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Business Observer Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 3 weeks ago

At fire truck plant, attention to detail reigns — right down to shiny red paint

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About 500 employees work at the 37-acre Pierce Manufacturing plant in Bradenton.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

Red isn’t just a color. It’s a sense of pride. So getting the shade of red exactly right is important.

It’s a good thing Pierce Manufacturing has 250 options its customers can choose when it comes to selecting the just-right red paint for its fire trucks.

At Pierce’s plant in Bradenton, every stage of the fire apparatus manufacturing process is on display, from cutting, welding and painting sheet metal to assembling the body of the vehicle to designing and printing graphics for the trucks.

Plant General Manager Rachel Forsyth leads roughly 500 employees who work at the plant. The 37-acre site has seven buildings, with a 100,000-square-foot main assembly building and additional buildings for other steps in the manufacturing process.  The plant also houses offices for employees in departments including engineering, sales, purchasing, human resources and finance.

Pierce Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Oshkosh Corp., based in Wisconsin, also has four facilities in Wisconsin and one in Clearwater.

Employees involved in the complex manufacturing process in Bradenton focus on living up to the pride customers have in their vehicles, offering detail-oriented service and chasing improvements at every step along the way.

Point of Pride

From Bradenton, Pierce serves clients around the world, but the majority of its volume is for customers in North America.

Workers on assembly lines in the main building fulfill orders for individual vehicles and multiple vehicles. The company purchases chassis, adding to the frame and building the apparatus to the exact specifications of fire departments and other customers.

A vehicle Pierce built for the Air Force, for example, wasn’t painted red at all. The military branch requested “nothing shiny,” Forsyth says, and the vehicle was painted with desert colors ahead of its use in the Middle East.

There could be 5,000 to 10,000 individual parts on a vehicle, so there’s lots of room for customization. Departments have unique needs, she says, driving them to request certain capabilities and features. “Every fire truck is a snowflake,” Forsyth says.

“Every fire truck is a snowflake.” — Rachel Forsyth, plant general manager, Pierce Manufacturing

Detailed customer selections also reveal something less tangible: “There’s a lot of pride and tradition,” she says. “They’re more than just vehicles — they’re a tool for the department.”

Michael Rampino is chief of the North River Fire District, an 82-square-mile district that serves communities including Ellenton, Gillette, Memphis, Palmetto, Palm View, Piney Point, Rubonia, Snead Island and Terra Ceia in Manatee County. He says the district has been a customer of Pierce’s for at least 20 years.

The district has four engines and one aerial apparatus from Pierce. Rampino says he likes working with the company because of Pierce’s quality, attention to detail and hands-on approach. “From my viewpoint, the product pretty much sells itself,” he says.

When the district needs a new vehicle, it puts a committee together with members representing each rank. That committee makes decisions including what maker to choose, and Pierce has been a favorite. “Our approach to that is they don’t come in and decorate my office, so I don’t necessarily pick their fire truck,” Rampino says. “Each and every time they come back and that’s the equipment they’ve recommended.”

Like Forsyth, Rampino says the trucks Pierce makes are more than just trucks. “At the end of the day, it’s the firefighters’ office,” he says. “It delivers them to where they need to go, and it has everything on it they need to do their job.”

The pride that emanates from Pierce customers, employees and its dealer network is a big asset for the company. Forsyth says, “There’s absolutely a lot of brand loyalty.”

Service First

After placing an order, Forsyth says it takes about 10 to 12 months for a customer to receive a vehicle. If they order a truck that’s more standard, the turnaround can be quicker — about three months.

During the manufacturing process, customers are involved in pre-construction meetings and mid-build checks.

When they visit the Bradenton plant, it’s not uncommon for customers to be given tours of the facility. That’s goes back to the pride Pierce and its customers have in the vehicles and how they’re made, Forsyth says.

Part of the process also includes an inspection. “In the fire apparatus industry, the end user typically comes to inspect,” she says.

In Bradenton, Pierce has seven bays for inspection where customers come to examine their vehicles. During a customer walk around, employees from all areas of the assembly process are represented so they can answer questions.

It’s not an informal, kick-the-tires process at all. “Basically it’s like if you were to buy a house,” Rampino says. “It’s a head-to-toe inspection.”

Customers use an electronic tablet to pull up their unique order and record any issues, generating a punch list for Pierce to go through and address. “I’ve not experienced where they haven’t taken care of something that was theirs to take care of,” Rampino says.

Customer service takes a financial form as well. Pierce offers flexible options for customers to pay for the vehicles. Forsyth says, “Just like configuring a fire truck, it’s working with them on financial needs as well.”

Even Better

Forsyth regularly walks through the plant, attends production meetings, listens to employee suggestions and examines data.

It’s all about improving, she says. “It’s important to respond to what these guys’ needs are. What can we do to help them be successful?”

The Pierce Solutions Program presents an opportunity for employees to make suggestions about specific ways the company could improve.

Forsyth points to an area on the plant floor in the main assembly building as an example of just that. An employee came forward and said if the company moved a certain process to another area of the floor, it would be more efficient. Pierce listened and made the move. “In the eight years I’ve been here, the main assembly line has changed four times,” Forsyth says. “We’re constantly looking at ways to improve.”

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