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Western Star production shifts to Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. - The first Western Star trucks have rolled off the production line of Freightliner LLC's Portland truck plant, marking a monumental moment in the history of both Western Star and the t...

PORTLAND, Ore. – The first Western Star trucks have rolled off the production line of Freightliner LLC’s Portland truck plant, marking a monumental moment in the history of both Western Star and the truck plant itself.

Western Star invited the trade press, local media and special dignitaries to an opening ceremony on Oct. 22, to celebrate the new chapter in Western Star’s history.

The popular niche truck was formerly produced in Kelowna, B.C., but shortly after Freightliner’s acquisition of the brand, the company announced it would shift production to its existing Portland plant.

The move is part of Freightliner’s restructuring efforts, and while about 100 Western Star managers and engineers made the move south, about 600 Kelowna-based production workers have lost their jobs.

But in addition to logistical benefits, the transition was made attractive to Freightliner thanks in part to a $1.25-million contribution from the state and $2.2-million in training assistance provided by the City of Portland itself.

While the move may have caused ripples of concern throughout the fraternity of O/Os who are fiercely loyal to the Western Star brand, the company has gone to great lengths to ensure the quality, and unique character of the truck will not be hampered.

The Portland plant has been given a $16-million facelift to accommodate Western Star production, and Roger Nielsen, chief operating officer of Freightliner LLC, says the move is changing the way things are done at the plant.

“We didn’t just add the Western Star product to our existing production line, we reconfigured large parts of our operation to accommodate it,” says Nielsen.

“We’re not changing the product to fit the production system, but rather we have changed the production system to fit the product.”

Some of the enhancements to the plant include a 15,000-sq.ft. addition, a new cab-in-white assembly line and a state of the art E-coat paint/primer system.

“We’re also reconfiguring and reorganizing our parts storage system to improve the flow of components,” says Nielsen.

The company has also added a sizeable cafeteria for production workers, a new foyer, and has even gone so far as to paint the plant’s ceiling white, providing a brighter working area.

“We’re not quite done yet, but when we are, this plant will have an open, airy and bright atmosphere conducive to productivity and more importantly, to job satisfaction,” says Nielsen.

Currently, about 33 trucks are being built at the plant each day, six of which are Western Stars. The plant is also home to a variety of Freightliners, as well as special trucks built specifically for the U.S. military.

The company says it has gone to great lengths to ensure Western Star maintains its unique character and doesn’t become merely a Freightliner in disguise.

There are several key differences between the trucks, such as the composition of the chassis. While Freightliners are aluminum, and riveted together, Western Stars are made of steel, and must be welded together.

The Western Star sleeper is made of a polypropylene, lightweight honeycomb material that allows the truckmaker to shed some of the extra weight associated with steel.

The floor can also be made of the same material to make the truck lighter still.

The first truck to roll off the line in Portland was sold to Ryan Lucas of Mackenzie, B.C.-based Lucas Holdings, who will use the truck for logging and lowbed applications.

But the question remains, will Western Star maintain its popularity in Western Canada now that it’s not built right here are home?

Rainer Schmueckle, president and chief executive officer of Freightliner LLC, says he expects the Western Star brand to actually increase in popularity over the coming months and years.

“We think we’re going to increase sales (in Western Canada),” says Schmueckle.

He stresses the quality of the truck will not deteriorate, meaning it’s still an ideal truck for Canada’s oilfield and logging applications. He also says the Western Star hasn’t been as affected by the recent pre-buy caused by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-enforced emissions crackdowns.

“That is not affecting us as much on the Western Star side because it’s a strong vocational product,” says Schmueckle. In addition, Western Star is now available with a Mercedes-Benz MBE4000 engine, which is exempt from the 2002 EPA-enforced emissions crackdown.

In Canada, Western Star enjoys about a six per cent market share of Class 8 trucks. South of the border, however, only about one in 100 trucks running the highways has its hood adorned with the Star logo. The company hopes to change that.

“In Canada, Western Star is a significant player and that’s what we’re striving for in the U.S.,” says John Merrifield, senior vice-president, sales and marketing. “Western Star, for the most part, is still an undiscovered jewel (in the U.S.).”

He does admit, however, that “You’ll never see this brand producing tens of thousands of trucks per year – Western Star will always be a niche brand.”

The company’s goal is to gain a four or five per cent market share of Class 8 trucks in North America, says Merrifield.

In order to achieve that, Western Star is being marketed towards owner/operators and fleets operating in severe extreme-duty applications.

Moving production of Western Star to Portland will actually result in higher labor costs, but that will be more than offset by savings in other areas such as the cost of freight. The move also provides easy access to Freightliner’s development and testing facilities.

Carsten Reinhardt, plant manager of the Portland truck plant, says most of the Kelowna truck plant employees understood the move was necessary and, while saddened, they have been very understanding.

The general consensus is that Western Star may not have survived the industry downturn on its own, and Freightliner’s acquisition of the brand will inject some much-needed financial backing to help it expand its reach into the all-important U.S. market.

“Having Daimler-Chrysler behind us is a true advantage,” says Merrifield, noting the purchasing power of a company of that magnitude is a big benefit. “We’re financially strong with new products, a new plant and a growing dealer network and a commitment from DaimlerChrysler.”

Already, the company has expanded the Western Star dealer network from 190 in North America before the acquisition, to 239 today. At the same time, it’s weeding out unproductive dealerships.

The company says its dealerships and customers will be going over each of the new trucks with a fine-toothed comb to ensure the quality Western Star is known for hasn’t suffered as a result of the transition.

Freightliner’s production line workers will have to be prepared for that increased scrutiny, and the company is making each of them more accountable for their work.

Reinhardt has introduced the audit process that made the Kelowna plant so successful, to the plant in Portland.

A random truck is closely inspected each day and if any defects are noticed, they are traced back to the person responsible and then that individual must ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“Western Star is going to raise the bar as far as quality is concerned (in the Portland truck plant),” says Reinhardt.

The true test will come when Western Star’s discriminating customers take delivery of their first Portland-produced Star.

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