For 42 years, Lance Camper Mfg. Corp. has been manufacturing pickup-truck campers. "The challenge for the RV industry as a whole is to be innovative and to change and come out with different products," says plant manager Geoff Ford. "Our customers demand changes. Those changes in the product force a change in the plant."

One of the most defining elements of a camper is its material makeup. If it's too heavy, the truck won't be able to carry it.

"A pickup truck only has a certain load-bearing capacity and customers demand lots of features," says Ford. "We won't go without an LCD TV or microwave, so our challenge is to take the weight out of the structure and the cabinetry."

The Lancaster, Calif., company is doing just-in-time manufacturing to streamline its production process and reduce its inventory. Optimization software for both the panel processing and the aluminum production line are in place to maximize material usage and streamline the cutting processes.

The recent addition of a laminating line gives the company more control over the laminating process for the camper's walls and shell, as well as more challenges. It led to new ideas that change how the sidewalls are manufactured that reduced steps in the process.

The jobs Lance outsources are products it can't easily do itself, like windows, compartment door and entry doors. But Lance does most of the millwork, electrical work, plumbing, finishing, metal and fiberglass applications. The choice comes down to logistics or economy, says Ford. What should the company build itself versus what does it have to build itself?

Processing parts

Campers are constructed from a combination of wood, aluminum, foam, laminates and a fiberglass exterior. The camper and its interior are engineered on Solid Works software. A file is downloaded from the sales department with job specifics. For the frame parts, labels are printed in the office; for the panel parts, they are printed at the beam saw.

The company uses a Schelling beam saw and Ardis software for optimization of the panels, while it uses a PF90 saw and optimization software for the aluminum frame parts.

The aluminum parts, wood frame parts and panels are cut in the same area. All the panels are cut on the beam saw, while plywood, MDF and OSB parts are cut on either a Powermatic or SawStop table saw. Wood frame parts are cut using another PF90 saw.

Insulation foam is also cut on either a table saw or with a plant-constructed wire-cutting machine located in adjacent areas.

Different departments, jobs and materials are all coded in the office. After they are cut, all parts are put on a cart according to coding and then delivered to another area.

Before JIT was implemented, the plant was producing cabinets using batch processing, building a group of the same cabinets at one time. "Now we've reduced the batch processing and the inventory," says Ford. "People are building a different piece all the time and it's less repetitive and more interesting."

Switch to aluminum

Aluminum is similar in weight to wood and is probably a little lighter, says Ford. "The perception for the customer is pretty simple a welded aluminum frame sounds much better than a stapled wood frame," he says. "Welded aluminum is just something our customers are requiring. Ten years ago we were not building aluminum campers. They were all wood campers. In fact, we've started to integrate aluminum parts, beds, floors and ceilings in the wood campers themselves."

The same or similar equipment can be used for both aluminum and wood processing. The aluminum processing area has grown from one small welding table to a huge aluminum processing area.

Large tables are set up for frame parts to be laid out, assembled and stapled. The tables where the aluminum parts are welded are set up as a large jig. Parts are put in place and the welding is done on the jig table.

Laminating line

Lance Camper is in the process of expanding its lamination area using a Black Bros. roll coater and press, and a Graco adhesive pump with a reactive hotmelt. Sheets being laminated are placed on a tilted table that is set in a vertical position. When all the panels that have been glued in the eight-minute glue window are stacked, the table is lowered to a horizontal position and the panels are slid through the pinch press. The tilted table can be used in the horizontal position for smaller pieces or when needed.

Although the glue is set and some of the parts are processed immediately, most panels will then sit for awhile. Some of the panels are also put on a camper form while they are still pliable and left to dry as shaped pieces.

The reason for doing laminating is intricately connected to JIT. "We're eliminating outside vendors to reduce costs and further reduce the supply chain," says Ford. "I don't have $200,000 worth of prelaminated panels in stock, but I have the raw materials and it shortens the supply chain on the fiberglass parts and the laminated parts."

The company is looking to extend the lamination process by doing more of it and bringing a more complete part to the assembly line. "The expansion of the lamination will allow us to do that," says Ford. Now the skin is laminated in one place and the wall in another. The idea is to put the fiberglass and wall lamination all together so a fully laminated wall will move to the assembly line instead of a partially laminated wall.

The biggest problems right now are in getting the equipment issues worked out. "We're making continual progress with it and it's a constant challenge," says Ford. "Just when you think you know everything about lamination equipment, it'll give you something surprising to do."

Maintenance key

For Lance Camper, just-in-time manufacturing has been about cutting inventory and improving flow to move products through the plant quickly. The challenge of JIT is that you don't have the buffer of excess inventory to hide the things that you're not doing, says Ford. It's doubly important to keep the equipment running in top condition.

"If we have a lot of inventory in stock, that covers the breakdown," says Ford. "If we don't have any inventory, the fact that we didn't take care of the machinery pops right up."

The easy thing is just to put another day's worth of inventory in storage to cover any breakdowns. The hard part is to look at the machine and determine how to maintain it and keep it running.

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