WESTERN Star Trucks marked the official start of heavy-duty truck production at its new manufacturing location — Freightliner Corporation's Portland (Oregon) truck manufacturing plant on Swan Island. In an October 22 ceremony attended by Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, Portland Mayor Vera Katz, customers and dealers, Western Star employees delivered the first Portland-built Western Star to an owner-operator customer from British Columbia.
It was about a year ago that the company announced it was moving truck production and other operations from Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, to Portland. In the months since, Western Star invested $16 million to prepare the Portland plant for Western Star production. Headquartered in Willoughby, Ohio, Western Star produces premium, custom trucks for long-haul and vocational applications.
Plant management expects Western Star production in Portland to reach 16 a day by January 2003. Western Star was building eight to 12 a day at the Kelowna plant. Western Star trucks share the Portland assembly line with Freightliner's military truck production and the Freightliner Coronado.
As part of a product rationalization throughout the Freightliner family, Western Star has been trimmed to two primary models — the 4900 that comes in several variants for over-the-road and vocational applications and the 6900, which is specifically targeted at severe-duty activities such as coal mining. Owner-operators remain a key target market. Approximately 10% of the Western Star output is exported overseas, according to company officials.
The Portland location offers distinct advantages for Western Star from both a production and engineering standpoint, according to Rainer Schmueckle, president and chief executive officer of Freightliner LLC, parent company of Western Star Trucks. Portland Truck Plant employees have significant experience in building a wide range of custom trucks, including US military vehicles. In addition, Western Star will be in proximity to state-of-the-art development and testing facilities based in Portland.
“We will ensure that customers continue to receive the top-quality trucks they have come to expect from Western Star while further enhancing the product,” Schmueckle said. “Our task in preparing the Portland Truck Manufacturing Plant for Western Star production was made possible through the close coordination of efforts by many committed parties. This was a true, team effort.”
The first Portland-built Western Star was presented to Ryan Lucas, a truck owner-operator from Mackenzie, British Columbia. Lucas operates four heavy-duty trucks in logging and lowbed applications in the Mackenzie area.
“I am honored to have received the first Western Star from Portland,” Lucas said. “Western Star trucks have a great reputation in the logging industry and are very popular in Western Canada. This new truck will be a great source of pride as well as a workhorse in my daily business.”
Lucas' truck, a 4900 SA, was built in one of the most efficient production facilities in North America, according to Roger Nielsen, chief operating officer for Freightliner LLC. The Western Star chassis assembly is housed in a new 15,000-sq-ft addition. Sections of the line have been widened and reinforced to handle even the biggest Western Star off-road chassis.
A state-of-the-art E-coat system to prime cabs for protection against corrosion has been installed, and the topcoat paint facility is being upgraded to a true clean-room environment. Already, Portland was using paint robots to produce consistent finish quality.
A new cab-in-white assembly line also is in place. The finish cab line was lengthened with additional workstations, including a water-leak-test booth and a cab-and-sleeper integrator fixture.
To assure quality and continuity of the product, “Western Star has made significant investments not only in new equipment and systems but also in employee training,” Nielsen said. “We have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the Portland Plant workforce to help continue Western Star's quality and prestigious character.”
The Portland Truck Manufacturing Plant opened in 1969 and today employs approximately 1,100 people.
Further contributing to a successful changeover are about 100 key Western Star engineering, manufacturing, sales administration, applications, purchasing, service, warranty, and finance personnel who have relocated to Portland. These include Carsten Reinhardt, former general manager of operations for Western Star in Kelowna and now general manager of the Portland Truck Manufacturing Plant; Cary Gatzke, director of Western Star Engineering; Wayne LaRochelle, director of manufacturing; and Tony McParland, quality assurance manager.
In addition to the managers, the company also brought a handful of assembly-line workers from Kelowna to Portland to train local workers on the new truck lines. The trainers were expected to complete their jobs by the end of December.
Customers and dealers
Western Star customers and dealers have played a key role in the company's transition of operations to Portland, Oregon, according to John Merrifield, senior vice-president, sales & marketing, Western Star Trucks. Early on in the transition process, the company established a Transition Advisory Group, composed of Western Star customers and dealers. The group reviewed the company's plans and provided guidance in a number of areas.
“It was very important to us to involve our customers and dealers in Western Star's transition of operations,” Merrifield said. “Their input has been invaluable.
“We know that everybody is watching us. People are waiting to see whether we succeed or fail. We have to maintain quality levels as high as or better than existed at the Kelowna plant. That's why we audit a truck a day to make sure everything coming off the production line is perfect. We follow up on every quality exception.”
Merrifield said Western Star will shine even brighter in the future. “We already have a tremendously loyal customer base, and it's our intention to significantly invest in product development, marketing, and manufacturing to grow this brand while all along maintaining its unique character. We want 4% to 5% of the North American market.”