Wood Products on Call at Leader Emergency Vehicles

Precisely every 4 hours and 36 minutes, a new ambulance moves through the custom van assembly line at Leader Emergency Vehicles.

Situated in South El Monte, CA, a suburb eight miles north of Los Angeles, Leader Emergency Vehicles is the only factory-direct manufacturer of emergency vehicles in California. The privately held company was founded by president/CEO Gary Hunter in 1975. Today, Leader has 123 employees, and annual sales of $40 million.

While those sales figures also include the value of the truck bodies Leader customizes, a sizeable proportion is the value-added custom cabinetry, door and window production.

On any given production day, Leader goes through 60 or so wood panels for cabinetry. About 70 percent of what its shop uses is laminated plywood, although engineered medium-density fiberboard (MDF) and some hardwoods, including Russian birch and tropical Luan, also are employed, according to Martin Flores, Leader Emergency Vehicles director of operations.

“We don’t use particleboard,” says Flores, who also happens to be a 25-year woodworking industry veteran. “It needs to be a solid surface but cannot be too heavy due to weight specifications.”

During the course of a year, some 400 emergency vehicles progress through the line, which consists of seven lean-manufacturing cells. The larger, modular vehicles used by critical-care units, “are on a two-day takt time,” explains Flores. “Takt” refers to pacing manufacturing lines so that production cycle times can be matched to customer demand rate. The method is used in automobile and in machinery manufacturing, with assembly on a line, at a specific cycle time, ideally being moved on to the next station within the takt time so as to neither over or under produce.

Leader’s vehicle manufacturing truly is customized. Emergency team members can be among Leader’s most demanding clients, Flores says, adding that speed and ability to maneuver inside the ambulance is critical. Cabinet heights vary inside ambulances “depending on how tall or short a nurse may be,” he explains.

“They can be very picky, but they have a right to be.” After all, the price of a Leader ambulance ranges between $60,000 and $200,000.

After “we buy the chassis from Ford or Chevy, we build on them from scratch,” he notes. “We outsource nothing and do everything ourselves,” Flores says. Meeting local regulations is a critical part of every ambulance commission.

Citing one example, Flores says, “Each state has different regulations for the flashing lights. So we even do our own wiring.”

Leader’s customers represent an even split between public municipalities – including nearby fire departments in Arcadia, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, CA – and the private sector, primarily hospitals. Leader sells ambulances nationally and even internationally, with about 10 percent shipped overseas in 2013. Thirty went to China, Panama, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia.

Ambulance customers require all types of specialization in the interiors, from narcotics lock boxes, to double-insulated refrigerators for storing medicines in desert climates. “Interior temperatures can get up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit,” Flores says.

Leader Ambulance is hopeful that the Affordable Care Act will benefit its sales. “Budgets still are up in the air, but it may be good for business because more staffing may be required,” Flores reports. “We should know more by mid-summer.”

Nevertheless, sales have been healthy, so production bottlenecks are nettlesome. To keep up with demand, Leader was running its previous CNC router 15 hours a day, six days a week.

“We had older technology, a single-table design,” Flores says. “We had high overtime and never got ahead; we were always behind and could never keep up.”

That situation changed in September 2013, when Leader took delivery of an Scm Accord 40 FX-M CNC router, a 5-axis model. A Biesse Akron 800 edgebander is also in production.

Now, usage time has been halved, the Accord CNC running just seven to eight hours per day, four or five days a week. “And we’re only at 75 percent of capacity,” Flores says. “We finally have a buffer and can make cuts ahead of time.”

Open Time for Experimenting

Operations director Flores says he has plans for how to make use of that 25 percent of capacity that has been opened.

“I want to experiment with different types of cabinet designs and materials,” he says, perhaps taking advantage of the Accord router’s ability to cut soft steel.

“We program and cut everything through the CNC router,” says Flores, including the plywood for cabinets, up to 10 sheets of plexiglass daily for windows, aluminum for window frames and Gibraltar solid surface for countertops.

Leader does a fair amount of prototyping as well. To demonstrate the new machine’s superior productivity, Flores points out that, prior to last fall, the firm used to operate six SawStop table saws; now, it has one, owing to the capabilities of the CNC. Purchasing the Accord 40 FX-M model “is one of the best investments we’ve ever made,” he says.

“All cabinetry is cut and ready for the first thing the following morning,” notes Flores. Using the Scm CNC technology, each interior cabinet is programmed and cut to 0.001-inch accuracy. This ensures that each panel fits together with minimal material waste.

“Simplifying construction and eliminating waste are ongoing goals,” Flores says.

Panels then are assembled using glue as well as metal fasteners, adding strength to withstand years of use.

Leader uses only premium wood cores in its laminated panels. Many of the aluminum extrusions used in cabinet construction are from dies of customers’ own designs. In many areas, mouldings not only are cosmetic but are a structural component of the cabinet. Door and drawer locks used at Leader are standards of the industry, the firm says.

For edgebanding, Leader operates a Biesse Polymac Akron 850, which can apply banding materials of all types with a thickness of up to 22 mm on panels with a thickness of up to 60 mm. Pre-milling with auto-set, a quick-change dual-rotation Tekno glue system, and four-position end trimmers with Flex program speed throughput.

Reliable Maintenance

Machine downtime is the bane of every productive woodworking shop, especially lean factories such as the one run by Leader Emergency Vehicles.

“I cannot be down,” says Flores. “We maintain our new machine well, but if it goes down it will stop our business. Scm understands this. Their service department has been very good to us.”

Downtime reduction is one benefit of the Accord 40 FX-M. Tool changes can be made in only five seconds (wood-to-wood) on the Scm Mach 5 tool-changer device. The CNC can attain precision over the entire machining area due to the rigidity of the structure and its mobile gantry controlled by twin motors.

It also allows faster work cycles by using “double profile” tools: two cutters are fitted on the same support to reduce the number of tool changeovers. Set-up speed of the worktable is also speedy. Each hold-down part is fitted with its own independent motor, which allows for simultaneous movement for positioning.

Below, a video of another Scm Accord doing a tool change check.


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