BODIES: Leader goes large

By: Randall Johnston


Regional New South Wales body builder is working smarter, kicking goals and embracing the future

BODIES: Leader goes large
Frame section team leader Darren Haigh and Chris Bailey size her up

Sometimes people and businesses outside the major centres get typecast.

People don’t expect them to be as innovative, bold or forward thinking as their big city counterparts.

Every now and again a light shines on a regional business that could show those in the big smoke a thing or two, those with an innate understanding of what their core customers need, expect and deserve when investing in something as vital and expensive as a new bus.

Express Coachbuilders at Macksville, in regional New South Wales (NSW) is deserving of the spotlight, having recently completed a brave but necessary and seemingly successful transformation to remain competitive in the bus building industry recently.

A major investment in new premises, design, tooling, and plant operations has paved the way for more business and coincided with the turfing out of out-dated thinking.

The organisation is the third largest employer in the Nambucca Valley and it’s fair to say this transformative change may just have secured the livelihoods of many in the area.

STAYING COMPETITIVE

Express Coachbuilders general manager Matt Winslow is still in disbelief at how far a fresh approach, a commitment to teamwork and some unconventional innovations can get you.

Twelve months ago its stakeholders adopted a totally different approach to the business, which has had an undeniably positive impact.

The change started with a revived approach to engineering, tools, the way the production line runs, but didn’t stop there – as the organisations response to customers also became a lot quicker.

"We looked at technology used elsewhere and basically just started fresh," he says.

"We have a much more efficient manufacturing process now, we can have a job on the production line six weeks after taking an order."

The organisation also implemented new manufacturing software to help produce bodies to more exact specifications.

All parts are now kitted out and delivered to the assembly line on time and ready to go, rather than picked individually which is saving staff a lot of time.

Customers are now given weekly updates on the progress of their bus order, an initiative that has been especially well-received by operators.

The organisation adopted more modern manufacturing principals that are particularly effective for bus body manufacturers and useful where a traditional assembly line process is not always the most appropriate.

Now each department works on several different buses at any one time, depending on which stage each bus is at – which is proving to be more efficient than limiting intake of each department to just one kind – for the sake of simplicity, but at the expense of productivity.

By keeping all buses moving from one department to the next in unison, based on when the order was placed, things at Macksville are ticking along nicely.

A CULTURAL EXPEREINCE

Of all things, it was the culture of staff on the factory floor who were accustomed the old way of doing things, that was the most challenging dynamic to change during this transformation.

"Now they have seen this way of manufacturing is the only way," Winslow says.

"I’m so proud that this small country town, to manufacture these buses the way we do it now is just amazing."

The team has a brand new paint facility that has seen buses delivered with a resplendent finish the crew is undeniably proud of.

The frame shop has become about 30 per cent more efficient due to the pre-packing of all parts needed for each bus, combined with a more orderly picking and packing system.

A new piece of framing equipment has revolutionised the way Express create the basic metal structure of their bus bodies and also led to a reduction in hours of labour per bus and saved floor space by replacing multiple jigs.

This one ‘collector jig’ allows the crew to create a bus frame ranging anywhere from 10.5 to 14.5 metres and bodies to fit a wide range of chassis and suitable for any bus or coach application.

Funnily enough, it was a lack of floor space that brought about this eureka moment, but the real benefit has little to do with the jig’s physical footprint and has had a big impact on operational efficiency.

Prior to this the team was physically building each bus ‘hoop by hoop’ and much of the framing was hand-manufactured and hand-fitted, a process that in hindsight Winslow says was far too labour intensive.

"We feel like we’ve gone from doing things the Fred Flintstone way to being really advanced in our operation and that obviously benefits the customer and ourselves.

"We have a team of framers - we had to take them from the old to the new – it took the better part of four months for everyone to adjust.

"The guys were a little hesitant at first, but morale has never been higher and it’s all because we are working smarter."

The flash new gear has also allowed the team to produce bus bodies of a more consistent standard and gain experience in cutting-edge bus manufacturing techniques, using innovative technology ahead of its time by international standards – let alone country NSW.

PEOPLE POWER

The team is evenly split with about 15 a piece in the framers, panel and finish departments.

The remaining staff are spread across the paint, parts and electrical departments and then there is the small but all-important administration team.

While a large investment in the latest equipment surely helps, it is the workers who had the largest hand in the success of the business of late.

"We’ve encouraged all our team leaders to take ownership and they have improved on what we are doing," Winslow says.

"These guys are highly skilled and we are listening to our workers when they have good ideas.

"All our employees have really come together as a team and work brilliantly together.

"This is one of the major reasons for our success and I am very proud of them for what they have achieved."

With 70 employees, Express Coachbuilders is the third largest employer in the Nambucca Valley and churned out 72 buses in the last financial year.

This stacks up well compared to the 60 or so they were delivering to operators prior to the transformation and investments that has now taken shape.

An excellent on-time delivery record also shows the body builder in a positive light this year.

"We can stick to our delivery dates. We haven’t missed a delivery date for the last 10 months now."

KICKING GOALS

The organisation has taken an honest and open approach to its communication with customers, which Winslow says has really got operators on-board.

Indeed, business is good and a tidy 21 bus order from the Australian Defence Force stands as a testimony to everyone’s hard work.

"We teamed up with Scalia mid-last year and are on track to deliver 21 three axle coaches to the Defence Force.

"We’ complete the first 10 earlier this year and now were onto the rest.

"We were really wrapped about that one and can see potential for further business with them."

The last of the vehicles in this order will be delivered by June next year and will be used at military bases all around Australia.

Other major long-time customers include Victorian operators McHarrys in Geelong and CV Sales in Warrnambool, and Red Bus in NSW.

The organisation is doing business with operators from all around the country including Western Australia.

Those doing business with Express are not likely to get the run-around or fall victim to a miscommunication between sales staff and the head honcho either, as the organisation has retained its small business ethos based on good old-fashioned values.

"I think it does give people some assurance - that the guy they are dealing with for sales actually runs the business."

The type of bus bodies the organisation produces has changed over the years, and they are seeing more demand for low-floor buses, which now account for about 40 percent of all orders.

Another change has seen the organisation consolidate all departments that were spread across three separate sites move into the one premises on the outskirts of Macksville.

This has helped reduce operating costs and improved communication between each department.

"Just the logistics of getting from one site to the other was not ideal, so having everyone here on site has definitely helped."

An influx of three new first-year Coffs Harbour TAFE apprentices has also helped breathe new life into the business and some of the more experienced staff have enjoyed showing the newbies the tricks of the trade this year.

FUTURE PLANS

Having made these major changes and come out the other side, the organisation is now looking to fine-tune its processed even more and Winslow  feels confident in the team leaders collective  ability to spot inefficiencies and suggest new methods.

In regard to the future of Australian bus body builders remaining viable in the marketplace, Winslow says smart operators will continue to opt for quality and reliability and look at the whole of life cost – rather than the initial cash outlay.

"You only have to look at the quality of the imported product to see what I mean – bus bodies produced in Australia are of a very high quality.

"At the end of the day, operators want their bus to have longevity and after-sales support is just so important."

The fact that Australian manufacturers are physically here also means they are always accountable.

"You’ve got to see it as a long-term investment and some operators – I’m sorry – but their bus just isn’t going to make the distance.

"It’s no co-incidence that none of the major operators are touching the imports."

Winslow also points to the low Australian dollar in helping ease some of the financial pressures felt by local manufacturers last year.

While the process of improvement continues, it seems the organisation has set itself up well for the future and there is no doubt that this regional NSW body builder is punching well above its weight.

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