Change is the operative word these days at International Truck and Engine Corp., formerly Navistar International. In March, the Chicago-based company announced the name change and unveiled its first integrated school bus product — the International Integrated Conventional (IC) school bus. The model is the industry’s first in which the chassis, body and engine are manufactured by the same company. Pressing forward with its International brand campaign, the company has retired the AmTran label. Buses manufactured at the Conway, Ark., plant will be imprinted with the International brand, as will buses produced at the Tulsa, Okla., plant, scheduled to open next spring. SBF Editor Steve Hirano recently spoke with Tom Cellitti, vice president and general manager of International’s Bus Vehicle Center, about the developments.
SBF: What advantages does the new Integrated Conventional (IC) — with body, chassis and engine designed and manufactured by the same company — offer?
Tom Cellitti: Our customers typically keep school buses for 10 to 15 years. One of the things that’s very important to them is knowing that there’s a single point of contact to stand behind the product. With an integrated bus, backed by International, you have single-point accountability. Engine, body, chassis — all supported by the same engineering system, the same technical support system and the same dealer organization. We think it’s a unique competitive advantage.
SBF: What about advantages in design?
Cellitti: The IC has allowed us to make ergonomic improvements to the driver’s compartment as well as to combine some of the separate systems, such as the electrical system, into one maintenance point. That will offer real improvements to the maintainer of the vehicle. In terms of ergonomics, a driver who is comfortable and has controls within easy reach is going to do a better job. We did an anthropometric study of 1,500 school bus drivers to get the breadth of who drives school buses, and we were able to design a driver’s compartment — taking into account the positions of the pedals, steering wheel and controls — that is optimized for that population. One of the features that we offer is an improved linear door control, which should make it easier for the driver to operate a manual door. We also incorporated an industry-leading 36-inch-wide entry door, along with an integrated crossing arm. Both will be standard equipment.
SBF: If a customer ordered an AmTran conventional, will he receive an IC instead?
Cellitti: It depends on how the package is bid. Some people are still bidding a loose body and a loose chassis. They will be notified on what they will be receiving. It will take a while for the market to migrate.
SBF: So the IC is already in production?
Cellitti: Yes, we’re building them at the plant in Conway. We will start ramping up in Tulsa in January 2001 and that process will take approximately five months.
SBF: Do you know what your production capacity in Tulsa will be?
Cellitti: We’re targeting 30 conventionals per shift.
SBF: Are you planning to make any major modifications to AmTran’s Type D products, the RE and the FE?
Cellitti: We’ve just gone through an upgrade in the past year, and we’ll make continual improvements. We’ll put some of the features from the IC, such as the integrated crossing arm, into the Type D products.
SBF: So you’re not planning any major redesign of the Type D buses?
Cellitti: Over the next few years we will be substantially improving our products. We are investing a lot of money in our school bus business.
SBF: A recent SBF survey suggested that about one-third of school bus fleet managers aren’t satisfied with the quality of the products that are being delivered. What is International doing to address this issue?
Cellitti: Quality starts with the design and the manufacturing process. Over the last four years, we’ve invested approximately $35 million in the Conway plant to improve our manufacturing processes. As we design a new product like the IC, we make sure that our tooling and all of our suppliers are capable of building to the quality that we have specified. That’s where the biggest improvement in body quality will come from. As the industry retools and as it invests in its manufacturing processes, quality will improve. Besides that, we have leading quality systems in our plant. We have the Black Belt Program, which focuses on certain quality issues and pushes the corrective action into the manufacturing process.
SBF: Do you think the same integrated chassis, body and engine could be applied to Type A products?
Cellitti: That’s an interesting question. We’re not specifically in the Type A business, except for the International engines that are provided to Ford for their cutaways. But I think that time will come also. It makes a lot of sense.
SBF: Needless to say, there’s been a lot of consolidation in the industry. Do you think it will continue and how do you think it’s affecting the end users?
Cellitti: We are going to invest in and grow our business. In the end, competition is good for the end user. With all the changes in the industry, the end user, who’s responsible for the safe transportation of our children, will be receiving a better product. I think the end user will be better served as we move forward.
SBF: We recently published an article about the need for advanced training for school bus mechanics. There seems to be a great need for this training, especially with the growth of electronic engines and ABS in the school bus industry. What has International done to make this training available to the end user?
Cellitti: We’re committed to provide the training to bring everyone’s skills up to speed. International helps sponsor ASE certification for school bus technicians. We provide both home training and classroom instruction for electronic engines and brake maintenance. In addition, we train about 600 technicians each year through our chassis maintenance training sessions. We put our money where our mouth is.