On track

Posted on 18 Aug 2008 by The Manufacturer

Specialist motorhome manufacturer Auto-Trail VR is enjoying an uplift in sales and market share, thanks to investment and an effective improvement strategy, Ronak Trivedi told Ruari McCallion

One of the leading and most successful businesses in Lincolnshire is Auto-Trail VR, based in Grimsby. The company has been making a range of high quality motorhomes since 1981. It employs over 200 people making a total of 26 different models in five distinct ranges – almost one for each year of its existence. It turns over around £50 million a year, a number that is growing strongly.

“We operate a twin assembly line system. One line concentrates on what we call ‘heavy’ vehicles; the other on ‘light’. The difference between the two is their makeup. The heavy line makes the larger, more complex vehicles; the light products are smaller and more straightforward,” said Ronak Trivedi, Auto-Trail’s lean manufacturing manager.

Prices for Auto-Trail’s motorhomes start at around £36,000 for the Tracker EK, which is based on a Fiat Ducato chassis and its 100bhp engine. At the top of the range is the six-wheeled Frontier Arapaho which has a lot of interior living space, including a defined kitchen and U-shaped lounge. All the available add-ons and luxuries can take the price over £60,000. These are definitely not designed for spartan living.

“We’re very much focused on customer requirements,” Trivedi said. “We customise our designs to individual specifications and we’re very strongly based on quality, both in components and in features. That makes our products more attractive to the market, which demands greater luxury and internal equipment – sophisticated entertainment systems, for example. It’s very much about luxury furnishing and comfort.”

After an MBO in 1998, Auto-Trail became part of the Trigano Group in 2000. Since then, it has benefited from investment in design, equipment and production effectiveness. The wide range of options adds even greater complexity to the task of managing a 26-model lineup. Trivedi’s title of lean manufacturing manager is a bit of a clue as to how the company approaches the task.

“Production is governed by the furniture shop – without interior furnishings, we can’t complete the vehicles, so the line can’t move,” he said. “As vehicle quantities and types fluctuate week by week on the two lines, it’s absolutely essential to keep the production resources aligned to meet our weekly targets. All the variations tend to put costs up and so, in order to control them, we have introduced line balancing and implemented a TAKO graph system.” TAKO is, essentially, based on takt time – the common time taken for each stage of the process to be completed. The stripped-down chassis first has the back, side and roof panels mounted on it. They and the furnishings are made precisely to size by Auto- Trail’s two single-bed CNC cutting machines. But the variations mean that there will be changes as the weekly production goes through.

“In order to overcome machine stoppage during changeover, our engineers calculate the target cycle time (takt time) on each line, which is what determines the total working time on the vehicles at each of our 13 workstations,” Trivedi said. “Each vehicle’s TAKO graph has on it all the necessary details – target and actual cycle times, the people working on each station, the amount of any time losses and their cause – which enables us to measure the performance of each station. It’s the responsibility of the operatives on the assembly line to fill out the TAKO graphs, which is something that clearly involves them in the process. The graphs are analysed each month and help us to understand the way that any slight shifts in the workforce influences any deviations from target cycle time. It also contributes to our root cause analysis and helps us in our implementation of corrective measures. We’re always looking to improve effectiveness.” What ongoing analysis has brought to light is that there are particular opportunities for improvement in the furniture components assembly area.

“That’s the next area for improvement,” he said. “We have already implemented line side storage in the main assembly area; over 2,500 individual items go to make up each Auto-Trail motorhome, so having common parts ready to hand cuts out wasteful activities. Detailed process mapping in the furniture component assembly area has shown that a new layout, implementation of onepiece flow and establishment of standardised work could speed up the assembly process and deliver finished components to the main lines in less time. We are intending to invest in equipment to help; a new beam saw timber cutting machine will cut sheets up to five times faster than we currently achieve.” The main challenge is perceived to be in convincing the workers in the furniture assembly area to embrace change and adopt new methods of working. However, the improvements already achieved within the factory should go some way to overcoming objections.

“Since we deployed 5S and implemented the continuous improvement programme, Auto-Trail has been able to boost sales income and improve profitability,” Trivedi said. “We saw our revenues increase by 23.5 per cent between 2006 and 2007, and we’re expecting something in the same region this year. That’s a fantastic achievement and we’re very proud of it – everyone, from the shop floor to the executive offices, played their part.”