Lean Manufacturing Assembly

Great Dane Turns to Automation

Great Dane Corp. is a leading manufacturer of dry van, refrigerated and platform trailers. The 81-year-old company recently opened a state-of-the-art assembly plant in Statesboro, GA.

Thanks to lean manufacturing and automation, the 450,000-square-foot facility has the capacity to produce more than 5,000 refrigerated trailers annually. ASSEMBLY asked Kevin Black, plant manager, to discuss his operation.

ASSEMBLY:What makes the new plant unique? How is it different than other trailer manufacturing facilities?

Black:Traditionally, domestic trailer assembly plants have followed the old “blacksmith” style of manufacturing, with its lower levels of automation and production efficiency, along with relatively high manpower requirements. Even today, more than 90 percent of trailer manufacturing plants in the United States are still utilizing these traditional models.

However, our Statesboro facility employs many design and operational enhancements designed to improve the plant's efficiency, while concurrently decreasing the plant's operational costs and environmental footprint. These include locating all operations under one roof, active use of automation, and linear flow of raw materials from the point of fabrication to the appropriate point of use on the assembly line.
ASSEMBLY: How is the factory laid out? Do subassembly lines flow into the final assembly line?

Black: The Statesboro plant brings all assembly under one roof in a building that was specifically designed and constructed for its intended use—not an existing structure that has been retooled. The assembly line is L-shaped, with subassembly areas directing their workflow to terminate at the appropriate place in the assembly process. An example of this would be having construction of trailer “bogies” (the trailer’s axle and suspension assembly) terminate directly at the point in the assembly line where the bogies are mounted to the trailer frame.
The workflow process is essentially linear, starting with an indoor parts supermarket that supplies the appropriate assembly areas from a centralized distribution point, minimizing use of outdoor storage. From there, raw materials flow to the fabrication shop, then to various subassembly areas, then to the final trailer assembly lines.

ASSEMBLY: Does the new plant incorporate any lean manufacturing principles?

Black: We are actively working to reduce inventory requirements from traditional levels. In addition to reducing costs, this provides more productive use of the plant’s available space. Another enhancement now in the works will place monitors at workstations throughout the assembly line. This will enable assemblers to view blueprints and specs of the specific trailer unit being built to ensure accuracy and speed production.

ASSEMBLY: How automated is the plant?

Black: All trailers flow on conveyors to workstations throughout the plant. In the few instances where trailers must be moved manually “air-skate” technology is used. This allows single-person movement of the trailer, despite its large size. Other plant automation features include a fully robotic workstation with two robotic welders, along with four other areas where automated welders are utilized in various assembly processes. In addition to their speed and precision, these welders can be remotely monitored and adjusted as needed by plant engineers.

ASSEMBLY: Does the plant use any new types of assembly tools?

Black: Assemblers use automated torque equipment to tighten lug nuts and U-bolts to precise specifications, increasing speed and accuracy. This system also monitors and records actual torque specifications by trailer serial number at the time of assembly, allowing for verification after-the-fact if needed.

ASSEMBLY: Are any lightweight materials used to make trailers in your plant?

Black: A wide variety of lightweight materials are offered as standard or optional features on Great Dane trailers, including aluminum frames, sidewalls, doors, roofs, floors, rear guards and wheels, as well as composite doors and sidewalls. All of these features reduce trailer weight, which results in increased cargo capacity, decreased fuel consumption and enhanced durability.

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