Building trucks

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"Consistency is the key." -- Roy Sanders


I got to spend the good part of a day with Roy, taking a tour of International Truck & Engine Corp.'s Garland, TX, truck assembly plant -- which is his baby now, since he's the manufacturing and facilities manager here. Roy's worked at International for 16 years, with the last three spent here at Garland, so he's had a front row seat to view an amazing amount of change to the truck building process -- changes that are designed to give you, the fleet owner, a more reliable, durable, and higher quality product.


Roy explained that it's all about consistency -- installing a component, painting a cab, spacing the axles and wheel hubs -- the right way every single time, hour after hour, truck after truck. International -- and every other truck manufacturer, I might add -- has spent millions to develop new manufactuing processes to give customers this consistency, yet at the same time preserve much of the customization they demand in their vehicles.


"No two trucks we build here are alike -- the are all completely different," he told me. "A dump truck with tandem rear axles may be followed by a day cab tractor with a single rear axle, followed by a concrete pumper with a tandem rear and tage axle arrangement. That's a lot of complexity but we need to handle that with the same consistency that the auto manufacturers do."


Roy's factory builds mostly severe service, vocational, and military trucks and that range makes attaining consistency that much harder. "We're dealing with anywhere from 20 to 30 different axle combinations alone on our line -- that's a lot of variation we have to manage," he said.


Amid the whir and scream of torque wrenches, hoists, and other equipment, Roy explained that every truck OEM is trying to imitate the way the automakers build cars -- especially the high end brands, such as Lexus. They want to deliver the same level of product quality, yet in a package durable enough to take more pounding than a Lexus would see in two or three lifetimes.


It's a very detailed process now, with pre-test checks of components conducted in many cases right after they are installed on a chassis to see if they are working properly. Validation supervisors roam the line conducting their own checks as well, with a series of final checks spaced out at the end of the building process -- a 10 minute dyno test for each truck, a quick run over a bump lane to make sure the suspension is solid, and a variety of electronic diagnostics to make sure everything is ship shape, to name but a few.


All of this is geared not only to making trucks better but delivering them to you, the customer, faster. Gone are the days when individual components would be constructed by hand for hours, with the quality of the work depending on how tired the line workers became as the day wore on. Now, pre-made components -- called modules -- get quickly put into place and tested out, so an entire truck can be built in about an hour and a half. Just building a battery box by hand used to take three hours alone, noted Roy.


"If you had told me five years ago we could do what we are doing today in terms of production speed and quality control, I would have told you it would be impossible," he said. "But here we are doing it. And it's all geared to giving the customer a better, more durable product for their business in a much shorter time span. That's our overriding goal now and for the future."

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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