From a platform high above the floor of West-Mark's manufacturing building, general manager Grant Smith surveys the operation of the company his father cofounded 33 years ago.
"That old setup, it was unbelievable - cramped, inefficient," he says. "This had made quite a difference."
No, this is not the Taj Mahal of Tank Building. It just seems that way to him. For 31 of those 33 years, West-Mark operated on a 4.9-acre parcel of land in Ceres, California, situated in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley and some of America's most fertile farmland. They started out by building foodgrade, stainless-steel tank trailers and doing repair work. They expanded into code vessels of stainless, aluminum, and steel for most liquid products, specialty tanks, and sanitary tankers. Then they moved into the fire-apparatus industry.
They had 36,000 sq ft. They needed at least twice that.
Smith loved the plant. As an eighth-grader, he had helped clear the land on which it was built, tearing out trees along Highway 99 while the thermometer hit triple digits. It was where he worked before he went to college. But elbow room overrides elevated nostalgia.
Thirty miles south on Highway 99, the city of Atwater was looking to boost an economy that had been devastated by the closure of Castle Air Force Base. It had plenty of land on the west side of Highway 99. And given that the price of the land it was offering was, in Smith's words, "negligible," he happily gobbled up 14.2 acres.
60,000 Sq Ft of Space The result? A sparkling 60,000-sq-ft facility that was completed in January at a cost of $2 million, giving West-Mark the capacity to produce three times what it is now, without even adding a second shift.
West-Mark didn't say goodbye to Ceres. The company's headquarters remains there, along with fire-apparatus manufacturing and the repair shop. The 24,000-sq-ft area dedicated to tank manufacturing is now for repairs, and the 12,000-sq-ft area that was for repairs produces fire apparatus.
Before the Atwater facility was finished, West-Mark was renting an industrial tract to build the fire trucks. They cut out a fence and ran the trucks back and forth. Those days are over.
The plan is for the fire-truck operation to ultimately move to a two-acre spread in Atwater, adjacent to the tank-building facility. That would provide even more room in Ceres for West-Mark's burgeoning repair business.
Smith does not want to move the repair shop because Ceres is situated in a more advantageous position to handle traffic from the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily chemical haulers, along with fertilizer, milk, and wine haulers in the Valley. West-Mark also has a repair facility in Bakersfield, 120 miles north of Los Angeles on Highway 99. Both facilities handle any make or model tank trailer, restoration or repair, major rollovers or implosion. They are ASME-certified and DOT-registered, and perform complete HM 183 testing.
Now that the project is complete and the wrinkles have been ironed out, the 45-year-old Smith can relax.
"It was a big move for us," he says. "I've heard of other companies struggling with something like this, so that scared me a bit. But now I'm thinking, 'Gee, this was not as difficult as I thought it'd be.' We've got some good people. They worked hard. It's up and running fairly smooth now."
Space Freed West-Mark has been building 24 to 30 fire-apparatus units a year in Ceres, but Smith says the additional space could mean that the company will produce as many as 50 units this year.
West-Mark entered the industry when the California Department of Forestry placed a large order for Wildland Pumpers - tough, all-terrain 4x4s that operate in the Sierra foothills east of the Valley. The chassis is a Navistar 4800 with a 33,000-lb GVWR, 160" wheelbase, International DT-466E 230 hp engine, and Allison World transmission. It has a 500-gallon water tank with NFPA-standard connections and 10-gauge stainless steel type 304 body, and a 500 gpm, hydrostatic-driven, electric-throttle pump.
They also manufacture water tenders, with a 3,000-gallon tank and the capacity to pump up to 1,250 gpm, and custom and commercial pumpers, with a 750-gallon tank and 1,500-gpm capability.
The biggest change has been experienced on the tank-trailer side. West-Mark has continued to produce the same trailers but expects to produce over 50% more this year.
Not only has the company added the Atwater facility, but it also has more aggressively courted the Northwest (Oregon, Washington, Idaho) and western Canada. Its Los Angeles salesman is covering ground in Arizona and New Mexico - places from which the company previously took orders but did not actively pursue.
"We're really cranking it up," Smith says.
West-Mark does not have a dealer network, instead relying on direct sales. A big part of Smith's job is selling. His 75-year-old father, Jack, still has a base of customers.
"He's not a golfer or this or that," Smith says. "This is his life."
Says production manager James Moore, "That's what keeps him young."
Smith says another significant portion of the company's business will come from increased work through the federal government's NATE (Now Available Tankers & Equipment Servicing Vehicles) program. West-Mark got the original contract in 1994, involving primarily vehicles for military use.
"We have the ability to communicate with the end users, instead of going through another contract officer," says Scott Vincent, West-Mark's operations manager. "It's specification-driven, and it's a lot of work. The contract alone is four inches thick. Because of the sheer amount of paperwork, only three manufacturers I know of even want to deal with it.
"The government buys a lot of different types of vehicles. We're trying to build something to meet their requirements. They send out the specifications. I think there were over 80 pages in specifications alone that were requirements just for trucks and refuelers.
"While there is a lot of paperwork, it's been a lot of good work for us."
Milk Tanks Lead the Way When Trailer Body/Builders went to West-Mark in 1975, the company's advertising slogan was, "The Leader in Lightweight Engineering."
In that sense, not much has changed. Its web site now proclaims, "The World's Lightweight Transportation Tank Leader."
The bread-and-butter is the milk tank, led by the 6,700-gallon 3-A sanitary stainless steel transport model and the four-axle (rear liftable/steerable) 53' OAL 8,200-gallon tank with aluminum lightweight jacket, which features baked-on enamel. West-Mark also produces tanks to haul chemicals, liquid sugar, hot products, and various hazardous and nonhazardous products. It produces an array of truck-mounted tanks for water, fertilizers, and wine.
Specialty work is West-Mark's forte. It manufactures a Super B Train for a Canadian company that can haul up to 120,000 lb, plus a 13,000-gallon self-contained vacuum tank that ARCO uses in the oilfields.
One of West-Mark's biggest projects is a 25,000-gallon diesel tank for Lynden Logistics, an Alaskan transportcompany.
"I wish I had one of the other tanks in here that we build," Smith says. "They have fully insulated heating compartments on each end. Men work in there all day with vacuum pumps and diesel engines running the hydraulics. Our average tank here is $50,000. Those are over $300,000. Alaska has been a good piece of our business.
"It's a challenge, getting those rings on that big a diameter. We've been doing quite a bit of it the last five or six years. Like anything else, there's a learning curve."
The specialty work challenges not only chief engineer Gary Spoelstra to come up with the intricate designs, but the shop to adjust its schedule.
"On a standard milk tank, we have clear and detailed plans, and they don't change much," Smith says. "A customer changes his tires, wheels, maybe the lights. We kick that right out. But when we've got a special Super B Train from Canada that has all this pumping and plumbing in separate compartments, it gets pretty exotic. Then it's pretty heavy in the engineering hours."
"But," Spoelstra says, "the rest of the shop's still at the same speed."
"They'll use a day on a milk tank and weeks on a special tank," Smith says, "so it's hard to juggle that to keep a steady flow."
Boosting Production The addition of the Atwater operation has changed the way West-Mark builds tanks. No longer forced to shuttle the tanks and materials in and out of the manufacturing area, the company uses an assembly-line style of production that caters to its specialty orders. Aiding the process is a four-crane setup (two 10-ton, two five-ton).
"It works really well for us," Moore says. "By going into assembly lines, 10-15% of our hours have been reduced. We organized it so that all the parts are there for the people. They're brought in by a forklift driver so the employees don't have to leave their line. They just reach over and get the part.
"Same with the welding equipment. We used to have it in a line. As the trailer moved, you moved all the equipment with it. On the assembly line, all the equipment stays in the same area and the trailer moves. And the guy just goes to work on the next trailer that comes in."
Says Smith of the new-found efficiency, "That's what we hoped for. That's why we did it. Just the space itself makes it more efficient. We were so crammed."
The move to the Atwater facility was accompanied by the acquisition of equipment: 22' seam welder, 22' roll, CNC press brake, plasma burner, and head flange. West-Mark has an outside source that burns many of its stock parts for trailers and fire trucks. In the works is a 50' paint booth in a 4,000-sq-ft building adjacent to the main shop.
One of the key elements of the new facility is the hydro station in the middle of the main floor. As the tanks come down the line, they are pressure-tested for leaks, and the piping sends the water to an outside underground tank, where it is stored until it is reused. Contrast that with West-Mark's hydro station in Ceres, which is outside the building, forcing workers to move the tanks out of the shop.
"I doubt if anybody else has what we have," Moore says.
They work under a bank of high-intensity lights and in a climate-controlled atmosphere - both significant upgrades over Ceres. The new facility is insulated and has a ventilation system that circulates air.
The company added a number of production employees and wants to add more. The idea is to take the sales volume and make it even larger.
"We want to grow this place," Smith says. "We didn't build this just for what we're doing now."