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September 01, 1999  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Tackling the Issues of Consolidation, Competition and Quality Control

Has manufacturer consolidation helped customers? What can be done to improve quality? Top manufacturers provide the answers.

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SBF: Several of the British Columbians’ complaints involved poor “fit and finish,” but they also mentioned electrical problems and roof leaks. How can these types of problems be curtailed?

Collins: Well, I think again, this should be addressed up front in the bid process. It’s hard to change a bus after it’s been delivered. In my opinion, our customers should pay more attention to things like warranty issues if they’re concerned about fit and finish. Look at the company, and the way they construct the bus, and the warranties that they have to back up those buses.

Glaske: Whenever you have a change in a process or in a material or with people even, you have a possibility of something happening like that. I go back a few years to when they made them take the chrome and lead out of the paints for environmental reasons. If you look at buses that have been on the road a few years now, and I don’t care whose they are, and you compare them to new buses, you say “My goodness.” There’s a lot of difference. Paint manufacturers had to figure out what they could do, and bus manufacturers had to figure how to put it on.

Thomas: In general, quality problems are eliminated through design and process improvements within the structure of a formal quality system. I think that’s the appropriate way to attack those problems. The first thing you have to do is, of course, identify the problem. So we put a lot of effort into that, and I’m sure everybody else has. In certain types of problems, you try to design your way out of them, but in other types of problems you improve your processes.

SBF: What can be done, in general, to improve quality control at the factory?

Collins: In our case, we only focus on the Type A school buses. I think this gives us the ability to focus on the quality of just those type buses to ensure that we build and produce the highest quality Type A units in the industry.

Glaske: Quality control is a never-ending process, and you don’t ever achieve 100 percent. The only way to really improve the quality is to let the people that are doing the work — those folks running the shop floor — be involved and let them use their knowledge of what they’re doing to help do it in a better way.

Thomas: In general, you attack those problems through design or process. There are some related ways to do it, of course, but it’s all within the structure of a formal quality assurance program. Also, we try to take out as many of the peaks and valleys from a demand standpoint during the year as is feasible. That’s just one of several different ways of attacking the aspect of the problem. You just can’t run the production up and down and bring in new people and have a high turnover and expect to have a good quality product.

SBF: Are you still experiencing component bottlenecks? Who, if anyone, should be accountable for late delivery penalties?

Collins: I believe that late deliveries are the responsibility of the manufacturer. If the manufacturer can’t deliver, then the manufacturer shouldn’t take the order from the school district. It doesn’t matter which component supplier caused the problem, it will always be the bus manufacturer’s name on the side of the bus that the customer’s going to remember.

Glaske: It’s much better this year than last year. Last year was probably the worst I’ve ever seen. Not just any one component, but a bunch of them, wheels and on and on and on. We still have some difficulties with transmissions, but they’re not insurmountable. We have an allocation that allows us to make our deliveries, and I would say it’s much better this year than last. I think it looks alright for this year and next. A lot depends on what happens in the overall truck market.

Thomas: Well, you just try to work your way through it because whatever your problems are this week, you may have a different set of problems next week. There have been some components that we’ve consistently had problems with, so you try to develop some strategies around that. We are experiencing some problems from time to time with certain components, particularly when they’re used by both the bus and truck manufacturers, as many of our components are. Both industries right now are having exceptional production or sales years, so it’s putting a strain on the supplier base.

SBF: What further safety enhancements to chassis/body design can we expect in the next decade?

Collins: Things like increased visibility for the driver. Seat restraints for the students will certainly be an issue that we’ll try to address in the future.

Glaske: We look at a lot of things. I don’t see any major technical breakthrough in the bodies themselves. And the fact is that the safety record says school buses are built pretty well. We’ve looked at all kinds of things though. For example, airbags and other restraint systems — some way to hold the kids in the seats. We look specifically at anything that might make it easier for the driver, something that would remove distractions. It could be the way they open the door; it could be the window structure; it could be the way the mirrors are configured.

Thomas: That’s a tough question. We are working on several innovative safety ideas, but I don’t know if it’s really appropriate to discuss them right now. But we will be showing some of these at the NAPT show this fall in Denver.

SBF: What do you see as the most positive development in the manufacturing industry in the past decade?

Collins: I think the major advancement in Type A bus manufacturing was the almost total change to a body-off-chassis approach as opposed to the old van conversion. It’s provided a much better product for the end user in the smaller passenger buses from seating capacities to space requirements to better stability for transportation for the disabled. It’s a more legitimate manufacturing technique that I believe produces a much more customer friendly type of body.

Glaske: We’ve gone pretty heavily into computerized tooling in the plant — laser cutters that are operated by computers. It’s done wonders for us because we don’t run long runs of parts anymore. There’s a whole area called logistics — just-in-time deliveries, line sets of stuff coming into your factory from a supplier. Those are great things on the manufacturing horizon that are on the scene right now that have done wonders for our costs.

Thomas: I would say the emphasis on quality and other common-sense manufacturing philosophies, such as just-in-time or pool type systems are really most exciting. All of these systems do a better job of dignifying the shop employee because his/her input is really vital to the success of these newer types of approaches to manufacturing, and they really value what that particular person who’s closest to the job being done on the floor. They really value what that person’s contribution is to the whole process.

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