October Tour History
The October tour history is provided by FWEC Vice President Rod Vargo:
Twenty-six members and spouses turned out for an October 23rd afternoon tour of the Allied Recreation Group's assembly plant in Decatur. Allied is a consolidation of multiple companies begun when the RV industry collapsed during the 2008-2010 Great Recession. They have continued to acquire brands and suppliers.
The industry now has insufficient manufacturing capacity. This seemed evident during the tour and Allied Recreation Group was most gracious in having us underfoot. Interestingly, 80% of national RV manufacturing capacity consolidated into Indiana.
This facility builds gas and diesel powered motor homes with numerous models and custom variations sold under five brands (please see the internet!) ranging from short vans with basically a box on the back, to various lengths of ten-wheeled bus-like vehicles. Weight is the primary limiting factor in designing motor homes. Retail prices range from $40,000 to $850,000 but often serve business people as their sole home. The top prices include as much as a week for owner training and to assure the vehicle is properly tweaked for them.
Allied Recreation Group has three locations in Decatur. This assembly facility employs 1500-1700 people (most in one daytime shift) and includes operations consolidated from California and Pennsylvania. They employ six full-time degreed engineers, somewhat unusual for an industry often relying on engineering from suppliers and subcontractors. Our tour guide was a mechanical engineer turned electrical for wiring harnesses and now LED lighting.
Other than extensive dealer networks, Allied's customer service, parts, and phone bank are consolidated in another Decatur facility. A third facility in Decatur builds cabinetry. A husband and wife in our tour were extremely complimentary of the ongoing customer service since the 2008 consolidation, for their much older diesel pusher. The husband stated his pusher gets 10-11 mpg highway while pulling an antique car, about the same as his gas pickup pulling the same car.
In Decatur, the RV units are built upon three types of underlying base vehicles. One is a van or pickup style front cab with a bare frame behind them, referred to as "Class C." Another is a bare truck chassis with just a steering wheel sticking up and a box of parts for a driver's seat, usually referred to as "Class A." Most of these two types are ordered with gasoline engines.
The third type of underlying vehicle is the "diesel pusher," which will eventually look like a full-size bus converted into an RV. These arrive as two sections, basically a bare-bones front frame incorporating the steering axle on its two tires, and a rear frame supporting the powertrain with one or two axles on 4-8 tires. These front and rear sections arrive bolted together by a temporary mid-section frame. That mid-section is replaced in Decatur with custom-made frames of various lengths containing a large amidships fuel tank, clean and dirty water holding tanks, batteries, electronics, "basement" storage space(s), and other potential features. An air conditioning condenser tends to be placed ahead of the front axle. The rear engine's radiator has optional locations, side-mounted being preferred.
High-end diesel pushers can be equipped so the engine coolant heats the RV's hot water tank and a diesel-fueled burner can take over when needed. Utilizing that waste heat is very fuel efficient and eliminates the need to maintain propane supplies. On-demand water heating requires too much energy in short spans of time, can get too hot for tight spaces, and the equipment is excessively costly. All pushers have a general purpose generator, so refrigeration and cooking tends to be electric. Halogen lighting is rapidly giving way to LEDs, which use 86% less power and seem to have an adequate service life despite the vibrations of road use.
All large RVs come with four or more jacks on the frame to level the living space, eliminate bouncing when parked, preserve tires if the RV is in storage, and help change tires. Some tire contact with the ground prevents rollovers since the jacks are far inboard.
While the underlying vehicle is prepared, flat-tube aluminum frameworks are typically welded on jigs as separate floor, sidewall, and roof units. The vehicle is then moved under its own power from station to station through the assembly building, which is wide enough for six assembly lines. The rough floor framework is attached to the underlying basic vehicle. A subfloor, various cabinetry, and other features are then put in place, including the entire front dashboard.
The two full-length sidewall units are each handled as assemblies separate from the vehicle. First, they are wired. Typically, a fiberglass outside skin is cut out and otherwise prepared from flat rolled stock, then glued onto the aluminum frame. Various interior skins are prepared and attached to the aluminum framework. Various foam units may be installed but eventually careful amounts of liquid foam are inserted. These side units are attached to the vehicle, followed by a roof assembly which was prepared similarly to the sides.
Large fiberglass front and rear panels are preformed by a contractor and shipped to Decatur. Attaching these front and rear "caps" convert the underlying vehicle and overlying aluminum assemblies into a rigid box.
Sections of living space, intended to slide out of a vehicle when parked, are assembled separately as rigid boxes and installed. The interior is then finished in a bewildering number of variations.
The exterior paint processes are performed as sequential assembly lines in another separate huge building that includes "baking" rooms. The exterior finishes consume 5-14 days depending on complexity and quality, involving two shifts of workers per day. As many as three primer coats and four clear coats may be applied. Fancy paint schemes, such as multi-colored swirls, are based on dyecut stencils. Each color is a separate paint process applied between the primer and clear coat processes. These schemes have become complex and often require an inordinate amount of skilled hand labor and masking materials across as much as ten days. The most common defect is a speck of dirt caught under a layer of paint.
Start to finish, an RV will require 20-30 working days, much of the difference being paint rather than size. Almost all vehicles have been ordered for a specific dealer or final user. The range of brands, models, and options precludes having an inventory of finished vehicles on hand, with a few exceptions. Vehicles used at shows are typically en-route to a dealer.
A culture and attitude of safety was evident throughout the facility. Our Club's turn out for this tour was much higher than expected but the floor workers took everything in stride despite many monitors showing the pace of their assembly lines. There was minimal safety signage but unusually widespread and effective use of high visibility tape such as outlining floor spaces, movable stair-work platforms, and some swinging door panels. Use of space was conservative to minimize wasted motion but consistently appropriate. Organization of a multitude of jigs, other storage, and welders was well thought out and made good use of space. We were provided individual audio receivers to clearly hear the tour guide as needed. The facility was reportedly started in the 1980's but appeared modern, clean, and orderly throughout. Ventilation was excellent even in the extensive paint building. Safety and environmental staff include a full-time nurse. Questioning indicated the employees choose to be nonunion.
The industry has extensively reduced waste and expense. The temporary frames between sections of arriving diesel pushers are returned for reuse. Some packaging is also returned, such as for fiberglass front and rear caps. Viable recycling programs were evident, including large compactors. Dumpsters were relatively few and the contents sensible.
The afternoon timing was chosen so we could see workers in action and accommodate the drive from/to Fort Wayne. Some of our members did not attend due to conflicts with work. But, this topic was widely attractive and Decatur an inviting short road trip for a fall afternoon. Turnout was much higher than expected, but that showcased the good mood and organization within the plant.
This was a very worthwhile tour with substantial personal and professional interest among the participants and many spouses. The facility was a gracious host and well equipped for tours, including those individual audio receivers to hear the tour guide regardless of our various movements.