Bus ingredients: Craftsmanship, technology and a really big building

Recently Van Hool invited me to visit their plants in Belgium and North Macedonia. I’ve long wanted to do an article on bus building, both in general and from the viewpoint of one manufacturer—the unique processes employed to serve their customers and how those processes have evolved.

A 55-year romance with the coach business has afforded me the opportunity to visit more than 20 bus factories, and they all have a few things in common.

They’re huge. A bus is big from the beginning of its assembly, so building them requires lots of space. As units move toward completion, manufacturers have to deal with the problems caused by limited access. Workers and parts have to enter the bodies through a limited number of openings, creating traffic jams and influencing assembly processes.

For example, windshields are usually installed late, in part because the opening is convenient for moving big things like package racks to the interior.

Building buses is a mix of mass production and human craftsmanship. Volume isn’t high enough for a fully mechanized assembly line, but to be competitive, builders need to achieve as many manufacturing efficiencies as possible.

At the beginning of a factory tour years ago, I heard silence. Every other plant I’d visited rang with the sound of sledges knocking steel into fixtures. It turned out that the silence wasn’t due to precision manufacturing… it was break time. A whistle blew and the manufacturing percussion resumed, along with another universal coach factory trait, the fragrance of welding.

Manufacturers work hard at maintaining the correct balance of automation and human effort in an attempt to provide quality and hold down costs. Sales volume, the bus’s design and the nature of the workforce dictate the mix.

If you build 10,000 of a part, invest in a 100-ton press and stamp it. If you only need 100, then a more labor-intensive plasma cutter makes sense, and if you only need 10 pieces, a hammer and hacksaw in the hands of a skilled worker will suffice.

A critical part of designing a coach is adapting manufacturing processes to the available workforce. As volume rises, increasing mechanization makes sense. As a workforce gains skills, builders adopt newer assembly methods.

A factory situated in a region with lots of skilled welders will delay switching to robotic welding far longer than one in an isolated area where that ability is rarer. This principal covers a variety of other processes.

Years ago, a U.S. builder designed a bus constructed utilizing a great deal of automation. A small, but highly skilled, urban workforce manufactured it. The company was sold and moved production to a region with a less skilled, but cheaper, labor pool. The economies of robotic assembly were never realized because they were unable to attract the technically savvy workers needed to program and maintain the machines.

Van Hool (and some of their competitors) works hard at streamlining the process by using the same parts, components and substructures in as many models as they can, gaining efficiency and economies of scale. This also benefits customers when they buy and stock parts.

Founded in 1947 by Bernard Van Hool with six family members and 22 employees, Van Hool remains family-owned and -managed.

This presents some challenges but also offers unique opportunities. In vehicle manufacturing economies of scale are crucial, and companies that build cars, buses and trucks have an edge in that arena. Privately held companies can’t compete based on volume.

According to Filip Van Hool, Bernard’s grandson and current CEO, they work hard at identifying and serving niche markets that larger competitors either overlook or can’t supply at reasonable cost.

Van Hool’s strategy uses its smaller size as an advantage. Unburdened by corporate bureaucracy, it is able to make decisions quickly, a sort of corporate jiu-jitsu, turning competitors’ size into a disadvantage.

In addition to an agile engineering department and thorough understanding of what various segments of the bus industry need, this requires a creative approach to manufacturing.

It’s oversimplifying, but reasonably accurate, to say that there are two different paths to building buses.

“Manufacturing” involves vertical integration. The company builds as much of its product as possible in-house. This simplifies supplier relations, streamlines engineering and reduces risk of shortages due to transportation or vendor’s internal problems.

“Assembly” is simpler, and it comes with both advantages and concerns. The builder fabricates the shell but outsources more of the components and body parts. For example, instead of making things like wiring harnesses, seats, fiberglass crowns, dashboard housings and complete HVAC systems, they purchase them.

This requires fewer employees, and the suppliers often offer engineering help in folding their components into the overall design. It’s easier to build with consistency.

On the other hand, communication with vendors becomes critical.

Van Hool is unique in that it follows both paths. Their Belgian factory, located between Brussels and Antwerp in Koningshooikt, is a true manufacturing facility, capable of making most of the parts needed to build a bus.

This one plant produces everything from three-section articulated transits to double-deck luxury coaches, along with a huge variety of regular transit, commuter and luxury highway coaches. Drive trains range from diesel, hybrid, fuel cell and CNG to battery.

The complex is huge, and “complex” is an accurate description. Alex Kempeneers, who manages manufacturing, characterized its growth over Van Hool’s 70-plus years as “organic,” with no opportunity to completely re-boot and re-shape the assembly line.

As the campus grew to 136 acres with more than 62 acres under roof, Van Hool’s management team took note of things that could be implemented in a new plant and planned a leap into the future.

Van Hool’s success created demand for additional capacity, so in 2014 it invested €25 million ($27.8 million) to build a new factory in Skopje, North Macedonia. The original footprint was 450,000 square feet under roof. Four assembly lines began production before the building was even completed.

This factory was designed with expansion in mind, and very quickly a second phase of construction brought it to nearly 800,000 square feet, with eight assembly lines and nearly 1,300 workers. The Skopje plant now builds over 900 units a year, nearly half of Van Hool’s total annual production.


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