Morgan Olson expands in Tennessee to fill ‘historic’ walk-in van order

Feb. 1, 2018
Morgan Olson expands in Tennessee to fill ‘historic’ walk-in van order

IN THE SUMMER OF 2015, Morgan Olson President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Ownbey shared with his employees some “pretty fantastic” news: The Sturgis, MI-based truck-body builder had been awarded what he characterized as “the single largest walk-in van order in American history.” The contract was for more than 6,500 walk-in step vans—to be built and delivered within a two-year time frame.

It was time to get to work.

Morgan Olson’s leadership team immediately initiated a plan of action for a new plant expansion to satisfy this unprecedented contract, while also ensuring the rapid ramp-up would maintain Morgan Olson’s “Quality ON TIME – EVERY TIME” mission statement.

Site selection

Dave Halladay, Morgan Olson’s vice president of operations, began the monumental task.

“We considered numerous locations with a long list of ‘must haves’ for our new plant and location. The Loudon, TN, location simply elevated itself over the others for a multitude of reasons,” Halladay said. “One of which is having over 350,000 square feet of production area on the 108 acres. The main building is serviced by 49 dock doors. The land has many outbuildings, a large holding area for incoming chassis, materials, and finished trucks.

“East/West and North/South I-75 Interstate access also put the facility within an easy drive’s distance of major customers and chassis partners,” Halladay continued. “And some 1,500-plus people lined up in the plant parking lot, in the dark and hours before our first job fair. Even the state employment services set up trailers to help with our staffing needs for the new location.”

Ramping up

Halladay, along with Steven Parker, Morgan Olson’s Loudon Plant Manager, worked through 25 configurations in laying out the plant—with the last change less than a month ahead of the production launch. Trucks were being assembled before the paint booths were finished, and the chassis were initially pushed down the line manually on rolling supports.

Morgan Olson’s Sturgis Michigan personnel were the key in helping get the new facility up and running.

“Our Sturgis team members spent as much as eight months in Tennessee,” said Parker. “Conversely, hundreds of Loudon personnel were sent to Michigan for training as well.”

One of the early challenges was establishing a mature workforce in a three-month period—with a reputation on the line as the preferred walk-in step van builder for the parcel package industry, textile rental services, bread, snack food services, and others.

“Trying to ramp-up the volume with the headcount increase, while still providing a quality product was a difficult balance,” Parker recalls.

On the floor

Supporting a lean manufacturing process, automated and remotely controlled “Olson carts” now move the chassis down the line and provide the flexibility to adjust production. The carts are set to move at the speed calculated to meet the production volume for the day. The cart system maintains consistent positioning of the chassis as the truck is assembled on its way through the plant.

Large display monitors at key stations track each shift’s progress in real-time, displaying the production targets in large green blocks while the line is on schedule. A block will turn red when there’s a delay, and a timer will indicate the number of the cart with a problem and fault code. A supervisor will receive a text message if the delay exceeds three minutes.

The facility has 75 cranes strategically located to assist team members during production and for material handling.  

“More than 80% of the aluminum products are fabricated by Morgan Olson’s own state of the art fabrication equipment,” Parker proudly adds.

There are four auxiliary buildings to provide vehicle undercoating, Morgan Olson mechanics garage, and a vehicle technician center used by the chassis suppliers who do a pre-delivery inspection on each completed unit.  

The facility also features a large cafeteria with its own convenience store market center to serve team members 24 hours a day.

A culture of excellence

Even as Plant Manager Parker has developed a deep knowledge of plant layouts and value-stream mapping, he takes special pride in his training programs.

Training is critical for a facility that had to build a workforce from scratch. The 10,000 square-foot training facility is designed to teach new hires a little bit of everything and they’re evaluated during training to assure each person is matched to their aptitudes and abilities.

Most importantly, team members are trained to be safe in their work cells. Training also focuses on Morgan Olson’s quality standards before new hires move on to tool familiarization.

“There are a lot of pneumatic tools you just don’t find in your garage,” Parker said. “We definitely look for ideal candidates familiar with hand tools, but I don’t think we limit ourselves.”

The trainer then matches newly trained hires with the open positions.

“We try to put the person in a position where they can best succeed,” he added. “We think we can teach and train anybody to succeed here.”

All team members are empowered to be quality control managers on every truck they build and the proof is in the customer’s comments, Parker emphasized.

And the proof of a successful expansion is in the product as well.

“I remember walking through this vacant empty building with [Morgan Olson Vice President of Sales] Rich Tremmel and we knew we were about to build the most efficient, state-of-the-art truck body manufacturing plant in North America,” recalls Senior Director of Strategic Accounts Larry Palmer. “Today we are now seeing the positive economic impact we’ve made in this area by providing safe and meaningful work for people who share our same Morgan Olson quality values.”

Palmer concludes, “We are fortunate our two facilities now give us the capacity to produce the entire walk-in van market if needed.”

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