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February 08, 2011  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

After the Storm: Rebuilding the Bus Plant

When a microburst inflicted heavy damage on Collins Bus Corp.’s manufacturing facility, employees pulled together to keep bus production rolling throughout the repair process.

by Thomas McMahon - Also by this author

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Collins Bus Corp.’s newly rebuilt manufacturing plant.

Collins Bus Corp.’s newly rebuilt manufacturing plant.

On a stormy night in the summer of 2009, a few employees were working the swing shift at Collins Bus Corp.’s manufacturing facility. The region was experiencing a severe thunderstorm, but a more destructive phenomenon was brewing.

Suddenly, the area around the South Hutchinson, Kan., bus plant was hit by a microburst — a powerful meteorological event similar to wind shear. Heavy, cold air at the top of a thunderhead abruptly drops and hits the ground at incredibly high speeds.

The microburst on this night — June 7, 2009 — created winds estimated at 120 miles per hour. The winds struck the northern side of the Collins facility, inflicting heavy damage.

“Whole walls were crumpled, we lost major sections of the roof, and our sales and engineering offices were destroyed,” says Kent Tyler, president of Collins Bus Corp.

Fortunately, the few employees who were working that night were able to take refuge in the company’s storm shelter, and no one was injured. But major repairs would have to be made.

The facility after it was hit by a microburst in 2009.

Evolving bus plant
As North America’s largest builder of Type A school and activity buses, Collins’ manufacturing facility had evolved over the years to meet production needs.

The west section of the plant was originally built in 1976. A southeast wing was added in 1998. Then in 2007, the company launched a major reconfiguration of the production flow through the plant when it began its Lean manufacturing initiative — a production practice that seeks to optimize efficiency.

After the microburst hit in 2009, Collins quickly took action to mitigate the damage and protect vital equipment.

“We were in the middle of our busiest production period, with over 1,200 chassis on the ground to support our customers’ school start requirements,” Tyler says. “As you can imagine, it was a terrible time to experience such an interruption.”

Temporary repairs were made, and Collins employees pulled together to clean up the mess and help figure out how to modify production flow to work around the damaged areas.

Tyler says that the employees’ experience with kaizen events — workshops that deal with improving manufacturing processes — as part of the company’s Lean production system helped them assess the situation and quickly come up with solutions to the manufacturing dilemma.

“Incredibly, we were back at full production one week later,” Tyler says. Also remarkable was that Collins launched its hybrid-electric and propane buses during the rebuilding of the plant.

The Lean production system has driven the Collins bus plant for nearly four years. With employees participating in the kaizen events, the company’s manufacturing processes are improved in some way almost every week.

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