Modular manufacturing for quality, speed

GARLAND, TX -- The way trucks are built is changing fast as manufacturers seek ways to keep delivering customized products with shorter lead times and higher quality

GARLAND, TX -- The way trucks are built is changing fast as manufacturers seek ways to keep delivering customized products with shorter lead times and higher quality than ever before. For International Truck & Engine Corp., that means a switch to assembling trucks in a modular fashion, rather than by individual components.

“We used to do a lot more sub-assembly work here in years past. Now we assemble trucks by using modules – complete axles, cabs, powertrains, even dashboards – so we could speed up production, improve quality control, yet save money at the same time,” explained Roy Sanders, manufacturing and facilities manager for International’s Garland truck plant.

“It used to take hours to complete entire components – building battery boxes, for example – that today instead arrive at our plant pre-built to customer specifications, ready for installation,” he told Fleet Owner. “Not only does that save us time and labor, it saves us square footage; we don’t need all the space we used to for sub-assembly work. And square footage in manufacturing is money.”

Formed as a joint venture with Marmon Motors in December 1996 employing less than 100 and building one truck per day, International’s Garland plant now cranks out 150 trucks a day – mostly severe service, vocational, and military vehicles – or one roughly every 1.5 hours using 680 personnel, 140 of them Penske workers in charge of warehouse management and line stocking.

Almost all of the plant’s 700,000 sq. ft. is devoted to production work, said Sanders. There’s very little room for any components to sit idle, other than when they are being staged for their role in assembly dance. Engines are mated to transmissions, alternators, and radiators, then installed as a complete unit in one fell swoop. In many cases, components are “pre-tested” right on the production line to make sure they work, part of an elaborate check-off system that helps International trace any truck problems back to the source.

Envelopes contain details of every stop a truck makes on the production line and require employees to stamp their code next to the modular component they installed. “That way, if an issue develops on the road, we can trace it right back to the specific station on the line,” said Sanders. “All those checks and traces, though, help us prevent those kinds of issues from the start.”

While modular construction helps speed up truck builds and improves quality, it doesn’t come cheap. Production line tools necessary for this caliber of work can cost between $15,000 and $500,000 each. International even spent $10-million on a robotic cab painting system as part of the transformation.

It still requires a lot of human labor, though not as much as before. “Trucks are far, far more customized vehicles than cars,” Sanders noted. “And each one on the line is very different. With car production, every unit is basically the same – on ours, no two units are alike. That’s why robots only fit in certain areas, such as cab painting. But by the same token, the varying frame rail lengths coming down the line don’t make them a good fit for chassis painting.

What the customer gets from all of this is a much more consistent product built to much closer tolerances than ever before, Sanders explained. “That’s the key to manufacturing: consistency. That gives the customer the quality and durability they expect.”

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