BODIES: Volgren values

By: Steve Skinner


Big Australian bus manufacturer Volgren has a busy factory in Perth and an enthusiastic ambassador

BODIES: Volgren values
Part of Volgren’s Perth factory at knock-off time

ABC magazine recently reviewed Volvo’s Euro 6 articulated route bus in Perth, and while there we visited the factory of its body builder – Volgren.

It was fascinating to see both bendy buses and conventional rigids in various stages of manufacturer for Volgren’s big customer in the west, the Public Transport Authority.

Volgren is building on 105 Volvo B7 chassis a year for the PTA at present, and is building Volvo B8 artics for the PTA at the rate of 15 per year.

Our tour guide was Volgren’s WA state manager Matthew Smith, who oversees the factory and its more than 80 staff.

He’s an engineer who worked for many years in car componentry and other manufacturing before moving to Volgren, and is one of those passionately smart people who is full of knowledge and ideas.

Smith is also camera-shy but was happy for us to take photos inside his two-building factory, of which he is clearly extremely proud.

BOLTED ALUMINIUM BASICS

The basic building blocks for Volgren buses are bolted aluminium structures.

"It is largely a profile of aluminium with a gussetted joint that allows quick and easy bolted assembly," says Smith.

He maintains this gives several advantages over steel.

"For starters it is definitely stronger and it is more robust and does not have any of the cracking or corrosion problems that steel normally has."

Smith says, for example, the bolted aluminium network of joints can absorb some vibration or impact and pass the rest on, whereas a steel weld "can either transfer the force or crack under the load".

"A steel bodied bus typically after eight to 10 years has to come off the road, be checked for corrosion, be checked for cracking, all this kind of issue. The aluminium structure can last for 20 years without a rebuild.

"We actually offer the PTA [Public Transport Authority] a 15 year warranty on the structure of the bus, which is unheard of in the industry."

Smith showed ABC a couple of photographs of accidents involving Volgren buses, which he says also demonstrate their structural safety.

In one of them a tow truck has run into the back of a bus, and is a write-off, whereas there is no intrusion into the aluminium structure in the passenger area of the bus.

Smith says Volgren bodies are also quick and easy to repair because they are bolted, enabling sections to be changed over. He says dinged exterior panels are even easier to replace, literally in minutes.

"It means that part interchange ability is good; it means that repairs are quicker, easier, cheaper."

SPEND MONEY TO SAVE MONEY

"Essentially what Volgren is really looking at is whole of life cost," says Smith, of the build quality and Capral aluminium he uses.

"The aluminium structure is more expensive to buy upfront but when you look at the fact that it lasts so long; it doesn’t need a midlife rebuild; when you have a look at the cost of repairs – over the whole life of a bus it’s far cheaper.

"We don't compete on cost upfront because on imported buses it’s a different ballpark, but our buses certainly go the distance in terms of strength and longevity."

Smith says another advantage of the Volgren build system is that it’s modular. In other words staff can mix and match the same body pieces to suit different chassis.

"The versatility of the aluminium structure means that we can build absolutely anything that’s required," he says.

"From the same system of components we can build a double-decker, an artic, a school bus, a route bus – you name it we can build it.

"We also do parts; sales; service; warranty work; repairs; midlife refurbishment of the vehicles  – so we do just about everything from cradle to the grave, from your design spec, contact with the engineers and our Melbourne department on how you are going to build the bus, through to midlife rebuilds and decommissioning."

STAFF SAFETY

Matthew Smith says his buses are not only built with the safety of passengers in mind, but that the safety of the factory workers is also a high priority. The safety system also has production benefits.

"We no longer try to build the bus as a complete unit and have people up and down on platforms," Smith says.

"We try to build everything on ergonomic workstations because it’s much better for injury risk management, and there are no longer all these extra motions which are just wasted.

"So we build the sides of the bus on a frame at a good convenient waist height. We build the entire front of a bus on a frame that’s laid horizontally at waist height and bolt it onto the bus. The whole roof of the bus is built as a sub-assembly and even painted before it’s actually assembled to the bus.

"All the steel we put in for the chassis extension and the floor line is built in three distinct modules on jigs that are conveniently placed, and they are actually fully painted and have all the corrosion protection applied before they are assembled into being a complete unit.

"Although all this might mean a bit more materials handling, what it does save is all the working at awkward positions, odd angles, all this kind of stuff.

"It’s becoming incredibly modular as to how we assemble the bus. It’s nowhere near what we used to do 10 years ago."

Smith says back then it used to take well over 1000 hours and about 45 days to build a bus, but now the speed of building a bus has "increased dramatically".

"It’s also of note how our minor injuries and even a twisted knee or knee reconstruction of a worker has been dramatically reduced, and how much our cost of injury management has been dropping over the years as well from this process."

INSIDE THE VOLVO ARTIC

ABC magazine was impressed with the interior of the articulated Volvo/Volgren articulated bus on our drive the next day, and not surprisingly Matthew Smith extolled its virtues.

"We’ve certainly put a lot of work into the styling and aesthetics of it and the passenger experience," he says. "A lot of these are quite subtle, you might not notice them."

For example: "The aluminium structure does allow for a lower centre of gravity on the build because there is nowhere near as much weight on the upper structure, so that means it has good ride properties.

"Second to that might be something simple like interior lighting. We now use aircraft style LED lights, where the light is reflected across the whole surface of the roof … And that means it’s one uniform ambience."

Smith says the PTA has a preference for McConnell seats, and that Volgren’s refurbishing data is showing that the materials are lasting a long time.

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