New Plant Uses Lasers, Robots In Manufacturing Dump Bodies

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM may claim that dump body manufacturing is a low-tech industry that does not require precision fabrication or assembly.

Conventional wisdom is wrong.

The new 140,000-sq-ft R/S Body Company plant in Ivel, Kentucky, is anything but conventional. A laser does much of the cutting of steel, and a robot helps to weld it. These machine tools, along with an Esterline Whitney plasma/punch, produce accurate parts that fit precisely into the custom-built assembly fixtures in far less time and with higher quality.

R/S Body Company manufactures a variety of products, including aluminum and steel dump bodies and trailers, platform bodies, suspensions, and underbody hoists. The company also operates as a truck equipment distributor and a parts outlet for its local trade area.

R/S began construction of the plant in November 1997, and moved into the facility September 1. Although construction took less than a year, the new location is something R/S had been planning since 1992.

"We have been in production several months now and have not had any bugs to fix," says Charles Collins, president. "That's because a lot of planning went into this plant, and things have gone the way we planned them."

The company had several goals in mind in 1992 when the planning began to replace a 40,000-sq-ft facility that consisted of two separate buildings. R/S wanted a new plant that would offer the following:

* Employee conveniences. * More efficient material flow. * Improved product quality.

* Additional crane capacity. * Better ergonomics for employees. * Higher productivity.

"We needed a new plant for several reasons, including the fact that we had been operating at maximum capacity since 1991," Collins says.

The Results The result of the planning is a facility that includes 60,000 square feet of production area, a 27,500-sq-ft steel storage and processing area, and a 17,500-sq-ft material warehouse located on 20 acres.

The site in Ivel, Kentucky, is only three miles from the previous location in Allen-close enough to enable the company to retain its telephone number, employee base, and mailing address. Only the street address changed.

The property, located along the Big Sandy River, is convenient to employees but required a lot of work to prepare it for its new use.

"Flat land is hard to find here in eastern Kentucky," Collins says. "We moved in more than one million cubic yards of dirt in order to build the property up two feet above the 100-year flood plain."

In the few months the plant has been in production, Collins is seeing benefits.

"All of our objectives in building the plant have been met," he says. "We now have space enough to improve our sales. We no longer are being held back by limited production capacity."

In addition, employee morale has gone up dramatically.

"Working in a facility that limits your ability to grow creates a situation that causes your employees to work at less than top speed," Collins says. "Employees lose enthusiasm. The sales department loses the excitement associated with finding and developing a new customer. The shop is limited in what it can do to become more productive. Hard work, enthusiasm, and a desire to find better ways to do things are attributes that make a company a leader in the industry.

"With the completion of our new facility, these problems have been eliminated. R/S now can develop new territories. These territories previously were unavailable to us because we could not take care of our existing customers if we added any new accounts."

Equipping the Plant R/S relies on a variety of computer-controlled equipment to fabricate its products. One of the most sophisticated is the laser from Cincinnati Inc. The laser can handle 6 foot x 12 foot steel sheet up to a half-inch thick.

"It complements the Whitney punch/plasma that we already had," Collins explains. "We use the Whitney for parts that have a lot of holes because a punch/plasma is faster."

The slower speed of the laser is offset somewhat by the cleanliness of the cut. The laser produces an edge soclean that it requires no secondary finishing. Also speeding up the process is a pair of material positioning tables that enable parts to be unloaded from one table while the laser is cutting steel on the other. The laser does not require fulltime operator attention during the operation.

R/S chose a standalone laser over a combination punch/laser machine after concluding that punching operations created a tough environment in which the laser would have to coexist.

Operating costs of the laser have been low during the two years it has been operating at R/S Body, Collins says. The machine comes with its own cleaning system. Cincinnati Inc technicians perform preventive maintenance on it every 1,000 hours, and the laser lenses need to be changed on average every 3,000 hours.

Making It Easy R/S has equipped its new plant with a number of conveniences designed to make it easier for employees to do their jobs. For example:

* Welding jibs are mounted on hydraulic cylinders. The cylinders enable the jibs to lift the wire feeder over the top of dump bodies or to place it at floor level for easier service.

* Lift tables. Two in the welding department and one in the paint booth enable workers to position bodies at a convenient working height. Controls mounted on the tables make the adjustment of table height readily accessible.

* Additional jib cranes improve material handling. One crane, for example, moves steel between shear and press brake.

New Marketing Thrust The completion of the plant has enabled R/S Body to make changes in its approach to the market.

"Until the plant opened, we couldn't go out and sell aggressively because we couldn't produce fast enough," says Hank Wilson, the company's new sales and marketing manager. "Now we have the production capacity we need. We are in a position to pursue state and municipal business-high-volume, low margin sales that require the type of manufacturing capability that we now have."

The new plant is larger and more efficient than the previous R/S facility. In addition, the inside of the plant is well lighted, making it possible for the company to add a night shift that was not feasible in an older building. The previous building relied heavily on natural lighting that came into the plant through translucent panels.

In addition to Hank Wilson, hired in December, the company has added three additional outside sales people. The company has a sales staff of 10.

"We are adding distributors and dealers," Collins says, "and are planning cooperative efforts we might conduct with our distributors."

The majority of R/S sales is east of the Mississippi River, and most is made through distributors. The company sells direct in eastern Kentucky and uses truck dealers in the Washington DC area and in Florida.

What They Sell R/S Body specializes in dumps, offering a wide range of products within this market. Products include:

* Steel dump bodies. This is the company's most popular product, with sales in 1997 of almost $6.5 million. Within the steel dump body line are four varieties of body styles aimed at the construction, municipal, and demolition markets. The company also produces its C Series steel dump body designed for the mining industry.

* Aluminum dump bodies. Three series are offered for construction, municipal, and mining applications.

* Steel and aluminum trailers. * Air suspensions. In 1986, R/S Body purchased the Page line of suspensions from Dura Corporation. Since then, R/S Body has replaced all but two of the original Page suspensions with the company's own designs. They include a 20,000-lb auxiliary air suspension, a 20,000-lb truck air suspension, tandem single-point spring suspensions ranging from 44,000-lb to 70,000-lb capacities, and a 20,000-lb trailer airlift suspension.

* Underbody hoists. "We used to buy hoists from other manufacturers," Collins says. "But when we were really busy, the other manufacturers were, too. We couldn't get hoists when we needed them, so we began building them ourselves about 10 years ago."

* Accessories. R/S Body also manufactures a line of heavy-duty truck and tractor accessories. They include toolboxes, fenders, wet line kits, frame steps, hydraulic oil reservoirs, and cab protectors. "Because we sell them for coal and off-road uses, we make them with a little heavier aluminum than usual," Collins says.

* Distributed products. The company serves as a distributor in its local trade area for several manufacturers, including IMT cranes, compressors, and lube trucks; Holland fifthwheels and landing gear; Stahl service bodies; and Meyer snowplows.

Limited Trailer Sales Most of the trailers fabricated by R/S Body go to customers out of state, particularly those in Virginia.

"We don't build trailers for Kentucky because the specifications that most customers want here are too big for the weight laws," Collins says. "Virginia is stricter in terms of its weight laws, which means we don't get the requests for trailers that have too much capacity."

Kentucky allows 126,000 pounds on designated highways for coal hauling only, Collins says. Otherwise the standard gross combination weight rating is the standard 80,000 pounds.

"Even with the designated highways, it's not unusual for trucks to be 46,000 pounds overweight. Grossing 175,000 pounds is not uncommon here," he says. "Our position is that we should not be building trailers to the dimensions some customers in Kentucky are requesting, because we don't want to certify a trailer that will be overloaded by 46,000 pounds.

"Our industry needs to do a better job of policing itself. We need to make sure that we build equipment that does not create a safety defect when it is installed and used on our highways."

Getting Started R/S Body began operations in 1968 as a local fabrication shop catering to the coal industry. The company was based in a 24,000-sq-ft building built on five acres.

In 1974 R/S bought Reynolds Body Company, a competitor located next door. Combining the two locations gave R/S Body the 40,000 square feet on nine acres that the company left when it moved into its new location last year.

The company, which began privately owned, is now part of Standard Automotive Corporation. Standard bought CPS Trailers of Oran, Missouri, in August and acquired Ajax Manufacturing of Somerville, New Jersey, in 1997.

"We are trying to coordinate a marketing and sales program between CPS Trailers and R/S Body so that both companies can benefit from the sale of each other's products in territories that do not presently overlap," Collins says. "Through the efforts of both companies, we hope to expand our present territories and increase sales by better utilization of our present sales personnel."

Total sales at R/S Body have varied over the years, primarily the result of the cyclical market for coal dump bodies. However, sales growth stagnated in the 1990s as the company reached the maximum capacity of its plant.

"With the completion of our plant, these problems have been eliminated," Collins says.

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