The Auto Truck Group dedicated a new 70,000-square-foot facility in Kansas City, Mo., in early October. The facility will handle complex, specialized vehicle upfits as well as serve as the ship-thru facility for the Ford F-150 and Transit models. The facility will be able to accommodate 100 vehicles at a time. Complex upfits could take several weeks and more traditional, simple ones just a few hours. The facility will also be able to service the upfits as well.
The new facility combines the work of two facilities originally dedicated to complex upfits and F-150 ship-thru. The introduction of the Transit necessitated the new facility, which broke ground in January 2014.
The move will make the process of upfitting complex vehicles and ship-thru of the Ford vehicles "more efficient," said Jim Dondlinger, president of the Auto Truck Group. "We need to be really focused because these are money-making vehicles for our customers."
To a certain extent, though, Auto Truck Group is acting on a faith in the changing market, which has seen the introduction of a number of so-called "Euro-style" vans, including the Ford Transit, Ram ProMaster, and Chevrolet City Express.
"We're betting money that a European-type van market will emerge," Dondlinger said. "We see the future changing to the European-style van. I think the market is changing and we need to be really focused on that."
Touring the New Facility
The 70,000-square-foot facility has several distinct functions. Most of its space is dedicated to the upfitting process. When it opened in October, the space was split between complex upfits — at the time — mainly railroad trucks, which included upfitting them with various cranes and rail gear.
The rest of the space was dedicated to upfitting Ford Transit and Ford F-150 models for several fleets. In the center of the space is an elevated office that allows supervisors and customers to see the entire operation at a glance.
The facility is designed for future growth. The next addition will most likely be a paint facility, according to Corey Stanley, director of national account fleet sales.
Auto Truck Group added 35 technicians at the new Kansas City facility and added an industrial engineer with experience who formerly worked at Goodyear to help ensure the processes at the facility are run more efficiently.
For instance, instead of having a set-in-stone floor plan that dictates the upfitting process, trucks and vans can be arrayed on the production floor to make upfitting as efficient and technician friendly as possible.
"We've built and designed the facilities for efficiency and flexibility," Stanley noted.
Jenny Skrbina, general manager of the Kansas City Auto Truck Group facility, noted that the new technicians have a range of skills — from novices all the way to highly experienced technicians.
"We're learning as we go," Skrbina said. "It's been fun watching our people grow over the first few weeks that we've been in operation."
The Kansas City facility employs about 65 people total, with 52 of those being technicians.
"We've worked hard to get buy-in from our technicians on the floor," observed Sean Otterberg, project manager, business development at the Auto Truck Group. "We try to engage employees as if they're customers. We want them to want to come to work each day."
The facility also features office space for sales and executive personnel.
New for the Kansas City facility is a design studio where fleet customers and Auto Truck Group technicians can review pilot vehicles and make changes prior to committing to production.
Creating an Up-Front Environment
The Auto Truck Group has used the design studio to refine the way it handles its upfitting process. Relying on its nearly, century-old engineering expertise, the Auto Truck Group brings in clients to the Kansas City facility to view the upfit design before full production. This collaborative approach solves problems before they happen on a large scale.
It's this engineering expertise that is a strong value add for the company's clients.
"It's a very interactive process," explained Frank Cardile, senior vice president of global manufacturing. "The difference for us is that it is very cost effective."
From Otterberg's perspective the key element in this process is engaging fleet customers.
"What we're doing is not a philosophical shift. It's more about engagement," he said. "We needed to adjust our process and this has made us better. One thing that won't change is our approach to installation."
Judging by how many design reviews are being handled, this value-added component has been a hit with fleet customers.
"We've gone from two spec reviews per year to two reviews per week," Skrbina noted.
Navigating Uncharted Upfits
The new Ford Transit has the Auto Truck Group navigating some uncharted territory, which has given engineers and technicians at the Kansas City facility the opportunity to develop new upfits.
The Transit features a number of changes from the recently discontinued Ford E-Series, including a smaller cabin space, hence a larger cargo space.
The engineering team has been in the process of developing new shelving and storage systems and new ladder racks, particularly for the high-roof Transit.
The engineering team has already been tasked with going above and beyond the tried and true. For instance, for a services company, the Auto Truck Group designed a new compressor that could be integrated into the Transit cargo space without getting in the way of the other equipment.
Even though there have been challenges and changes Otterberg noted that "it's fun working on vans."
Digitizing the Process
The design process isn't the only thing that has changed. The quality-control process has entered the 21st century.
The quality-control process has been completely digitized and run through Apple iPads used by technicians on the floor. While this cuts down on paper and paperwork, and is more efficient, more important, it allows the Auto Truck Group to create a quality control process specific to the customer and the upfit.
For instance, with the services company's compressor upfit, the client required that the compressor be run for 30 minutes prior to the van leaving the Kansas City facility. This was seamlessly built into the checkout process.
On an even more practical level, the iPads are able to scan the VIN numbers of the vans, so clients get the exact van that they purchased — important since they may have ordered options that were installed at the factory and are specific to successfully integrating them into the fleet. Since most fleet vehicles are white and otherwise unmarked when they arrive, mixed up vehicles are a common problem.
Growing with Fleets
Dondlinger noted that the Auto Truck Group's growth is tied to the health of the fleet market.
"Long-term we know that we always have had success and have grown with the national fleets," he said. "We will continue to serve them."
To that end the company is looking forward to supporting other new OEM products, such as the Chevrolet Colorado and GMC Canyon at its Wentzville, Mo., location.
The Kansas City location is most likely a glimpse of things to come for the Auto Truck Group, and will likely serve as a model for the company's future locations.
"We're probably going to take this model to other markets," Cardile said.
The company opened another new facility in St. Louis in November 2014. It will be relocating its Louisville, Ky., location to a new building in 2015.
Founded in 1918 and headquartered in Bartlett, Ill., the Auto Truck Group serves a variety of fleet markets, including railroads, service fleets, the telecom and energy markets, and regional municipalities.