HAGERSTOWN, Md. & DUBLIN, Va. –Volvo Trucks North America recently invited trade press editors on a whirlwind two-day tour of its powertrain and truck plants here, where production of EPA2010-compliant trucks and engines is well underway.
The effects of the recession, which decimated the global truck manufacturing industry, could still be seen -but surprisingly many of those effects were actually upgrades to the facilities.
New buildings have been erected at the Hagerstown facility since this editor’s last visit in 2005, including a $40-million, state-of-the-art engine lab with eight test cells, where new technologies are developed and engineers can perform such work as weighing particulate matter right down to 10/millionths of an ounce.
During the downturn, Volvo continued investing in its North American facilities, to the tune of about US$150 million at its Hagerstown powertrain plant alone. Ron Huibers, senior vice-president, sales and marketing, said Volvo invested 5.9% of its total sales into research and development last year.
“That’s a big commitment,” he said.
During its darkest days, when there were no orders to be filled, employees at Volvo’s New River Valley truck plant were invited to show up at the plant, where they were handed a can of paint and put to work improving their workplaces.
Walls were given a fresh coat of paint, assembly lines were re-configured for EPA2010 component installations and a Kaizen Shop was established, where workers with good ideas on how to improve efficiencies could go to find the tools and help they needed to turn those ideas into reality. Many workers, for example, have constructed their own customized, ergonomic tool racks in the shop.
“We have taken the economic downturn to rethink everything we have been doing,” said New River Valley plant manager, Patrick Collignon. “Every down week, we send employees through training and let them experiment in the classroom. They discover you can build trucks in different ways. I want the intellectual involvement of all our employees -I don’t care about payback.”
During the tours, assembly workers at both plants appeared upbeat as they worked on EPA2010-compliant trucks and engines. While the plants are not yet humming at full capacity, they are busy. Huibers said Volvo has received more than 4,000 orders for its 2010-compliant vehicles to date and has been shipping them since April.
Volvo, which counts environmental care among its core values, has not lost sight of that mission during the recession.
Plant manager Collignon said the facility is in a race to become the first CO2-neutral factory in the US. Collignon came to Virginia by way of Belgium, where Volvo Group already operates a CO2-neutral truck plant.
Employees have been heavily-involved in pursuing that goal and have contributed many ideas, like turning off the lights on the facility’s vending machines.
That simple undertaking alone saved the equivalent of one household’s annual energy consumption, Collignon explained.
Volvo has planted some 30,000 pine trees on its property at the plant and by 2012, it’s on pace to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. Other environmental initiatives include installing solar boards to heat water and the impending installation of two wind turbines.
So far, Volvo has reduced its energy consumption at the New River Valley plant by 810,926 kW per month, equivalent to about 900 households, Collignon said. Previously, the plant spent about US$7 million a year on energy, and as Collignon said, “nobody benefits from that.”
Back at the Hagerstown powertrain plant, a four-stage validation process has been implemented to ensure Volvo’s 2010 engines are reliable. Jeff Granger, EPA2010 chief project manager, said Volvo began preparing for 2010 early.
“There’s no substitute for time,” he said. “We wanted to get this product out to customers extremely early.”
The four-stage validation process included: Rig Testing, where vehicles underwent 47 durability tests, including some 29 million equivalent miles spent in a rig shaker as well as other “controlled abuse” tests; Accelerated Endurance Testing, where trucks were put through extreme abuse over a six-week period; Vehicle Function Testing, where trucks were tested on the road and in the wind tunnel, including in extreme environments such as a Canadian winter; and finally Customer Field Testing where customers put the trucks and engines through their paces under real-world driving conditions and duty-cycles.
Volvo’s currently in the Customer Satisfaction Vehicle phase of the roll-out program, where it’s following up with customers on the performance of production model vehicles as they accumulate about 130,000 miles every week. Volvo officials said the company’s 2010 products are living up to the company’s fuel economy promises.
“We are meeting our 5% fuel savings we had given ourselves as a target,” Granger said.
Curt Hassinger, vice-president key accounts, added “This is our most comprehensive effort to date and the most validated product we’ve ever put forth in this market.”