Titan triumph

THE executives at Auto Crane knew they were onto something when they took their Titan 50 crane service body to Atlanta last year for its debut at The Work Truck Show.

Based on past Work Truck Shows and CONEXPOCON/AGG in 2002, Auto Crane product manager Kyle Whiteis and manufacturing engineer Jim Adkison say they knew the previous bodies the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company had been showing were not what everybody wanted. They say it had been more a case of Auto Crane “deflecting criticism” than actually promoting bodies.

With the development of the Titan 50 — with the first one-piece side pack in the industry, providing a reduction in corrosion potential because of the elimination of 98" of weld seams — they thought they had come up with something that would revolutionize crane service body manufacturing and change perceptions.

They just didn't expect the Titan 50 to get quite the reaction it did.

“I think one of the most telling signs was the presence of our competitors at our booth,” product manager Kyle Whiteis says. “Historically, they haven't been by to see us. There hadn't been anything new that they hadn't seen two or three years previously. But all of our main competitors were there last year — vice-presidents and presidents came by, talked to us and extended compliments.

“It was amazing. I don't recall a single negative comment made about the body itself, which is highly unusual, because this is primarily a distributors' show. We have some very vocal distributors. They'll speak their mind.”

Whiteis says that between 2000 and 2002, the company had focused on its crane line — revamping several models and introducing a new articulating crane — in order to take advantage of market conditions.

The company had been monitoring feedback at trade shows, and knew its crane bodies needed revamping after having the same design for several years.

“It was not going to be a tweak,” Whiteis says. “It was not going to be a modification. It was going to be a whole new body.”

That's because feedback indicated customers wanted: more compartment space; a body that would allow for a decrease in rust and corrosion; LED lights; and better lighting inside the compartments.

Whiteis says that Auto Crane's objectives in building the new body would be to satisfy those customer desires while improving aesthetics and maintaining the robustness of the body.

“One of the things we've been known for over the years is the strength of the body,” he says. “We didn't want to weaken it at all. Because of the application — geared toward the heavy-construction markets — it has to be strong.”

The result

In the end, Auto Crane ended up with a body that:

  • Has 33% more standard compartment space (156 cubic feet). Part of that increase came from stretching out the horizontal compartment that goes over the wheel well — an area that Whiteis says had some “wasted space.” The rest of the increase came from increasing the height of the side pack from 46" to 58" for the entire 133" length. With the previous model, most distributors added a tall compartment to the front to get the height they needed for oxygen or acetylene bottles.

  • Is sleek, with no exterior welds, and eight pieces on the side pack, as opposed to 58.

Jim Weir, engineering and sales manager for J&J Truck Equipment in Somerset, Pennsylvania, and Rob Leasure, sales representative for Ace Truck Body in Grove City, Ohio, believe the new body has two huge plusses: the absence of weld seams will dramatically reduce corrosion; and with the hinges on the interior, it is more attractive.

“Any time you have seams on a utility bed — whether it's a welded seam or just two pieces of metal coming together — it can create a rust pocket,” Leasure says. “This body has been redesigned from a rust-and-corrosion standpoint to improve on a lot of things.”

The old body had numerous weld seams needed to manufacture the corner. The Titan 50 has radius corners that Whiteis says are “more robust than what you would normally see in a 90-degree angle.”

Says Adkison, “We try to use as many self-healing materials as we can so if you throw tools and scratch it, it's not going to rust as quickly. Our tread plate is made of 11-gauge material that is actually stamped to be tread plate. We have nothing on the exterior of our body other than frame rails that is not a galvanized or plated material. If you throw something in the bed and scratch it, it has self-healing properties with galvanized material so you're not going to get a bed full of rust after a couple of months. The only exposed steel is the frame bars, and they all get undercoated.

“We tried hard to reduce any kind of dimples in the skin by not only using 10 gauge, but by trying to have the weight transfer through the interior skin so there's no door droop. I use three 4" hinges on each door. You don't have exterior hinges, so you don't have bolts to pop out or rust.”

In addition, the exterior is free of clutter.

“People love the look,” Weir says. “It makes it easier for them to do logoing and decaling. For a lot of these companies, it's a traveling billboard.”

  • Is strong, with 10-gauge galvanneal steel and double-panel doors.

  • Has LED lights as standard equipment and improved lighting inside the compartments. Whiteis says a distributor survey showed that they wanted LED lights for increased safety. They also did not like the compartments' top-mounted dome light, which did not adequately light all the drawers, so Auto Crane installed a rope lighting system.

The evolution

The one-piece design was not part of the plan. At least not in the beginning.

Auto Crane worked on the new body design with a team of representatives from all over the country.

“It was really starting from the proverbial blank sheet of paper,” Whiteis says. “We didn't necessarily avoid the old body, but we didn't want to start there and work up. So we said, ‘Here's what we want to have.’

“Through some of that dialogue and conversation, we came up with, ‘Why can't we do this out of one piece?’ That way, we can achieve some of the things we've been trying to achieve with several items on the list. It kind of snowballed from there.”

Auto Crane also enlisted the help of some key distributors by flying them to Tulsa to get their input and their bumper-to-bumper thought process on the new body.

“A lot of companies will build a prototype and then bring customers and distributors in to pick it apart,” Whiteis says. “We brought in a few key distributors throughout the process. They'd give us feedback on what was right and wrong, what was better and worse. It created a considerable amount of ownership with our distributors and that product, so when it did go out, there was a certain amount of pride, an I-helped-build-this-and-I'm-going-to-sell-it mentality. It wasn't, ‘Look at this thing they gave me. Now I've got to figure out how to sell it.’”

Everyone felt the one-piece design was sound. But could Auto Crane manufacture it?

Adkison's discussions with press brake manufacturers convinced him no one had — or would be able to make — the machinery necessary to accommodate the one-piece-side manufacturing process.

Adkison bought special rollover-bar tooling that allowed them to roll-form a 1" return flange on each side by keeping the piece flat to avoid wrinkle damage.

He also designed and built a special brake and handling system that could brake a 22" flange on each end.

“It's not rocket science,” Adkison says, “but none of the brake manufacturers we talked to had any idea of how to brake the side panel and then get it out of the tooling. We first tried to do it on a standard press brake, and it looked like the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima. We had to lift all 14' on one side with eight guys to hold it flat and square. We knew that method was not going to be practical or cost effective.”

Adkison says the Titan body is a fixtured, five-step manufacturing process.

Auto Crane starts with a 178" piece of 10-gauge galvanneal, cuts out the door areas with a laser, then bends it to 22" front and back sections and a 133" side.

“We build the side packs separate from the frame, then we mate the side packs to the frame, and in front of that we install any special features it may get — a special master-locking system or a special shelf with slot-out drawers,” he says. “It's all added in the assembly area as well as any bumper options before it goes to paint. At final assembly, they'll put in shelving and door hardware.”

Tooling

They also bought special tooling in order to make the drip rail, which funnels the water out the back of the body instead of over the side.

“Because the outside is so small, standard brake tooling will not do it,” Atkison says, “so we had tooling designed to do it.”

Whiteis says 90% of the bodies are mounted on Ford 550/650/750 chassis.

“Since we started the Titan line, I don't think we've built anything to stock,” he says. “They've all been to sell to the end user. Often times on the installs, we have the body ready before the chassis arrives from the factory.”

Auto Crane has a paint shop, and Whiteis says that although white is the most popular, the shop accommodates special orders.

“We've had trucks come in here with metallic forest green, and they wanted the body to match, so we'll paint to match their chassis,” he says. “We're seeing more and more of that. People are spending a lot of money on their chassis, and they look at this as representing what they do, so we see several of them with aluminum wheels and custom paint.”

As a result of the addition of the Titan 50 body to the product line, Auto Crane has streamlined its manufacturing process and is better utilizing its 110,000 sq ft of space.

“”We were able to reduce our floor space need, so if we want to increase our production volume, we can,” Adkison says. “We've saved 20% of our shop space by re-allocating what needs to be there, changing our lead times and which materials are coming in. Instead of having months of supply, we just have what's necessary to build the products that are coming up or scheduled. With some of the parts we make for bodies and cranes, we have only three days of inventory. Our vendors have been very good about supplying us when we need it.”

Because the new process reduces the number of pieces on the side pack from 58 to eight, side-pack weld-out time has been reduced by 40%.

“For us, that's not a small change — that's a radical change,” Adkison says.

Quick turnaround

Between September 2002 and The Work Truck Show in March 2003, Auto Crane rapidly progressed from the talking stage to actually producing a body to take to Atlanta. The company started shipping with an April 1 delivery date.

“It is pretty quick, especially when you consider the magnitude of the changes made,” Whiteis says. “You have to give credit to upper management for dedicating the resources and providing what was needed in order to achieve that time frame.

“At the beginning, we looked at the costs, where we wanted to position ourselves in the marketplace, and the time frame. We weren't pushing this, but we did have the NTEA show out there. We were saying, ‘That would be an ideal place to launch this thing.’ We looked at what the capabilities were and came back and said, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ At that point, Bruce (president Bruce Barron) said, ‘Go.’ He provided the resources and direction and allowed us to get it done.”

Says Adkison, “We didn't push this for speed. We did a lot of development and mechanical testing. We actually built a body and basically tried to destroy it to see the flex points and where possible failures would be. Then we addressed those before we ever took it to the show. The body that went to the show was really ready to sell. We only had one minor change.”

Whiteis says that it's the kind of product that has to be seen to be truly appreciated, which is another reason why it was so important to get it to The Work Truck Show last year. He won't say how many are being produced, but he will say that the Titan 50 has opened up doors that were previously closed for the company.

“I think the biggest surprise for us has been that customers who are loyal to some of our competitors — and have been for years — are now looking at us for quotes, and we're seeing orders come through,” he says. “I think we'll see a lot more of that as we get the Titan 38 (38,000 ft-lb capacity) and 60 (60,000 ft-lb capacity) out.

“Two years ago, we had a product line that was pretty well known in the industry, but was stagnant. It had stayed the same for several years. The competition was taking advantage of that and putting in added features and benefits and really stepping up the products they offered. When you looked at ours and theirs side by side, we fell behind in some areas.

“But with the redesign of this body, we not only have caught up with them but really passed them by providing something totally new to the industry. That's something that's not terribly common in our industry as far as cranes and bodies go. There aren't a lot of earth-shattering new ideas or developments coming forward, so this caught a lot of people by surprise.”

Why didn't any other company come up with the design before?

Manufacturing process

“The manufacturing process,” Adkison says. “The actual physical side pack, without these machines and tooling, can't be made without the sides folding in the middle and wrinkling. Our handling procedures allow us to move the components through our manufacturing process without damaging the skins from forming through weld-out. Once it's welded fully, the structural integrity is there and you don't have to worry about anything moving.”

“Without the process, the concept wouldn't have been anything. It doesn't matter what we can design on paper. If we can't make it in the real world, we obviously can't sell it.”

Will the Titan 50 be further refined?

“This is a work in progress,” Whiteis says. “I don't think we're ever done with it. We're always listening to our markets and distributors — especially the guys who are out there running these — to get feedback and ideas on how we can make it better. But I don't see a major overhaul coming for this body for a while.”

Says Adkison,” I don't see the side skin changing, because 10 gauge is very robust and can take the damage. It's the best material in the industry for this kind of side. There may be some nuance changes, but as far as the concept of the one-piece skin, I don't see that going anywhere for quite a few years.”

Strong reaction

Titan is Greek for “giant deity.” In Greek mythology, it was any of the primordial giant gods who ruled the Earth. Webster's New World Dictionary defines it as “any person or thing of great size or power.”

And that's pretty much what the Titan 50 has been for Auto Crane. But don't take it from the company. Listen to Weir and Leasure.

Weir: “They've leapfrogged everybody in the industry, as far as I'm concerned. It's a major upgrade on where crane bodies were.”

Leasure: “Let's put it this way: It's cutting edge. It has a lot of new concepts that, for a small body manufacturer — in comparison to your Knapheides and Readings — make it pretty ingenious. A lot of these people I talk to — like Reading, for instance — are scratching their heads, wondering why they didn't come up with it.

“We've probably had 20 go through here. The initial response from everybody has been very favorable. Things come along in the market like this, but maybe not with as drastic the changes as they've made, or as many changes.”

Both Leasure and Weir say the Titan 50 is one of the primary ways that Auto Crane has transformed its image to now be viewed as revolutionary and willing to take a risk.

“Believe me, about five years ago we were almost ready to hang up our hats with Auto Crane, move on, and find another line,” Leasure says. “It took the new ownership to get things rolling.

“Today, Auto Crane is definitely a company on the upswing. They're moving in the right direction, cutting out a lot of waste. It's not just the Titan 50. They've redesigned cranes, redesigned things on compressors, the whole product line. They're coming out with new and better ways of doing things.”

Founded in 1958

Auto Crane was started by Claire Simmons and Carl White in 1958 to manufacture a small crane designed to handle rock bits for Hughes Tool Company. The name's origin draws from the fact the cranes were originally placed inside the trunks of automobiles.

In 1972, after the death of White, the company was purchased by the Noble family of Ardmore, Oklahoma. The Nobles then sold the company to Ramsey Industries 11 years later.

In 1999, Weiss, Peck and Greer, along with former Insilco Corporation COO Robert Heffron, purchased Ramsey Industries.

Auto Crane manufactures electric and hydraulic telescoping cranes with lifting capacities from 2,000 lb to 10,000 lb, along with hydraulic articulating cranes, crane service bodies, hydraulic air compressors, and accessories.

Whiteis says Barron's ascension to president has played a key role in the turnaround.

“I think what intrigued me most was the vision Bruce had for the company,” Whiteis says. “When he spoke, it was very clear what the next three years were going to look like. He's sold that vision to the people at this company. They bought into it, and we've all worked toward the same goal.

“As a company and as a team, we have worked together very well. No one person is the expert. Nobody came in and said, ‘Here's the way we're going to build a crane.’ It's been a very open dialogue about how we go about developing our new products.”

TAGS: Truck Bodies
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