Better, faster, farther

July 1, 2008
One of the challenges that manufacturers face in a difficult market is to improve product quality while simultaneously reducing costs. Sure, that should

One of the challenges that manufacturers face in a difficult market is to improve product quality while simultaneously reducing costs.

Sure, that should be an objective for every manufacturer, year end, year out. But being able to provide the end user with more value for the dollar is particularly important in a market when customers are not otherwise as eager to buy.

Brandon Truck Equipment just completed the installation of a robotic welding cell in its dump body plant in Saint Gabriel de Brandon, Quebec. Based on the preliminary results of the project — which went into operation earlier this year — management has decided to move forward with another robotic welding cell scheduled to go on stream in 2009.

“The idea is to keep our production costs low,” says Pascal Comtois, sales and marketing manager. “The cost of our materials is rising, the cost of fuel is making business difficult for our customers, and the exchange rate between the U S and Canadian dollars is forcing us to be more competitive.”

Brandon uses the Motoman robot to weld the long sills, sides, and floor of its line of dump bodies. The second robot will weld the tailgate and miscellaneous parts.

The company only uses the robot for one shift. But even then, it does the equivalent work of perhaps two fulltime welders. More importantly, the welds that it generates are more consistent and of higher quality than human beings are able to produce.

“We believe we are the first dump body manufacturer to use a robot for this particular application,” Comtois says. “This is the first step in automating the welding of our dump bodies. We like what we have seen so far. There's no question that the robot has enabled us to lower our costs and to improve our quality. That's why we have decided to add the second robot next year.”

Installing a robotic welding cell, at least at a company the size of Brandon Truck Equipment, is far more than simply buying equipment. The decision to automate dump body welding involved a complete reorganization of the company's plant.

“It's a brand new layout,” Comtois says.

The traffic pattern will need to be modified again next year to accommodate a second robotic work cell, but not nearly to the extent that this year's project required. Nevertheless, the company is already at work to accommodate the second robotic welder.

Designing the cell

One drawback to robots is that they do not tolerate ambiguity. Parts must be positioned exactly, and they must be held in place precisely. Robot manufacturers have made progress in this area over the years, but robots still require precise fixturing in order to produce satisfactory results.

To provide the repeatable accuracy that is required, Brandon built a special fixture to position and retain the weldment exactly where it needs to be.

Using screw drive actuators, the fixture can be positioned in a variety of dimensions, including laterally moving the weldment closer to or farther from the robot and rotationally along the longitudinal axis.

“Setting up the robot was not too difficult,” Comtois says. “We have an engineer on staff who is very knowledgeable about automated manufacturing processes, and we sent three people to the Motoman training sessions in Toronto. It also helped that Motoman had spent time in our plant to help us get set up.”

Redesigning plant, product

To take advantage of the robot's capabilities, Brandon Truck Equipment redesigned the way material flows through its plant this past winter. The company also redesigned its dump bodies.

With the new plant layout, the robotic welding cell is at the head of Brandon's assembly line. The output from that one welding cell is able to keep up with the line's remaining four welding stations — inside, outside, underneath, and tailgate.

The redesigned bodies differ from previous models primarily by the newly formed top rail.

“The formed top rail is 30-40% stronger than the 3" × 4" steel tube that we used to have,” Comtois says. “The increased strength means that the body does not bow.”

Brandon Truck Equipment also modified its dump bodies to accommodate the additional heat that trucks generate as the result of the new federal emissions regulations for diesel engines. Most of the dump bodies Brandon Truck Equipment manufactures use exhaust heat to help keep the payload of the body from freezing. But the 2007-compliant engines sometimes produce too much of a good thing. When the engines incinerate the soot trapped in the diesel particulate filter, the heat was enough to burn the paint from the 1.5" × 6' channel that allows exhaust heat to pass through the front of the body. By enlarging the size of the opening — Brandon uses 3" × 8" channel now — the company has substantially reduced the impact of the heat on the paint while simultaneously avoiding a buildup of exhaust pressure.

Where business booms

Recent months have made major changes in where Brandon Truck Equipment sells dump bodies.

“Until recently, 75% of our production went to the United States,” Comtois says. “But with the slowdown in the U S economy, the difference in the exchange rate, and the strength of the Canadian economy — especially in western Canada — the mix has changed. We now sell half of our production in Canada.”

Western Canada has two things in its favor now. Most important is the strong energy industry centered in Alberta. But British Columbia also is booming, in large part because of the preparations being made to get Vancouver ready to host the Winter Olympics in 2010.

Custom production

Conventional wisdom says that robotic welding is for repetitive tasks, yet here is Brandon Truck Equipment, a company that considers itself to be a custom manufacturer, using robots to weld dump bodies.

“Custom manufacturing is really our forte,” Comtois says. “We have developed a standard line of dump bodies, but we have the ability to change the standard models quite a bit to meet the needs of the customer.”

Brandon Truck Equipment can use robots to weld custom truck bodies because the welds the robot produces are in areas of the truck bodies that do not deviate from standard models. The robot welds top and bottom rails and long sills.

“We can offer all types of custom specifications — hurricane body, log box, quarry body. But the areas involving the robot rarely changes,” Comtois says. “When we get specifications that are too complex, we don't use the robot.”

Computer-aided design software, of course, also helps make robotic welding feasible. The company uses SolidWorks design software to design — and custom design — its dump bodies.

Flowing smoothly

Communication plays a key role in successfully providing custom-built truck bodies. Brandon Truck Equipment uses a custom software package to manage virtually all of its operation — from proposals to delivery.

The company's staff of one engineer and three draftsmen use SolidWorks to produce drawings of proposed trucks. Once the customer approves the drawings, Comtois enters the order into the production system — the first and last time that keyboarding will be required. From that point, the data flow seamlessly through the system. The production management system interfaces with the nesting software that enables the company to get the most from a sheet of steel. It also interfaces with the CNC equipment on the plant floor to accurately fabricate the components of the custom or standard body.

Computer-generated work orders provide workers in the plant with the information they need to assemble the parts and pieces into a completed product.

Rising cost of steel

Like any company involved with producing and selling products made of steel, Brandon Truck Equipment has been having to deal with another round of escalating prices for this very important raw material.

“We have been prebuying our steel a year in advance, and we take delivery on that steel a couple of times a year,” Comtois says. “We have made additional steel purchases to help reduce the price we have to pay. As a result, we have been able to hold the prices we charge for our products throughout the year and should be able to continue to hold them steady at least until this fall.”

The price increases have affected mostly mild steel.

“We mostly use AR450 steel, which has not gone up nearly as sharply as mild steel,” Comtois says.

Family business

Brandon Truck Equipment is a private company owned by Luck and Daniel Rainville and Guy Comtois, Pascal's father. The company has been in business for 50 years, It was started by the grandfather of Luc and Daniel Rainville to provide general welding services for the local market.

In 1992, Brandon branched out from general welding and began producing it own dump bodies. Manufacturing dump bodies gave the company an additional source of sales, especially in the winter when the general welding business experienced seasonal downturns.

Dump body production grew, leading Brandon Truck Equipment to build a 26,000 sq ft. plant on 15 acres in the new St-Gabriel-de-Brandon Industrial Park in 2000. The company added 12,500 sq ft in 2004 in order to accommodate additional fabrication.

Along with the plant expansion, Brandon installed an 80 ft plasma cutting table and 750-ton press break. Those two machine tools helped the company increase production to 10 dump bodies daily.