Management & Operations

North American Bus Industries Inc. Invests in Robotics for Production Future

Posted on March 24, 2008 by Janna Starcic, Executive Editor


North American Bus Industries Inc., is investing in its future, with the addition of 50,000 square feet to its Anniston, Ala., manufacturing facility. This additional space will make room for two assembly lines plus a newly completed robotic paint system — a first for the bus industry.

When The Traxis Group B.V. first purchased the company in 2006, it was decided early on that the company needed to invest in a new paint process if they were going to increase their production volume to any significant level, says Traxis’ Bill Doig, executive VP, operations. “Even at the volume we were going on when we bought the facility, which was eight vehicles per week, we still had to run the old system on two shifts to handle production.”

Initially, the company had planned to update its manual painting process by adding new paint booths and an additional paint line, but decided against it after looking at an analysis of the robotic versus manual system. “We did our return on investment analysis and looked at the upcoming volumes, and it just made sense to invest in robotics,” says Doig.

North American Bus Industries partnered with paint manufacturer Dupont and ABB Inc., a Connecticut-based robotics manufacturer, to design a paint system for the Anniston, Ala., manufacturing plant. After putting the system out to bid, ABB won the contract. Including the additional 50,000 square feet of plant space, the entire robotic paint system cost an estimated $8 million. The project took an estimated six months to complete.

The paint system saves us having to hire about 50 painters for the volume,” says Doig. With unemployment at an all-time low for the region — home to several auto manufacturers — it is difficult to find skilled painters. “We have Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai here, and they are all competing for painters, so we knew we’d struggle with that if we stayed with the manual paint system.”

According to Art Bond, ABB Inc.’s territory manager, robotics division, the new system does the job that eight painters would do. The manual hand spray cycle time is ten hours start to finish, while the robotic application is two hours, he says. The robotic system, part of ABB’s IRB 5400 series, features closed-loop regulation and high-speed control for paint and airflow adjustment, which minimizes overspray.

The transfer efficiencies with the robotic process increased dramatically, which has helped lessen the impact on the environment. The manual spray system had about a 20 percent transfer efficiency, while the robotic system has an estimated efficiency of 80 percent, Doig says. “As we look at more applications and how we do things, we will look at ways to lessen our environmental impact.”

“We now use five gallons of paint versus 10 to 12 gallons,” says Paint Manager Jeff Roby. “We are also getting a better film build (thickness of paint), compared to the manual system.”

While some may see a downside to the robotic system, such as doing away with jobs, it actually creates positions for higher skilled workers educated in robotics, says ABB’s Bond.

New paint process
Buses being painted with the facility’s new robotic paint process enter a series of booths, each equipped with two painting robots. The first booth applies primer in a process that lasts about 14 minutes. Next up is a sanding booth, where employees spot-sand the primer. The vehicle is then masked to cover any areas not requiring paint. The vehicle then continues in the paint cycle, moving onto the next series of booths that apply a first and second base coat before finishing up with a clear coat. There are a total of eight robots, two per booth. “We will see a return on investment with this new process in three years,” says Roby, “which is due to the labor and efficiencies of the system.”

On Jan. 22, 2008, North American Bus Industries’ BRT model for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority was the first vehicle to enter the robot-armed paint booths emerging 40 minutes later with a bright orange shell.

Vehicle redesign
In addition to the updated painting facility, the company is also debuting its 40-foot LFW bus, which features a new front mask and redesigned driver’s dash area. “We wanted to give the vehicle a more modern look and blend it in with the styling we use on our BRT products, as well as the Opus and Ultra LF models,” says Joe Gibson, senior VP. Benefits of the new look include improved driver visibility and ergonomic design enhancements for the driver’s area, with improved operator controls.

The first order for the newly designed low-floor vehicle is for Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, with 30 hybrid-electric and 20 diesels. While the Las Vegas model is the first to debut the new look, an earlier contract for New Jersey Transit prompted the redesign.

The New Jersey order, a five-year contract, placed in March 2007, for over 1,100 standard-floor configuration buses, required the company to rethink its manufacturing process. “When we got that order, we made some big decisions about our business,” says Doig. “We decided to make all of the New Jersey Transit bodies here.” Currently, all of the company’s bus bodies are being built in Budapest, Hungary, and shipped to the U.S. “When you take into consideration the time it takes to build and ship the units,” he says, “You tie up a lot of your working capital.” This change will take about 50 days out of the process, according to Doig.

Besides revamping the front end of the vehicle, the OEM redesigned the entire bus in U.S. English-sized steel. “It’s more difficult to obtain metric steel in the U.S., so we chose to redesign the bus.”

Furthermore, the redesign simplified the manufacturing process by removing several hard-tooled stampings featured in the previous version, now being replaced with fabrications. In addition to reducing costs for producing the vehicle, it reduced the weight as well. “We didn’t have to buy a lot of new stamping tools, which is very expensive,” Doig says.

Business trends, challenges
Operationally, the trend for bidding hybrid vehicles is growing, according to Gibson. “Just about every bid we get now from our customers are for hybrid systems,” he says. “Many of their customers don’t buy them, because they are very expensive, but they have them bid, in some cases diesel, CNG and hybrid all in the same deal. They want to see the cost differential before they make their decision.”

Another trend Gibson is seeing is the challenge for customers to obtain funding for vehicles. “Usually these systems can get the federal money, but they’ve had to make their older vehicles last longer because they can’t get their state or local match.” To help offset this problem, the company offers leasing and lease purchasing capabilities to its customers, a service being offered through its in-house NABI Financial Services division.

Despite its growth, it has been a challenging year for NABI. With the multiple changes it has undergone, including closing plants and moving transit bus production of its Blue Bird (Fort Valley, Ga.) and Optima (Wichita, Kan.) brands to Alabama. “The startup of moving production of NABI’s standard floor vehicle for the New Jersey Transit contract from Budapest, Hungary is a major project in itself,” Doig says.

In order to begin production in Anniston, the company partnered with Imperial Fabricating Co. Inc. and signed a long-term supply agreement with them to be the body supplier. The new plant for this production is located within walking distance from the company’s current plant. The company also purchased Neoplan’s assets from the sale of its Lamar, Colo., plant to start up the new facility.

The current Anniston property will expand from one assembly line to five. According to Doig, the company has hired nearly 300 people, and by mid-year, production levels will be double what they were last year, producing in excess of 20 units per week compared to eight, when Traxis initially purchased North American Bus Industries. “We are starting to smooth out our processes, so we can complete everything here,” Doig says.

Introducing old, new
Looking to the future, Doig sees the possibility of reintroducing the CompoBus to the market, per a solicitation from Los Angeles. “Los Angeles bought 120 [CompoBuses] from the old NABI, then production was discontinued.” If the company obtains the bid, they will reopen the Hungary-based plant and resume building bodies overseas, before bringing them to the U.S. for completion so they meet content standards.

The appeal of this particular 45-foot model is the reduction in weight. “We don’t have to put a tandem rear axle, [which accounts for the lighter weight],” says Gibson. “The in-service time for a CompoBus is far greater than a standard steel bus because of its durability.”

Following the success of its BRT product, the bus manufacturer is expanding its line with the introduction of a 42.5-foot vehicle — currently undergoing testing at the Altoona facility. The company built a 65-foot BRT vehicle for Los Angeles to test. “That unit has been in service for about six months,” Gibson says. “It’s worked really well for them; they were able to increase ridership by about 15 people.”

To build a longer bus, you have to look at the weight distribution on the axles, says Doig. “We had to redesign the top of the bus because of the CNG tanks.”

“There’s a good [chance] that we will be producing other 65-footers,” Gibson says.

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