There appears to be light at the end of the tunnel as far as the recession. Stoughton Trailers is already benefiting. This Wisconsin-based manufacturer of transportation equipment is witnessing increasing customer demand. This has compelled the company to reopen two plants that it shut down during hard times, reports Dan Harvey.
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In 2011, Stoughton Trailers LLC – which designs, manufactures and sells dry vans, platform trailers and intermodal transportation equipment such as containers and container chassis – celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The Stoughton, Wis.-based company was founded in 1961, but here’s an interesting circumstance about its birth: It occurred at a time that wasn’t the best for its industry. But what goes around come around – and then comes back around again – and all through that cycle, Stoughton Trailers has thrived, even if it suffered a dip now and then.
“We’ve just suffered the worst years – 2008 through 2010 – for the dry van industry, and you have to go back to the early 1960s for a period that was as equally bad,” says David Giesen, the company’s vice president of sales and marketing.
But Stoughton Trailers endures and is looking forward to its next half century with much optimism. “The dry van market tends to fluctuate, but we will build 10,000 units this year, and that number will grow in the next year with the economic recovery that we’re seeing,” reports Giesen. “This year has been going quite well. At one point, we were down to a skeleton crew, but we’re growing once again.”
ALL PLANTS UP AND RUNNING
Indeed, “resurgent” is a descriptive that perfectly applies to this company. In March 2011, Stoughton Trailers reopened its Evansville, Wis.-based manufacturing facility, which had been “idled” in 2007 – a development that underscored how the trailer and intermodal manufacturing industry had been handicapped by the recent economic downturn. Several months earlier, this re-emerging company also reopened its Brodhead, Wis. plant. Previous to these positive occurrences, Stoughton reduced its workforce to 250 employees. Now it’s looking to raise employment level to more than 1,000 workers at its three locations.
“We’re now up and running in three facilities: in Stoughton, Evansville and Brodhead,” reports Giesen. “Two of the plants manufacture dry vans and the third builds our intermodal equipment.”
Specifically, the Stoughton plant’s output includes dry freight vans and grain haulers, while Brodhead turns our dry freight vans. The Evansville operation focuses on intermodal equipment.
“All are state of the art operations and boast what is probably the industry’s highest level of quality control,” adds Giesen.
HIGH QUALITY – NOT JUST A PERFUNCTORY PHRASE
The company’s significant differentiator is indicated by its tagline: “The Difference is Quality.” But Giesen concedes that the phrase may sound a bit too generic. “That’s the kind of thing that everyone likes to say. But, for us, it’s set in stone,” he says. “When it comes to quality, we focus all the way down to the person who bucks the rivets. That’s the kind of attention to detail that has made us the best.”
And when Giesen talks about the “best,” he’s not voicing brag, just fact. “We don’t take any short cuts. That’s why what we produce has become recognized as the best in the industry,” he points out. “Our attention to detail and quality, combined with the engineering that goes into our output differentiates us and our products.”
Stoughton facilities may focus on specific products, but one element that applies to all is vertical integration, which enhances manufacturing operations and allows the company to optimize those all-important quality assurance procedures – not to mention a positive impact on component inventory control.
HIGH PRODUCTION AT HEADQUARTERS
The Stoughton location is particularly versatile. According to the company, this 680,000-square-foot plant houses all of the component manufacturing operations for rear door assemblies, ladder assemblies and upper couple assemblies. At this facility, all Stoughton dry vans go from fabrication of subassemblies to final assembly. The plant has the capacity to produce more than 20,000 finished units each year. In addition, the 450,000-squarefoot Stoughton Parts facility supports the company’s network of trailer dealers, independent repair shops and fleet customers throughout North America.
“Our major markets are the United States and Canada,” says Giesen. “As far as customers, one of our largest is UPS.”
Stoughton Trailer’s container facility – where it produces both the containers and the container chassis – is one of the most modern and automated of its kind in North America. This new facility was designed for high volume sales, and it boasts a production rate capability of more than one container every 40 minutes. Also, this site incorporated Stoughton’s latest production technology for high-volume van assembly. Just about all components are manufactured and assembled in house, which ensures the highest levels of quality and control. Major trailer components are welded by robot for consistent production.
Further, all of the company’s facilities incorporate the latest process equipment for long-life painting of steel components. All components, the company reports, are grit blasted before painting. The painting process employs semi-automated electrostatic spray for both prime and top coat with oven cure.
PREPARED FOR THE RECOVERY
During the time of the Evansville plant shutdown, the entire trailer, container and chassis manufacturing industry was severely impacted by the economic downturn. Now things are looking better. Anticipating such improvement, Stoughton Trailers made significant investments in equipment and product line improvements.
Today, thanks to the combined efforts of its engineering and sales departments, Stoughton Trailers has completed the final steps in securing orders for its redesigned intermodal domestic container, which will better meet current and future transportation industry needs.
This redesigned container underscores Stoughton’s most positive attributes: resiliency, innovation and diversity. “We’re a very innovative and designed focus company,” says Giesen. “We’ve focused very strongly on the dry van, and we do that very well, offering various models to meet a customer’s specific needs. But we diversified beyond that with our intermodal equipment and grain trailers. We produced intermodal equipment earlier but got out when China took over the market area with its pricing. But North American companies asked us to get back into the intermodal business area for containers and chassis.”
And that led to the redesigned intermodal domestic container. This container, along with its accompanying chassis, will be significantly different than what was previously produced at the Evansville plant. It will not just benefit customers but also positively impact the company and regional employment. Stoughton reports that initial production rates drive the addition of 300 employees to its workforce at Evansville through 2012.
OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE
The re-openings of Evansville and Brodhead mean that Stoughton reopened two plants in the space of five months. That’s but one reason why Stoughton and Giesen are optimistic about the future. “A trend that we have been seeing, and this is related to the apparent upswing in the economy, involves customers replenishing their fleets,” says Giesen. “In the previous four or five years, we saw fewer purchases made to replenish aging fleets. So, now, there’s a pent-up need for replacing equipment. This is going to drive demand for the next few years. We plan to step in and deliver.”
Still, Giesen modifies his optimism with realism. “We don’t expect a rapid climb out of the recession. It will be a slow recovery. That’s pretty apparent. With a slow recovery, some companies will be worse off while others will be better. The political uncertainty and position on businesses hasn’t helped much with the recovery, but I don’t think we’re heading for another recession.”
Meanwhile, Stoughton Trailers is continuing to look to the design and manufacture of new products that will better help its customers. At this point, it can’t make a lot of what’s going on public. But know this: changes are definitely coming.