OUR FAMILY COMPUTER desperately needed an upgrade a few years ago. Software publishers had conspired to place all new programs on CDs, rendering obsolete the twin 5¼" floppy drives that had served us so faithfully over the years.
Recognizing the inevitable, we took the family computer to the local “chop shop” to yank out one of the out-of-date floppies and install a CD drive in its place. It was something we had to do if we wanted the computer to continue having a greater capacity than that of the family slide rule.
“So you want a CD drive in this computer,” the chop shop's owner and chief technician said. “Then you'll want speakers, too, so you can use it to play music.”
“Okay,” we agreed, not thinking at the time about how the CD drive would not work with our eight-track tapes.
“Can't play music without a sound card. You want one, don't you?”
“I guess so.”
“You will need more RAM then.”
Exasperated, we lamented, “It never stops, does it?”
The chop shop owner smiled and replied, “That's why I love this business.”
Updating equipment can be a painful process for anyone whose money management style tends to run on the frugal side. Many of us enter the marketplace under duress. We are there for one purpose and one purpose only. Something broke, and we have to replace it. Or worse yet, times have changed, and we have to buy the very thing that was responsible for making our old equipment virtually worthless.
This can be especially troublesome for truck body and trailer manufacturers. The products they manufacture are relatively large, and producing them requires a fair amount of tools and machinery. This equipment serves manufacturers as faithfully as our 5¼" floppy drives did. Unfortunately, it eventually becomes equally obsolete.
Heil Environmental Industries faced such a scenario at its Fort Payne, Alabama, plant (see story, Page 16). The plant had been outfitted with state-of-the-art machine tools when the company built it in the early 1970s.
Faced with some aging equipment, the approach could have been to replace what needed to be replaced. Instead, management had a vision of how the plant could enhance its quality and productivity through the systematic acquisition of new technology.
Knowing what it wanted to accomplish, Heil then outlined a plan to get there. Rather than a piecemeal upgrade, the company recognized the same truth as the owner of the computer chop shop: today's plant equipment is inextricably linked together.
If the parts cut from the raw material are not produced to tight tolerances, it does little good to buy a high-precision press brake. And perfectly cut blanks are wasted if the press brake produces imprecise bends.
Parts that are not fabricated accurately are more difficult to fit together, which increases labor costs. Poor fit-up affects weld quality, resulting in flaws that the world's greatest paint system can't hide.
Fabrication equipment is improving constantly, but not at a pace that is overwhelming. It is possible to get a vision of what today's equipment can do and develop a multi-year capital budget to get there.
Despite spending millions on plant equipment the past few years, there are truck body and trailer manufacturers who are at work now researching what they will buy several years from today.
We recently retired our patched-together computer and replaced it with an integrated system. Spending the money wasn't quite as painful this time. That's because we recognized how our upgraded computer had benefited us.
Our new computer does things that the old one could not be patched up to do. In much the same way, advances in plant equipment have enabled manufacturers in our industry to produce truck bodies and trailers with unprecedented quality and efficiency.
This is our annual Fabrication Issue. It is also our last issue of 2002. With the close of another year, it's appropriate to reflect not just on how we put together our products, but on how we fabricate our lives.
Our new computer brought us an e-mail recently that included the work of an unknown poet. In it, the poet asks God a few questions. When asked what is most surprising about human beings, the Creator answers:
“That they get bored with childhood. They rush to grow up and then long to be children again…
“That they lose their health to make money and then they lose their money to restore their health…
“That by thinking anxiously about the future they forget the present…
“That they live as if they will never die and die as though they had never lived.”
The poem also says, “a rich person is not one who has the most but is one who needs the least.” It is our hope that your life will be fabricated richly in 2003.