A behind the scenes peak into building “serious trucks"

I recently had the unique opportunity to get an inside look at the Western Star Trucks organization.

For those few who may not be familiar with Western Star, it builds “serious trucks,” producing heavy duty custom trucks for long-haul and vocational applications at a dedicated plant in Portland, OR.

Western Star is a subsidiary of Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) which manufactures and markets Class 4 to 8 vehicles. DTNA is a part of Daimler, a German-based company that is the world's leading commercial vehicle manufacturer.

Having been through a number of trucks plants, I was surprised to find the Western Star facility has extremely little automation.

The reason for this is all the specialization and customization of Western Stars, director of engineering Randy DeBortoli explained to me.

During my tour of the plant, I never noticed two like trucks on any production line.

Also surprising to me was the plant has only nine robots. Eight are used to spotweld truck cabs. The other puts glue on the windshields of severe duty cabs.

In addition to getting a personal tour of the Western Star plant, I was allowed a visit to the Reliability Development Center, located nearby.

Along with doing reliability development for Western Star, the center also does work for DTNA’s other brands, including Freightliner and Thomas Built Buses.

I found the Reliability Development Center fascinating. Its sole purpose, Napolyon Isikbay, director of DTNA’s vehicle test product validation explained to me, is to do accelerated vehicle testing to identify issues and problems related to reliability, and fix them before the product reaches to customer’s hand.

The center has 100 drivers and a large fleet of trucks. The vehicles - grossing out at much higher loads than normal, but within legal limits - are operated seven days a week, 24 hours a day, under significant stress-causing roads.

These conditions can result in up to 5 times more stress on some components than typical truck experiences, thus the accelerated testing, said Isikbay. The objective is to generate faults, then figure out what happened, then find solutions.

He pointed out me that each and every fault goes through a systematic process called Analysis Solution Realization.

The first element of the process is analysis. Here, the issue or problem is identified and documented. Next, is a search conducted for the possible root causes of the issue/problem, after which the most likely probable cause is determined.

In the solution process, decision targets to correct the issue or problem are established and a solution is developed.

The final part of the Analysis Solution Realization process is measurement of the solution to make sure the problem has been corrected. If it has, the “fix” is standardized into the vehicle assembly process to eliminate a reoccurrence of that issue/problem.

If not, the necessary steps of the Analysis Solution Realization process are repeated.

DTNA is committed to its Reliability Development Center and the reliability of it’s products, Isikbay informed me, and that requires a significant investment in the operation - more than $15 million per year.

The Reliability Development Center is but one part of Western Star Truck’s TOS (Total Operating System).

The TOS helps the manufacturer “safely build the highest quality truck, at the lowest cost possible, in a manner consistent with the premium image of the Western Star brand,” Paul Erdy, Western Star Truck’s director of plant management told me.