next step is to set the side slats, which are fitted to the frame and tacked into place. They are then checked for squareness and TIG welded into place onto the uprights, top rail, and main and floor frame.

“On the aluminum trailers, the material used to cover the floor frame has already been installed while the floor piece was in production,” says Terry. “Since we use tongue-and-groove extrusions, it's easier to install those while the floor piece is on the jig table as opposed to doing that step in the bay.”

Sheeting is then placed on the exterior of the trailer. “CM uses a white .050-inch white prepainted aluminum skin attached with one-inch-wide Very High Bond (VHB) structural grade, acrylic adhesive tape. All uprights are sanded and scuffed with Scotch Brite pads and cleaned with isopropyl alcohol to improve adhesion.”

For the aluminum trailers, window holes are then cut using a plasma torch and templates. Bolt on fenders are also installed at this point, as well as any skin clean up that may need to take place.

Interior trim is then added to the inside of the trailer, including full rocker covers for all areas inside the trailer. This is not the living quarters trim, but the gate compartments, dividers with shoulder or head grills, rear tack walls, and other accessory items that are part of the trailer's cargo area.

Final exterior welding activities for the aluminum trailer include jack handles, tie rings, saddle racks, and other dealer or customer ordered options.

The roof is then added to the trailer. Aluminum trailers with living quarters require a thermal barrier roof. CM uses a product called an Encor roof. The Encor roof sheet is precut to fit each trailer. The sheet is lowered onto a bead of silicone sealant. This creates the first roof seal. Roof molding is then cut and added around this seal and bolted down on eight-inch centers, creating a second level of sealing.

Wash-Up to Finish

Both the aluminum and steel trailers follow a similar road from this point forward. All of the units are washed and made ready for any finish applications. A high-pressure hot water bath starts the process.

“For the steel trailers, this is followed with pretreatment of an alkaline solution,” says Jerry Murrack, the Madill plant finish supervisor. “We then follow this up with a low pH phosphate wash followed by a high pH phosphate wash. This neutralizes many of the problem contaminates that are on the metal and helps provide a longer lasting finish than would be experienced without the procedures.

“For the aluminum trailers, we wash the welds down with a low grade of phosphoric acid to remove the black carbon smoke from the TIG welding areas. In some cases the welds on the aluminum require us to use a hydrofluoric acid simply to clean the weld and remove some carbon scoring, for appearance.”

After the finish process, both the steel and aluminum trailers are placed into the trim process. The first step is wiring.

The process begins at the front of the trailer by installing a wiring harness that will accommodate the electrical requirements of the trailer. These needs may or may not include a living quarters, special customer requested lighting fixtures, and warning lights. The wiring harness goes to the wiring terminal block.

“Wiring can be such a complicated matter in building a trailer,” says Murrack. Simple two-horse steel trailers essentially just have some clearance lights and turn signals. But some trailers have full kitchens with microwaves.”

After wiring, the trailers move into the decal stage. Decals and final quality control checks are started on the trailer while the decal and finish-team technicians apply their magic to the trailer. For both the aluminum and the steel trailers, this is the opportunity to add the entire list of dealer or customer requested items such as rubber floor mats or other trailer specific add-on's.

Living Quarters

For the trailers that receive living quarter conversions, the Madill facility has a stand-alone plant that adds the customer's chosen interior scheme. “We can, and do, put any interior that a customer wants inside our trailer,” says Wilbert Williams, the living quarters supervisor. “It's about a three week turnaround from a raw trailer coming into the shop to a full living quarters inside.

“All of the folks that work in the living quarters division are craftsmen at heart. Everyone is highly skilled at carpentry, upholstery, plumbing, and electrical practices,” says Williams. “Our goal in this department is to hand craft a living quarters that will be comfortable for customers while they are on the road for their vacation or weekend trip. They may even be a professional horse trainer or performer, such as a barrel racer or roper.

CM employees not only build trailers with a well appointed living quarters as part of the package; they also pride themselves on making the plant in Madill as comfortable a working and living environment as possible.

“Dana Melton runs our cafeteria,” says Donnie McKee, marketing director for CM Trailer. “She does a great job at putting out about 300 to 500 meals a day, including about 50 that go to our daycare center.

“The daycare is walking distance from the front of the (Madill) plant. As a matter of fact, I have my son Braeden attending the daycare. Once the building was available for the daycare, we were very fortunate when Amy Bell was able to join us and run the center. It's pretty handy for all the mothers and fathers to go over there and spend a little time with their children during the day.”

McKee adds, “There are about 45 employees who participate in the day-care program. This helps the morale of our CM family.”

When asked about the favorite toy in the daycare, McKee says, “Of course - it's the CM toy trailer.”

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