CONFIDENT MARKET: Aussie Freightliners on display in Cleveland, North Carolina, USA. Photo: David Meredith
CONFIDENT MARKET: Aussie Freightliners on display in Cleveland, North Carolina, USA. Photo: David Meredith

70 year portfolio in US takeovers

THIS month is the 70th anniversary of Leland James's decision to take on some big players in the North American truck market.

Leland was a US transport boss who figured he could do a better job of building a truck than the people who supplied his companies.

His action kicked off the iconic Freightliner brand that has largely ruled the Interstate for decades.

Then, 39 years later the giant Mercedes-Benz group bought the company, and the current operation reflects much of the global Daimler brands' emphasis on quality and constant improvement.

Another 19 years after that, in 2000, Daimler added Western Star and the Detroit Diesel companies to the portfolio, giving the group a very wide range of input into the largest truck markets in the country.

That was the end of the buying spree for a while, and in fact Daimler dropped its investment in Chrysler seven years later.

About the same time a new product development program funded by the takeover gave birth to the DD15 engine and the super-smooth Cascadia that almost immediately captured the majority share of the interstate market.

I toured the assembly plant in Cleveland, North Carolina, and was surprised to see some of the team of just under 2000 pleasant-mannered people, dressed casually, working steadily in a clean and airy plant, assembling heavy-duty trucks at a healthy 106 units a day, on average.

Surrounding the Cleveland area is plenty of evidence of tough times - abandoned farm buildings, locked gates on businesses, car yards with limited stock parked big distances apart to try and fill up the lots.

But the Freightliner family looks pretty confident, and laconic plant manager Mike McCurry was very positive about the stability of the team and therefore the opportunities ahead.

Freightliner uses the Daimler Truck Operations System as the basis for manufacturing and assembly process and procedure.

A key component of that is quality assurance, which quality management boss Chris Harris told me started seven years ago and involves everyone in the organisation, not just those in the plant floor.

Hence the casual dress.

"No, we don't bother with uniforms, because everyone here shares an equal responsibility to produce a truck that will not let the customer down," Mr McCurry said.

So management and plant workers all look the same. And it seems to work. Freightliner has some unique aspects of production that are well in front of other manufacturers I've seen.

One of the production challenges for any heavy-duty truck is the fitment of cabin features such as sleeper components through door openings that are designed for people rather than bunk beds, ovens and fridges etc. But each Freightliner cab is built without the firewall attached.

After the cab and sleeper are fitted out, the entire dashboard and firewall, with wiring and ECU data points ready is then brought in and bolted - a few rivets are used as well - to the front of the cab. Everything is then connected up, tested and sent on to the next point on the line.

Prior to this, the aluminium cabs are fabricated in an adjoining facility, where an army of robots go about the business of riveting the aluminium forms together for a very rigid structure.

RHD units for Australia and South Africa require some deviations to the standard assembly procedure, so rather than build a separate line the team sends a couple of 'deviations' people down the line with each of the trucks for the entire process.

Freightliner puts huge effort into a class product for all of its markets.

After seeing the plant and its people, I'd put a lot of confidence in that process when making a Freightliner investment, whatever the model.

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