A new season

“Every once in a while, it's nice to do a little bit of reflecting. To think back on where we've been, where we're going, who has taken us along for the ride, and how to reach the next destination. At CM, we reflect a lot. Because we know that without our workforce, our product, and our customers, we would be nothing. So thanks — to everyone out there who has made us what we are, and to all those who'll be on board with us for future journeys.”

THAT SECTION appears on CM Trailers' Web site, and although owner Ronald Jackson stands steadfastly by it, he'd readily admit he's not doing a lot of reflecting right now.

He's too busy running a new truck-body plant in Madill, Oklahoma — an efficient, state-of-the-art 25,000-square-foot facility in which 62 employees are producing an average of 40 bodies a day and, with a backlog of orders dating back to the plant's opening in October 2005, can't keep up with demand.

Jackson did most of his recent reflecting in October 2004 after a fire destroyed the company's truck-body plant.

He thought about the journey that had started in January 1990 when Contract Manufacturer LLC began manufacturing trailers under the trade name CM Trailers. He thought about the highly successful first four years, during which the company was listed among Inc. magazine's 500 Fastest Growing Privately Held Companies in the United States (37th in 1991, 89th in 1992, 58th in 1993, and 140th in 1994) and was included in the magazine's 1992 cover story about companies that had been started with less than $1000. He thought about the 1998 move to a 243,735-square-foot manufacturing facility that streamlined the assembly process. He thought about how the company had become one of the highest-volume producers of diversified trailer lines in the industry, including an all-steel line of horse, stock, cargo, and utility trailers, aluminum-exterior, steel-frame horse and cargo trailers, and all-aluminum stock trailers.

The company hadn't really needed to add a truck-body line. In fact, CM was building truck bodies shortly after the company's founding, but Jackson discontinued production because his small facility was overwhelmed by the trailer growth. But many in his 100-dealer network requested them, and in researching the market, he saw a need. So, in 2003, CM Trailers started small-scale production.

Jackson was surprised that it hadn't been more difficult to re-enter the market.

“The only thing I can attribute that to is that we saw a need and listened to our dealers,” says Jackson, a former National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) president who played an active role in the production and implementation of the “Recommended Manufacturers' Guidelines and Procedures Manual” published by NATM for its members. “They were out there saying, ‘We need a product that is just a little bit nicer.’ With carpet and AC, now trucks are as good as cars. The buying public had a hunger for a bed that would complement the truck.”

Bigger, better, more modern

But with production of truck bodies shut down by the fire, what would CM Trailers do next?

Over the subsequent months, Jackson decided to do more than just rebuild. He wanted to become “bigger, better, more modern.” He decided to change the whole strategy, adopting a just in time (JIT) manufacturing process and switching to a powder-coating paint process. He and his son, special projects manager Jeff Jackson, consulted with DuPont on the paint product (TGIC Premium Polyester), Nordson on the powder-coating equipment, and EnChem Corp on the wash chemicals.

“Each one told us how many feet of space we needed,” Jeff Jackson says. “All that was worked out before we even turned a bolt. We didn't want to get so far into it and have a supplier say, ‘Well, if I had 10 more feet of drying, everything would be fine.’ We had it worked out, scaled out, and drawn out.”

The Jacksons recruited five workers and built the facility from the ground up in nine months in an existing building located less than a mile from the main trailer manufacturing facility and corporate offices.

They believe one of the key elements is the powder-coating process.

“There are powder-coating booths in places that paint truck beds,” Ron Jackson says, “but there are none that we know of that have a complete, start-to-finish, assembly-line powder-coating system for truck beds 8' to 14' long. The Nordson people were just very eager to come in and put their expertise on the line, you might say, for us. They said, ‘We can design a system we know will work.’ We're fortunate to live in an area where the rep is aggressive and active to a challenge. Because it's always a challenge.”

All of CM's truck bodies previously were wet-painted.

“Powder-coating is something we've wanted to do for a long time because it will be a great benefit to our product and for our customers,” Jeff Jackson says.

He adds that it will give CM bodies unmatched finish, durability, longevity, and gloss retention — powder-coated surfaces are more resistant to chipping, scratching, fading, and wearing than other finishes — as well as provide much less waste, since 95% of the excess powder that does not adhere to the bed can be reclaimed for the next one.

The process

The truck bodies first go through a chemical pretreatment process in four stages in the Wash-O-Matic 1260 system that was designed and built by CM Trailers' employees: an alkaline cleaner is used to remove any shop dust, cutting oils, dirt, etc; a rinse is used to remove the alkaline cleaner; an iron phosphate conversion coating is used to enhance the adhesion and corrosion protection of the powder coating; and then there's a final rinse of de-ionized water to remove the excess iron phosphate.

After pretreatment, the bodies go through a gas convection dry-off oven, which dries the parts at 375° F for 21 minutes.

The parts are then sealed at the joints, which helps repel moisture and preserves the finish of the bed.

The beds are powder-coated with DuPont Super Durable Polyester, which is applied at approximately 2.0 to 3.0 mils. The Nordson electrostatic guns are set at a voltage of between 60,000 and 90,000 volts. Because the bodies are grounded by the conveyer, the electrostatic powder is deposited onto the parts.

CM has a 30'×40' clean room, and inside of that is a 20'×20' paint booth. The clean room is air-conditioned to provide a low-moisture, room-temperature environment. The exhaust exhales air directly into the clean room, with fresh air feeding the system as it needs it.

“You look into the paint booth and see a lot of black powder floating in the air and a lot falling on the floor and into the filter banks on each side,” Ronald Jackson says. “The filter banks, every few seconds, emit a big noise or thump — that's the filters purging themselves. The powder they've collected falls into a collecting tray at the bottom of the filter bank and is picked up on a blanket of air. It travels through a vacuum system into a big separator. It actually refines and cleans the powder and induces it back into the paint system at a ratio of 40% reclaimed powder to 60% virgin powder, so we lose very little. At the end of the day, we sweep it over into the filter banks and when we start up the next morning, they vacuum that powder into the system. It's totally self-circulating, self-reclaiming, and very environmentally friendly.”

The beds then go through the gas convection cure oven for 31 minutes at 400° F, allowing the powder to flow and cross-link to achieve its final appearance and physical properties (gloss, impact, flexibility, etc).

After exiting the cure oven, the bodies are cooled and ready for the final trim.

“To me, having been raised around a wet-coat system, it's just very, very different,” Ronald Jackson says. “Of course, people ask you, ‘How does the powder stay on the product until it gets dried? How does it get to be a liquid?’ Those are the questions that come up between our dealers and the people we sell to. We try to explain to them in layman's terms how it works.

“The track that the beds are hung on is basically a negative contact or negative charge. And the paint that is sprayed through the guns is electrostatically charged at the gun tip. The powder is kind of like the dust collecting on your coffee table at home. When you wipe it with a cloth, it collects dust. Well, the bed works in the same way, except it's self-induced through the electrostatic system and the powder is super-charged and the bed is negative. When the powder hits the bed, it's attracted to it, and you keep building it up several mils thick.

“As it gets into the oven, it's a powder. And 10 feet into the oven, it starts to get glossy. That's the powder liquefying as the metal heats up. It goes through a complete regeneration from a fine baby-powder substance to a liquid.”

Worker-friendly plant

How do the bodies get to the paint booth?

Through some of the most modern, streamlined, user-friendly equipment on the market.

“(During initial assembly), the beds are on rollers, so they are handled as little as possible,” says truck bed coatings supervisor Donnie McGehee. “And, most all work stations are built at user height, so no one has to bend or climb.”

After the initial assembly, the bodies are hung on an overhead, five-feet-per-minute monorail for the rest of the process, including the four-stage wash, dry-off oven, caulking and sealing, powder-coating, curing, and trim.

“There are no forklifts running around,” Ronald Jackson says. “It's all on conveyer. There's no stacking and unstacking.”

The company follows the JIT process that was first used by the Ford Motor Company in the 1920s and later adopted and popularized by the Toyota Motor Company as part of its Toyota Production System (TPS).

JIT allows manufacturers to purchase and receive components just before they're needed on the assembly line, thus eliminating the cost and burden of storing and managing idle parts and improving the return on investment.

CM has an agreement with its steel supplier to have its trucks at the manufacturing facility every morning. The steel is taken off the trucks and taken directly to the shear table. CM usually has one day of uncut material on the racks in case one of the steel supplier's trucks breaks down, but Ronald Jackson says that has never happened.

The truck-body plant's employees work four 10-hour days and take off Friday. Ronald Jackson says the employees love it. And he loves it because it reduces the expense of running the powder-coating process.

“When you get those ovens up to temperature, it's a whole lot easier to maintain that temperature than it is to bring it up to temperature in the morning,” he says. “With today's natural gas prices, that's important. It works very well. Our utility prices went down because we weren't bringing the temperature up five times a week.

“The employees like it. We like it. If you get into a situation where the employer likes something and it's good for the company, it's a win-win situation. In a small town like Madill (population 3500), you have to do everything to attract employees. We're in a recreation community. We like Lake Texoma being here, but it distracts a lot of people. They like to play.”

Durable and attractive

He says that CM bodies are not only durable — they feature frame rails and crossmembers made of channel, not tubing, and aren't as susceptible to rusting because they don't hold water — but they also are aesthetically pleasing. By following the curves of the vehicles they are mounted on, they do not have the common “boxy look.”

The standard product offering consists of the RS, SS, and SK bodies, as well as the newest model, the all-purpose TM, all of which come in 8'6", 9', and 11' lengths and include: all-steel frame construction, 4" steel channel frame rails, 3" steel channel cross members, 1/8" steel tread plate deck, and steel tubing headache rack with round “easy view” window grill.

In April, the company introduced a new style of bumper reinforcement on the SK model, featuring three pieces instead of two — meaning more welds at both the top and bottom, providing better weight distribution and added strength. The body also has a lowered seven-way light plug.

The company also has started manufacturing RV hauler and utility bodies, and produces about 15 per week. Of the RV hauler bodies, Ronald Jackson says, “It's a totally different market than our standard bed. They're so handmade and custom-made that you can't mix them into production, so we have a separate 8000-square-foot facility.”

He says they'll keep on looking for new areas to explore.

“Just like Trailer/Body Builders is always looking for a new story or feature to do, we're always looking for a niche in the market, a mousetrap, something that we can use to diversify, because everything changes all the time,” he says. “We like to try out something new. We're never satisfied with just that one item.”

The journey continues.

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