Expansion Bolsters US Truck Body Plant

Fourteen years ago, when Jim Walker went to the US Truck Body plant in New York as a novice in the manufacturing industry, his job was to learn as much as he could about building bodies.

He learned a lot. But one thing that really stuck in his head was the image of inefficiency. Van-body flooring was stored outside, then moved back inside when it was needed. Walker thought to himself, "Why are they hauling the material two or three times before it gets in the body?"

A few years ago, Walker came to the realization that his own US Truck Body plant in Streator, Illinois, was guilty of the same sort of inefficiency. Ironically, it was because of how successful they had become. They were simply trying to produce too many bodies in too restrictive confines.

The obvious answer: expansion. They had the land to easily accommodate it - 12 acres.

They had 48,000 sq ft in the main manufacturing building, 22,000 in a finishing building off to the side, and 6,000 in a storage building. Early in 1999, they finished a 26,000-sq-ft extension to the main building that allowed them to relocate inventory that was occupying space and more than double their production level.

"We were getting to the point where we were bursting at the seams," says Walker, the company's vice-president and plant manager. "Our inventorywas growing, our production was growing. You get to the point where you have to do something. You can't keep putting your materials outside and you can't put them in other containers. You lose your efficiency by doing that.

"We had to get more materials in the building closer to the production lines, as well as add more lines. We do moving vans and StepSide vans, and they don't move through at the same speed. We had to be able to accommodate both. We couldn't do it with four lines, so we added two."

Changes Allow Flexibility During the past two to three years, they have increased their van-body production by 50%, which Walker attributes not just to the additional space but to an incentive program - implemented shortly before work began on boosting the manufacturing capacity - that is based on production levels and team-building.

The changes have given US Truck Body more flexibility to deal with the varying van-body work and the issue of chassis delivery.

"On a perfect day, it'll flow right through," Walker says. "The truck will come and away it goes. On that day it doesn't show up, we have to be able to accommodate issues like that."

It's still not ideal. Walker says that if he were to design a plant, it would be an additional 100 ft in length, providing more room for materials at the end of the shop. As it is now, the plant is wide and short.

But Walker likes the options the new setup creates.

"We can run a moving van anywhere in the shop," Walker says. "We can run a sliding-door body anywhere. Some run smoother in some areas simply because of the people that are working in that area. That's part of our flexibility. We can do anything anywhere."

The property has a rich manufacturing history. It used to be the home of Anthony Co, which used it to manufacture dump trailers, dump bodies, and liftgates.

From New York to Illinois US Truck Body originated in New York in 1945, run by the Harmon brothers, Al and Bernie, in a 50,000-sq-ft facility in Long Island City.

It expanded to the Midwest market in 1986 when Walker's father, Patrick, negotiated a joint venture to form US Truck Body/Midwest. Seven years later, the New York facility, mired in financial problems, went out of business. Patrick bought out the Harmons' interest, assuming control of the entire US Truck Body product line and name.

US Truck Body is owned by Streator Dependable Mfg. Streator Dependable, which originally was run by Jim's father and two uncles and now includes two of Jim's brothers and two brothers-in-law, manufactures all of US Truck Body's steel-fabricated components. They don't have very far to travel - the two plants are separated by less than a mile.

After his training in the truck-building process in New York, Jim went from general manager to vice-president, ultimately taking over in 1988.

The most significant product addition has been the moving van, which US Truck Body started manufacturing three years ago. Its biggest customer is Allied, but it also serves a number of independents. US Truck Body sells through a distributor network of about 30 companies - mostly in the Midwest and East, with an emphasis on New York and New Jersey - so the company often doesn't even know the identity of its end users.

"We'll see a body on TV or we'll get a magazine and say, 'Oh, there's one of our moving vans right there,' " Walker says.

Input from Distributors Says marketing manager Bill Bontemps, "It's hard from an advertising point of view. Who do you really advertise to? If it's the end user, does he really care what brand of body he has on? Do you try to sell your strengths to him, so he can go back and specify, 'I want a US body'? That'd be one little niche we target. But you have to do research. So it's a challenge to promote and advertise. That's why we rely heavily on our distributors."

Distributors know their market and cover it in a way a single company can't do on a nationwide basis. The challenge is to get input from them. Sales manager Fred Volkman says the company puts warranty cards in the body and gets a high percentage of returns.

US Truck Body has developed relationships with a number of distributorships in Long Island. "When our partners went out of business, a lot of customers were looking for US bodies, so we built those bodies and trucked them out there," Walker says. "We have distributors in New York that mount them for us. We haven't been able to do that out West. We don't have the name recognition."

Walker has taken a lot of the manufacturing techniques from US Truck Body's New York operation and refined them. For example, that plant never used self-drilling fasteners. By eliminating New York's two-process operation and making other changes, the Streator plant has increased its efficiency by 50%.

Walker says his company's body design is unlike others in several ways.

"We weld our crossmembers into a steel Z-mounting rail, which is attached to the side wall," he says. "Our New York facility used to clamp the whole body together in a crude manner. We refined that. A lot of our competition, they use a rub rail - half of it is attached to the sheet, the other half is bolted to the rail down below.

"We run our side-wall posts all the way down the Z-mounting rail, bolt it to the Z-mounting rail and weld the other structure into that, so it creates a stronger structure."

Stability and Durability Walker says the assembly of Z rails and outer rub rails allows body posts to extend 6 3/4" below floor level. He says this construction, secured with 3/8" stainless steel bolts, provides maximum strength, stability, and durability. The front wall scuff plate is mounted below floor level and welded to the top of the Z rail for front-wall resistance to forklift impact and load-shifting forces.

"We bolt the steel rail to the bottom of our side-wall posts, then we weld in the understructure," he says. "We feel that by running the aluminum posts all the way down below floor level, we get a lot more structural strength out of the wall post. The competitors stop just below floor level."

He says no other van body builder uses US Truck Body's roof subassembly or its two-piece top rail. The top rail, made of high-strength aluminum alloy, is riveted to the side wall. The design means roof rails can be replaced without disturbing the side-wall structure.

The roof assembly is built in a separate area of the main building, which enables US Truck Body to have more flexibility in the production line.

"We build our roof as a separate assembly, whereas a lot of manufacturers build it right on the body as it's coming down the line," he says. "We build it in a different department and put it on the body after it's had its undercarriage put in. It also enables us to repair bodies quicker because we can unbolt the roof, throw a new roof on it and bolt it right back on.

"We pretty much took the design New York gave us and we made some improvements. We went from cadmium-plated bolts to stainless steel. Anything that might corrode on the body, we try to take out and use aluminum and stainless rivets and bolts to try to eliminate any type of corrosion."

Walker says the company is always investigating the value of new tools and discussing new ideas.

"It's a compromise, getting the customer to try different products," he says. "We use nothing but oak flooring. When we first started, we were putting in mixed Malaysian, then people were using pine flooring or plastic flooring. The customers wouldn't accept it. They didn't want it. We decided to go with what everybody loved - and that was laminated oak. We've used hickory, birch, maple, pine, but it all goes back to oak. The customers want oak."

Walker says US Truck Body's commitment to customer service is illustrated by a stock-body program that allows the company to provide next-day mounting. It keeps a dozen bodies in the yard, in sizes of 14, 16, 20, 22, and 24 ft. Most of the stock bodies are sold directly to dealers in Chicago, 90 miles northeast of Streator.

"The only downfall to our stock-body program is that our lead times are usually short enough so that they'll wait the extra two weeks and get a body built for them for their specific needs - a certain height or width," Walker says.

Incentive Program Working A tour of US Truck Body's facility reveals why Walker is proud of efficiency. Everybody is doing something, whether it's welding, drilling, or moving materials. It's a busy place.

Walker is reluctant to offer details of the incentive program, other than to say "it's based on product produced in a week's period and labor savings. We allow them so much time to get the product done, and anything they produce beyond that point is their own savings.

"It gives guys incentive to work smart and work together as a team," he says. "It's more of a team program, not piecework program. Piecework works fine when you're an individual trained to increase your efficiency. But when you've got 40 or 50 guys getting a piecework rate, they don't care what the next guy does as long as they get their quota."

Says Volkman, "It's not just productivity. It's quality, too."

"Yeah," Walker adds, "we have to maintain our quality. If we have problems in the shop and somebody's working too fast and it's affecting the product quality, they have to redo it. So they're wasting their own time and money."

Walker has enhanced the program's effectiveness by courting and implementing suggestions made by the employees.

When Walker reacted to one suggestion on the construction of the heavy-duty, 48-inch pullout tailgate - eliminating the welding of all the pieces by lasering out one part and forming three different sections - they saved eight feet of welding across the rear end and about 45 minutes of work time. They also added a 360-degree welding fixture.

"When the guys in the shop make a suggestion, we listen to them," Walker says. "They're the ones actually doing the job, and if the president and vice- president of the company are sitting right here and the workers say, 'I need three tools to do this job, not just one,' we get them the other two tools.

"Any suggestion is better than none. So we'll listen to the guys and any suggestions they make; they're not falling on deaf ears. Guys put more faith in you if they know you're listening."o

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