Controlling its own fabricating future

Truck body manufacturer adds equipment to stay on top of increasing business opportunities

The FABRICATOR January 2014
January 27, 2014
By: Dan Davis

Altec, a manufacturer of truck bodies and related products, tried the outsourcing route me to stay on top of expanding fabricating jobs, but the headaches were too great to maintain such an arrangement. The company decided to take metal fabricating back in-house by setting up a new facility in Burnsville, N.C., and with the addition of some key equipment, it hasn't looked back.

truck bodies

Figure 1: Altec fabricates a variety of truck bodies and specialty equipment, such as this chipper machine, containment area for the chips, and the telescopic boom that sits atop the truck.

Jeff Mooney, general manager, Altec Body Manufacturing, in Burnsville, N.C., is pleased with the way his manufacturing facility is running today.

Associates push for manufacturing efficiencies, so the fabricating of truck bodies and related parts, such as racks and storage boxes, is as simple as possible and that successful practices are sustained. The facility has a strong culture that has enabled it to stay on top of increasing business.

In fact, Mooney said he recalled a recent conversation with an employee working an assembly line who said he couldn’t believe they were getting five bodies off their line per shift, compared to only one or fewer when the plant first opened up in early 2006.

That’s a goal every metal fabricating company wants to achieve, but Altec’s Burnsville facility didn’t get there overnight. It’s been a continuous journey over the past several years, but a very worthwhile one.

Building a Big Business

Altec began in 1929 as Alabama Truck Equipment Co. It focused mainly on constructing truck bodies in the early days, but business changed over the years as the company added other products, such as distribution of aerial lifts in the 1950s and building its own aerial and digger derricks in the 1970s.

Today the company, which is based in Birmingham, Ala., produces truck bodies and special equipment, like telescopic cranes, cable handlers, and chippers (see Figure 1), for customers in the electric utility, telecommunications, tree care, and contractor markets. Altec delivers these products and associated services to customers in more than 100 countries.

By the 1990s, the company had grown so much that its truck body fabrication had become a huge bottleneck. Due to the strong market demand and strategic acquisitions, Altec was forced to outsource about half of the truck bodies needed annually. The company’s lone body plant in Birmingham was unable to keep up.

By 2004, Altec management decided a new facility was needed. By February 2006, a 185,000-square-foot building was opened in Burnsville.

“While we were planning the new facility, we looked at ways to be more efficient … especially in fabrication,” Mooney said. “We wanted to turn our raw material into assembled parts as quickly as possible with as little work-in-process inventory as we could. We were exploring lean manufacturing and became interested in an integrated machine that could do the material handling, punch, shear, and bend.”

That led to the purchase of a Shear Genius® integrated punch/shear and an EB Express Bender from Finn-Power, now known as Prima Power, shortly after the new facility opened. The punch/shear could quickly create the blanks with the shear and the detailed holes and shapes with the punch before the parts were shuttled off to the bender, if necessary.

truck bodies

Figure 2: Altec uses its Night Train material storage and retrieval system strictly to store raw material inventory. Because it produces just enough parts for a day’s worth of work for its assembly lines, the company doesn’t use any of the shelf space for parts storage.

Both pieces of equipment were connected to a 64-shelf Night Train FMS® material storage and retrieval system (see Figure 2). Raw material—ranging from 20 gauge, which might be used for truck doors, to 14 gauge, commonly used in fabrication of other body panels—is kept in the material management system before it is fed to the punch/shear.

As Altec worked through the challenges associated with opening a new facility, including new equipment and an undeveloped corporate culture, Mooney and his team tried to take a commonsense approach to lean manufacturing principles in the new plant. To blindly start applying lean manufacturing rules in a production environment with a lot of customized product wasn’t going to work well. Baby steps were needed—to implement efficient manufacturing practices where they made sense, and to bring the workforce along so they realized how work process improvements could make their lives easier on the shop floor.

“In order to practice lean manufacturing in a custom environment, it takes a whole lot of logic and common sense. And it’s experience too,” Mooney said. “We try to empower people as much as possible and want the decisions made closest to where the work is being done.”

For example, Mooney said production scheduling is done according to a “shear list,” which is a production order of parts for one day’s work on an assembly line. The list could contain production instructions for two large trucks or five smaller trucks. If it’s the latter, the shop floor will likely send all the smaller trucks down one of eight assembly lines.

“That gives us some repetition in fab, so press brake guys aren’t doing a million setups,” Mooney said. “They get to bend some parts over and over, but we’re not going hog-wild making big batches of stuff either.”

Altec also realized early on that it couldn’t just schedule trucks for a specific assembly line. A production delay of any kind—missing parts or an unscheduled absence on that particular assembly line—could generate a backup in a heartbeat. That’s when it moved to a flexible approach to assembly. With the exception of one line dedicated to assembly of heavier trucks, all lines have similar equipment, so almost anything can be assembled on any line. When part kits have departed the punch/shear and bending cells, they flow to the line that can accommodate the work. Later, production reports what was assembled on each line, and labor is charged according to the corresponding line upon completion.

By the end of 2010, Altec’s volume had increased dramatically. As the company headed into 2011, there was discussion of adding new equipment.

The company decided to add two more production shifts, effectively moving to around-the-clock manufacturing. It was running three full-time shifts during the day and two full-time shifts on the weekend, with some of those overlapping.

From May 2011 through August 2012, the punch/shear ran nonstop with the exception of a four-hour preventive maintenance period every Monday. During that scheduled downtime, the operator takes the whole turret apart. Because the fabricating department keeps a complete set of tooling on hand, the operator can switch out any dull tooling with a replacement so the downtime doesn’t extend past the allotted four-hour timeframe. When the punch/shear is up and running again, the operator can focus on maintaining any tooling that was pulled from the equipment.

“We knew this max production was not sustainable,” Mooney said. “But we knew we could increase production while planning to fit more fab equipment into the plant.”

truck bodies

Figure 3: The small footprint of the PLATINO laser cutting machine and its accompanying 10-shelf storage and retrieval tower fit comfortably into existing manufacturing space after the company moved some assembly lines and office space.

The Next Phase of Fabricating

In 2012, Altec purchased a servo-electric Shear Genius, two PLATINO® laser cutting machines with material storage and retrieval towers (see Figure 3), and a used servo-electric press brake.

The new equipment required Altec to determine how it was going to configure the shop floor to accommodate the influx of new manufacturing opportunities. An original plan called for connecting the new servo-electric punch/shear to the Night Train, but that was shot down because the storage/retrieval system needed to be expanded, and questions were raised about the bender being able to keep up with parts fed by two punch/shears.

The final decision called for creating two separate fabricating operations within the plant. Fab 1 is centered on the older punch/shear and bender. The newer equipment makes up Fab 2.

Fab 2 is where most of the standard-material jobs and thicker part fabricating take place. The servo-electric punch/shear, which has a stroke speed of 1,000 hits per minute and a positioning speed of 492 feet per minute, has no problem keeping the three press brakes and one panel bender flush with parts each shift. Automatic loading was integrated into the new machine, along with parts removal and sorting.

“We run the Shear Genius 24/7 and the Shear Genius electric three shifts, five days a week,” said David Loftis, the company’s production supervisor. “We process 2,100 sheets per week through the two cells. There is less scrap and no skeletons with the equipment. Once we put a sheet in the machines, we don’t have to touch it again until we have a complete part.”

The new punch/shear can shear up to 0.20-in. aluminum, 0.15-in. mild steel, and 0.12-in. stainless steel. The new laser cutting machine can handle the thicker material with a 10-in. lens: 0.625-in. stainless steel, 0.50-in. aluminum, and 1-in. mild steel (see Figure 4). (The other laser cutting machine and its 10-shelf material tower is located in another cell where chip dump bodies are fabricated for the tree care industry.)

Meanwhile, Fab 1 continues to execute a large amount of production (see Figure 5). It handles the customized jobs with their diverse part features and odd part lengths. It’s quick and reliable, according to Loftis.

“The Express Bender is so much faster than the press brakes,” he said. “It has very low setup times and is extremely accurate.”

No More Fabrication Bottlenecks

Almost eight years after the Burnsville facility was built, the fabricating operation is a happy balance of robust production rates and efficient manufacturing practices. The new equipment and waste-reduction efforts have paid off.

“We’ve been able to keep up with that growth curve steadily going up,” Mooney said. “We’re going to hit some other hard bottlenecks in other departments before we hit another fab bottleneck.”

truck bodies

Figure 4: (From left to right) David Loftis, production supervisor; Jeff Mooney, general manager; and David Tilly, plant manager, pose in front of one of their new laser cutting machines.

He estimated that Altec adds at least 50 new part programs every single day. Those join a database of about 27,000 punch/shear programs and 4,000 automatic bender programs. The numbers increase, but the stress level about future capacity doesn’t.

Compared to where it was in the past, Altec is in a much better position to control its fabricating future.

truck bodies

Figure 5: The EB Express Bender remains a workhorse for Altec. Today 80 percent of all truck body parts are bent on the automated bender and the other 20 percent on press brakes.

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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