A New Standard At Omaha

IT was early June, and a buzz was in the air around Omaha as residents prepared the city for its annual time in the national spotlight.

The best college baseball teams in the country were coming, and so was the biggest sports event of the year — the College World Series. Final touches were being made to the field at Rosenblatt Stadium. Crews were setting up the cables that the news media would need to provide coverage for the games, and temporary pavilions were being erected to accommodate countless vendors and service providers. Across the street from the stadium, even the Dairy Queen with the old signage from the 1960s was anticipating a surge in business.

Across the river in Council Bluffs, Iowa, another buzz was in the air. The largest manufacturing plant in recent city history was now complete, and it was producing commercial truck bodies. But unlike the College World Series — done for the year — the buzz around the Omaha Standard plant remains.

The 210,000-sq-ft facility is still ramping up. But even when every component is installed that the architects and engineers drew up, the plant will still be changing. That's because a continuous improvement program that the company has implemented promises that the ramping up process will continue for many College World Series to come.

Inside and outside, the plant appears to be ready. Looks, however, can be deceiving. The Omaha Standard team continues to find better ways to do things, even after designing a new plant from a clean sheet of paper — part of the company's continuous improvement program.

“We are nowhere close to where we want to be,” says Eric Kluver, who oversaw construction of the facility.

Reasons to change

In designing the new plant, Omaha Standard had several objectives:

  • To place its entire manufacturing operation under one roof.

  • To eliminate redundancies.

  • To eliminate inefficiencies.

  • To have a superior finishing system.

  • To increase output and improve product quality.

  • To create an environment that will make it possible for its people to be more successful.

“The plant gives us a lot of opportunities,” Kluver says. “Capacity has always been an issue with us — and paint in particular has been a bottleneck. A lot of people have wanted to do business with us, but they have not always been sure we have the capacity to deliver the extra business. With the new plant, the future is bright. Now it's up to us to produce.”

Omaha Standard has only been in the new plant a few months, but the company has made major changes. The most dramatic so far is a redesign of the fabrication department to increase output substantially without occupying additional space.

“Since moving in, we have doubled our service body fabrication capacity, thanks to a kaizen (process improvement) event we conducted,” Kluver says.

After working briefly in the new plant, operators realized they could be more productive if the equipment were lined up differently. A cross-functional team planned the event and was able to execute it over one weekend. It was no small chore. The plan included moving eight press brakes and their associated power and air lines.

“It was the type of project that could easily take two weeks,” Kluver says, “but our machine operators really took ownership of it.”

Flexible design

The design of the plant also contributed to the quick way the service body fabrication department could be reconfigured. Very little within the plant is permanently fixed, from the cubicles in the office area that can easily be reconfigured to the production lines. Helping to make this possible are the color-coded overhead aluminum plumbing (parallel lines of green piping for process gases and blue pipe for compressed air) and a modular electrical grid.

“The electrical distribution system is a grid that provides us with short runs,” Kluver says. “If we need to change electrical service, our own personnel can plug into it without requiring an electrician.”

Changes to the process gas and compressed air lines can be accomplished quickly by the company's maintenance department.

Even the computer network is flexible. Five wireless routers in the manufacturing plant and two more in the office area make it possible to easily reposition computers if the need arises.

“Except for our paint system, there is no special spot on the floor of our manufacturing plant,” Kluver says. Anything and everything can be moved around.”

The new plant brings massive changes to the way Omaha Standard produces its products — not the least of which is the fact that it brings the company's multiple operations under one roof.

Until the building was completed earlier this year, Omaha Standard produced its product line in eight separate buildings on three different sites. Today, the number of buildings is down to two. Liftgates continue to be produced in a separate location, but even they eventually will be moved to the main plant.

“We had about 270,000 square feet with the eight buildings,” Kluver says. “Thanks to lean manufacturing, we are able to produce far more in less space.”

According to Kluver, Omaha Standard has been able to reduce its floorspace requirements by 60,000 square feet through reductions in WIP (work in process), elimination of redundant processes, and reconfiguration of work cells and assembly lines.

Within the new manufacturing space, Omaha Standard produces hoists and a variety of truck bodies, including service and line bodies, platforms, stakes, dumps, and an occasional farm body. The company anticipates moving liftgate production into the facility within a year.

Fabricating less

One of the interesting concepts about the new way Omaha Standard manufactures is the company's use of outside fabrication services.

The company previously used a laser to cut its sheet steel. The aging laser presented a dilemma — move it to the new plant, replace it or…

…or none of the above. After some analysis, Omaha Standard chose instead to enter into a partnership with a local steel supplier. Under the terms of the agreement, the steel supplier bought a new laser dedicated strictly to Omaha Standard's use. Each day, the supplier uses the new laser (along with its automated loading and unloading system) to cut the various galvannealed steel parts that each service body requires. The pieces are loaded onto a flat pallet, with one pallet containing all of the sheet metal parts needed to produce a service body.

“Essentially, Omaha Standard owns a laser at our supplier's location,” Kluver says. “It's a dedicated machine that produces and stores a three-day inventory of sheet metal service body parts.”

The system is designed to deliver fabricated service body parts to Omaha Standard three days after Omaha Standard engineers place an order.

How it works

The Amada laser is equipped with an automated load and unload system. The racks within the loading system are stocked with galvannealed sheet steel of various gauges — essentially all the sheet stock required to produce a service body.

Omaha Standard engineers send the cut lists to the supplier via e-mail. The cut lists, sent as e-mail attachments, are downloaded at the supplier's location and translated into machine language that the laser can read.

The laser fully cuts the parts, leaving a series of small tabs on each part. By remaining attached to the skeleton, the parts can be shipped and handled more easily.

As part of its agreement, the steel supplier has a truckload of cut parts ready to unload at the Omaha Standard plant at the start of each production day. Trailers are unloaded inside the plant using a six-ton hoist that delivers the steel directly to the point of use.

“We used to unload everything with forklifts and store our raw materials in a separate building,” Kluver says. “By taking our raw material directly to where it's needed, we have made material handling a lot more efficient.”

The pallet with the laser profiled parts is delivered to the beginning of the press brake line. Fabricated pieces for the doors are delivered to a dedicated cell for door production. The rest of the sheet metal parts moves through a series of eight press brakes to one of three service body assembly lines.

In the door cell, parts are bonded together with structural automotive grade adhesive. “We don't use spotwelding any more,” says Jeff Tilley, vice-president of manufacturing.

By bonding the doors, Omaha Standard gets the strength it needs, yet the adhesive preserves the anti-corrosion zinc coating that the steel manufacturer includes — a coating that spotwelding can compromise.

New e-coat system

One of the major advances of the plant is its electrocoat finishing system, a massive, automated process that Omaha Standard can use to produce a durable finish on virtually the entire product line. Omaha Standard's e-coat system has fifteen 30,000 gallon tanks and weighs 4.4 million pounds when the tanks are filled. The overhead oven fully cures the e-coat paint in 40 minutes.

The system Omaha Standard chose offers the company the widest production flexibility, Kluver says — including a choice of gray epoxy primer for service bodies and a black acrylic e-coat topcoat for platforms, stake bodies, hoists, and toolboxes.

Three basic approaches to material handling in e-coat systems can be found among truck body manufacturers, Kluver says. In one method, truck bodies move along a conveyor system that dips them into the various tanks, which requires a tremendous amount of factory space.

With the second approach, the square transfer method, a conveyor moves the bodies directly over each tank. The system then raises and lowers the bodies and/or components into the tanks. The line moves as a unit at the same speed and with the same amount of immersion time in each tank regardless of product type. The square transfer gets its name because the bodies move straight up and down in and out of the tanks, as opposed to the first method in which the bodies follow the ups and downs of the conveyor line.

Omaha Standard chose a third method — a programmable hoist system. Programmable hoists enable the company to control the amount of time each body spends in the tanks to optimize flexibility and the quality of the e-coat. This method also makes it possible to route products differently. After a zinc phosphate pre-coat, a coating of gray epoxy primer is applied to service bodies or a black acrylic topcoat to the other e-coated products.

Different needs

The programmable hoists give Omaha Standard considerable flexibility in its finishing department.

As assembled bodies leave the welding area and move to the finishing department, a scanner reads the barcode associated with that body. The data contained in the 18-digit barcode includes the color the body is to receive, the type of body it is, and the amount of surface area measured in square feet. That information determines the route through the system and calculates the amount of time they need to remain in each tank. It also is used to select the tanks into which the body will be immersed.

Product can be loaded into the system in any sequence. That includes service bodies, platforms, hoists, racks, toolboxes, and component parts.

“Other companies use the same basic process — cleaning, rinsing, e-coating.” Tilley says. “The difference in our system is that we are using the latest generation PPG automotive coatings and the great deal of flexibility that we have because of the programmable hoists. Everything does not have to move at the same time. Service bodies, for example, need to be submerged longer than platforms. Our system because it is product specific lets us do that and, as a result, is more efficient and provides a better quality finish.”

Getting started

Automation does not mean that the system does not present challenges. One area has been getting the timing exactly right when sending service bodies through the curing oven. The bodies need to remain in the oven an appropriate amount of time to cure thoroughly, but staying in too long will affect the color of the epoxy primer.

“Even though the service bodies will be top coated later, color consistency of the primer is still important because it affects perception,” Tilley says. “It's very important how our customers perceive us. You are perceived positively when you can consistently deliver high-quality products. That's why we have fine-tuned our timing in the oven so that we can get a consistent color on our service bodies.”

It also has been a challenge to design a hanging system that can accommodate the variety of components that Omaha Standard sends through its e-coat system. The company needed to make design changes for virtually its entire product line to accommodate the hangers, to ensure that the e-coat could access all areas of the product without leaving voids or air pockets, and to provide proper drainage.

Each tank has a product envelope of 22 ½ feet long, 8 ½ feet wide and 8 ½ feet deep. The goal is to occupy as much of that volume with product as possible while making sure that each is covered thoroughly.

“At a given time, we might have 10 hoists in one tank, a single high-roof service body in the next, and a couple of platform bodies in another,” Tilley says.

The system has the capacity of 80 loads per shift.

Expertise for lease

The Omaha Standard plant contains the company's first e-coat system. Rather than learn the system through trial and error, Omaha Standard chose to lease the expertise of MetoKote Corporation of Lima, Ohio.

MetoKote specializes in advanced coating services, including electrocoating (e-coat), powder coating, liquid paint, and other coatings. The company designed, built, and operates the Omaha Standard system.

MetoKote operates more than 30 systems such as the one it built for Omaha Standard, Kluver says, e-coating products for such world-class manufacturers as John Deere, Caterpillar, and Toyota. After designing and supervising the construction of the system, MetoKote oversees its daily operation, including the sampling and testing to make sure everything is within the desired parameters. MetoKote also handles the purchase of all coatings and chemicals.

“I have supervised the implementation of one other e-coat system and have been around other companies that have them,” Kluver says. “Everyone who installs a similar system struggles initially. “It made sense for us to use MetoKote, with their expertise, to run our e-coat system.”

Staffing the operation

The arrangement is in the form of a seven-year capital lease. At the end of the lease, Omaha Standard has the option to renew the operating agreement or run the system itself. If it chooses to do so, however, Omaha Standard would need to hire its own employees to operate the system. Those working in the finishing department are MetoKote employees.

The lease provides for fixed and variable costs. The fixed costs amortize the cost of the system, and the variable costs (based on the square footage of the products being coated) cover the consumables that are used as product moves through the system.

Omaha Standard has been pleased with the results obtained by MetoKote with the new e-coat system. The company has subjected the coating to a variety of ASTM tests — including chip resistance as measured by a gravelometer and corrosion resistance. Products are exposed to at least 800 hours of salt spray, the threshold for automotive testing.

Plant design

The layout of the plant is literally straightforward. Raw materials come in one end of the facility and flow directly to the final assembly area at the other end.

Of course that is an oversimplification. The same service body parts, for example, may go to any of three lines dedicated to service body production. In addition to the three production lines, there are five off-line bays for the more complex models such as large line bodies.

In designing the plant, Omaha Standard gave considerable thought to the environment within the plant.

“We wanted an HVAC system that would change out the air three or four times per hour,” Kluver says. “We also wanted to be able to confine weld smoke. That's why we have four main air make-up units positioned so that we create a curtain of air around the area.”

Two additional air make-up units are installed in the finishing area. The objective: keep the air clean in the paint area by maintaining positive pressure in that area.

The HVAC is computer controlled. By making adjustments on his computer screen, the facilities engineer can modify the pressure settings on the system as temperatures and conditions outside the plant change.

Lighting also was a consideration. The metal halide lighting system is designed to generate 50-60 foot candles throughout the plant.

“Our first goal was to get the light output we considered proper for the jobs we do in the plant,” Kluver says. “After considering the options we had for achieving that amount of output, only then did we begin weighing the upfront capital requirements to buy the fixtures and the operating costs we would have to operate them.”

Looking ahead

The plant also was designed to be expanded.

Three of the rectangular building's main walls are made of tilt-up concrete panels, some as tall as 40 feet. The fourth wall, however, is made of metal that can readily be removed should the plant need to be expanded.

Located on 27 acres, the plant has plenty of room to expand. Plans call for the facility to be doubled in size if necessary. Concrete panels can be added to two of the walls — either at once or incrementally — until another 200,000 square feet have been added.

The result would be a mirror image of the existing facility. Production from both sides would flow into the existing finishing area.

“We have plenty of paint capacity for such an expansion,” Kluver says.

Equipping with ideas

The plant equipment is a combination of machine tools that Omaha Standard moved from its other plants and newly acquired equipment.

For example, the plant has three turret presses — two from Amada and one from Strippit. The Strippit press was moved, and Omaha Standard bought the Amadas new.

“We bought a lot of material handling equipment,” Kluver says. “We also added some additional machine tools and some welding machines. But equipment is secondary. We really challenge ourselves to come up with new ways to be more productive. If we need to buy new equipment, we will, but our real goal is to do more with the equipment we have. Equipment is secondary. We place ideas ahead of dollars.”

Getting lean

Ideas are encouraged at Omaha Standard, and its lean program helps make them possible.

“We have a vision to reduce waste and provide better value,” Tilley says. “Some of our best ideas come from the guys on the floor.”

To encourage new ideas, Omaha Standard conducts one or two kaizen events per week. Larger, more ambitious events may take longer.

“We feel like we have settled into the plant,” Tilley says. “Now we are ready to make things better. The key is how quickly we can make changes and adapt. That's the focus of our manufacturing engineering staff.”

Contributing to the acceptance of change is a commitment that productivity improvements will not cost jobs. Nowhere was that commitment more apparent than when Omaha Standard replaced its painting staff with employees from MetoKote.

“We eliminated all of our painting jobs,” Kluver says, “but we did not lay anyone off. We committed to retrain and redeploy them.”

Prior to moving into the new plant, Omaha Standard had more than 30 paint personnel scattered among its eight locations. The company found new jobs for all who wanted to stay. All areas of the plant found work for the displaced painters, with final assembly accepting the most.

Engineering resources

Designing, building, and ramping up the plant has been a huge undertaking for Omaha Standard the past couple of years. To catch up for lost time, the company recently hired Matt Jones to serve as director of design engineering.

“So much of our engineering resources over the past two years have gone into the new plant and not product development,” says Tom Moser, co-president. Matt is a great addition for us and is heading up our new product development efforts.”

An engineer with 10 years experience with John Deere, Jones has led the company into a new dimension — the three-dimensional computer-aided design software, SolidWorks 2006, which replaces its two-dimensional CAD package.

“Two-dimensional CAD is an electronic drawing board that helps you update your designs more quickly,” Jones says. “But SolidWorks 2006 is like working with modeling clay. It lets you see how the parts you design work together. It's more accurate, and it can be used as a visual model that we can show customers. It's almost like being able to show customers their truck body on television.”

New designs coming

Omaha Standard has been at work designing new products and making upgrades to existing models.

“We have been able to reduce our design cycle time because the software allows us to build on what we already have done,” Jones says.

The program interfaces with SigmaNest, a popular nesting program that helps manufacturers maximize the amount of parts that can be cut from a sheet of metal.

The company plans to add finite element analysis to its engineering suite. Omaha Standard currently uses FEA to test proposed designs, but an outside company does the analysis.

Jones lists several advantages of using solid modeling software, including:

  • Improved data management

  • Bills of materials can be downloaded to the plant floor

  • Integration with nesting software

  • Faster product development

  • The ability to validate that the components of the body will work together without interference

  • Better control of product changes

  • Improved communication with customers

  • The potential to integrate drawings of chassis, bodies, and equipment to electronically build a commercial truck.

One of the benefits Omaha Standard customers should derive from the switch to SolidWorks will be the ability to access service body drawings online.

It also will enable distributors to determine the center of gravity of the vehicle they are planning to assemble. Starting with a given body and chassis, they will be able to add accessories such as cranes and ladder racks and get an analysis of the proposed vehicle.

“We plan to be completely online with our service bodies by August 1,” Jones says. “Platforms will be added later. We wanted to get our service bodies out there first because they are the most complex product we offer. With all the available options, we have more than 30,000 part numbers in our service body line alone.”

New energy

The College World Series is over. Fans have gone home, and the buzz no longer resonates. Can you recall who won this year? Answer: the Oregon State Beavers.

But across the river in Council Bluffs, the enthusiasm remains. The Moser family, owners of the company since the 1960s, has hired new engineers and managers to go along with the new plant and created new ways of doing business.

Tom and Jim Moser gave up work as attorneys to come to work for their father's company in the 1970s. Now a new generation of Mosers is beginning to fill key positions. Zac Moser, Tom's son, serves as production supervisor for the company's Eagle Lift Liftgate operation. Liz Moser, Tom's daughter, is marketing manager.

“The new plant, the new people, and the changes our company has made have re-energized Jim and me,” Tom Moser says.

The changes also have earned the company new respect.

“We showed a group of our distributors the new plant recently,” Tom Moser says. “One of them came up to Jim and me and said, ‘I really admire you guys for doing what you have done at your age.’ I think it was meant as a compliment!”

Factory facts:

General:

  • Located on 27-acre site
  • Overall building size measures 210,000 square feet.

Manufacturing area:

  • 190,000 square feet of manufacturing space
  • Flexible electrical distribution
  • Flexible compressed air distribution
  • Flexible process gas distribution
  • Computer-controlled HVAC energy management system
  • Wireless networking throughout

Office area:

  • 20,000 square feet of office space
  • Wireless networking throughout
  • Flexibility through the use of cubicles
  • Multiple meeting rooms for process improvement events

Hoist production at the Omaha Standard plant

Hoist frames are welded robotically [left]. Parts are placed into fixtures designed for the specific hoist. The fixtures have holes that correspond to pins installed at the welding station. The pins ensure the precise location of the parts in the fixtures. Kanban containers [above] hold the parts that are needed to produce the hoists. The containers are color coded by hoist model number. Each container holds all the parts required for one shift's production. When the container is empty, fabrication refills it.

“We used to have five times the number of parts that we do now, but we were always running out,” says Jeff Tilley. “Now we use a self-managing cell with a kanban system.”

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