National Seating keeps improving driver comfort with innovative products. Its first major breakthrough was the air-suspension seat. Come along for the air-cushioned ride with April Terreri.
The wide, open highway is where truckers do their job best, but sometimes long hauls mean an even longer – and sometimes uncomfortable – ride in the driver’s seat.
National Seating has a long history of being a friend to truckers, especially after it introduced, in 1938, the industry’s first air-suspension seat. In keeping with that long history of providing comfort, just last year National Seating introduced the first seat designed to help reduce or prevent driver fatigue.
“We are proud of our technology that really impacts driver comfort and directly influences the ability for professional long-haul drivers to avoid fatigue and be safe while they are driving,” says Jerry Armstrong, Vice President and General Manager for the Vonore, Tenn.-based company. “We believe the technological advances we continue to make in seating comfort really lead the industry.”
National Seating is the largest provider of commercial seating to the heavy-duty truck, motor coach and railcar industry in North America. Its impressive client list underscores this achievement. Just a few clients include Volvo, Mack Truck, Kenworth, Peterbilt, International, Freightliner, General Motors medium-duty trucks, Ford Motor Company medium-duty trucks as well as bus manufacturers MCI and Prevost.
As the trucking industry goes, so goes the economy, says Armstrong, echoing many experts. “The trucking industry typically goes into a recession about six months before the rest of the economy because people are starting to buy fewer goods and fewer inventories are being stocked,” he explains. “The Wal-Marts of the world were starting to scale back because of the slowdown in consumer spending.” This is what happened around 2000 and 2001, he says, and since then the trucking industry has been limping along through much of 2003. “What we are beginning to see now are significant orders increasing at all of the truck manufacturers, which is an indication that the country and the economy is truly beginning to come out of a recession,” Armstrong says.
“We are really excited about the marketplace appearing to be coming back strong and, because we are in a continuous improvement mode in our company and affiliated companies, we are very well positioned to focus on our customers’ needs as the economy improves,” Armstrong says.
National Seating is ready for the new flow of the economy, especially in its highly efficient production process called Total Quality Production System. “This new TQPS program we’ve adopted is a quality system modeled after the Toyota Production System,” Armstrong says, adding the program is implemented in National Seating’s sister companies as well.
National Seating is one of four businesses comprising parent company Commercial Vehicle Group (CVG) of Columbus, Ohio. CVS (Commercial Vehicle Systems) is a manufacturer of truck vision systems such as wiper systems, windshield wipers, blades, motors and mirror products. Trim Systems manufactures headliners, door panels, cabinets, cab bunks, bumper fascias and all the interior trim found in a heavy-duty truck. KAB, headquartered in Northampton, England, manufactures commercial seating for off-highway vehicles for clients such as Caterpillar, John Deere and Komatsu. “All four companies serve the same heavy-duty marketplace,” says Armstrong.
All four companies under the CVG umbrella employ TQPS practices. “So, regardless of the location and what particular products each plant makes, we’ve all adopted this new quality production system which is a key part of our continuous improvement process,” Armstrong continues. “We’ve been able to significantly improve the quality and on-time delivery of our products since we’ve initiated this program about 14 months ago.”
All 450 associates at the 210,000-square-foot Vonore facility – as well as 50 associates at National Seating’s Dublin, Va., assembly plant – participate in a 32-hour training program. “It’s really a process of discovery for them and it allows the associates to see all the processes in a different perspective,” Armstrong says. “For example, they get to understand the principles required in identifying waste and understanding what a pull system is and the advantages of a Kanban system. In general, they can see the various opportunities in which to improve the flow of products through all of our operations.” The training program includes a hands-on workshop component in the plant’s facilities, as well as a classroom component.
“This kind of training gives each of our associates the opportunity to influence the environment in which they work so they can make suggestions to improve processes,” explains Armstrong. The company tracks suggestions made by each associate and makes notes of suggestions that were implemented. Associates participate in a gain sharing program, paying quarterly, based on a number of metrics including safety, quality, attendance, and suggestions submitted. “So associates have an opportunity to earn an incentive every quarter.”
“The reason this level of training is so important is because we are no longer competing against just the North American competitors. We are competing on a global basis and we are very confident that, because of all the improvements we are making in our facilities, we will be in a much better position to take on competitors in Asia, Europe and other parts of the world – as there will always be those manufacturers that chase cheap labor. We feel strongly that, while we may choose to import selected components from offshore, we will always assemble our products close to our customers in North America. This is the nature of the just-in-time business model we’ve adopted to better serve our clients.”
It takes more than steel and cloth to make a comfortable and rugged seat, which carries a warranty of up to seven years or one million miles. “We have a very experienced design and development engineering group and we incorporate a number of leading-edge technologies to ensure that our products meet and exceed our customers’ expectations,” Armstrong says. “There’s exhaustive testing we do in our facilities to ensure this kind of rugged durability. And we are proud of our technology that impacts driver comfort and safety every day so professional drivers can avoid fatigue while they drive.”
National Seating has industry-standards certification to underscore its commitment to quality and design. It is ISO: 9001/QS 9000 registered as are most of CVG’s facilities. “We are also becoming certified under the new TS16949 automotive certification,” Armstrong says.
With its eyes on the comfort of drivers, National Seating just introduced the BackCycler(r) last year. “There are a number of devices out on the market that are mechanical and very expensive and we feel our product offers OEMs a seat for improving driver comfort by minimizing fatigue at a competitive price,” says Armstrong. The BackCycler(r) works on the principle of an automatic fluidic control that expands and contracts a back lumbar bag. It subtly forces the drivers’ backbone structure to slowly expand and contract, thereby forcing the blood supply in the spinal column to replenish itself therefore minimizing the opportunity for blood vessels to constrict that can contribute to numbness or driver fatigue. This patented product is the result of pioneering work performed by Logan Mullinix, National Seating’s Chief Engineer, who is also a Ph.D. candidate in Biomechanics at the University of Tennessee.
National Seating has manufacturing processes in place that allow the flexibility to manufacture low-, medium- and high-volume products. It employs skilled professionals for hand-welding, low-volume applications – and its 20 welding robots handle the higher volumes. Its new powder paint system allows the company to recycle 98 percent of the powder. “We are also one of a few industries left in North America employing experienced textile workers in our major cut-and-sew operation.” Armstrong says.
Proximity to Customers
National Seating works very closely with its customers – so much so that it seamlessly sequences its seats right into the production operations of its clients. For example, when seats have been fabricated with their metalwork at the Tennessee location, they are transported every night to the Dublin facility for assembly. “We have two trucks dedicated for this purpose; they carry the seat parts and the fabric for the covers to Dublin, where they are assembled and then sequenced just-in-time into Volvo North America’s New River Assembly Operations, which is right across the street from our Dublin facility,” explains Armstrong.
“One of the things that has prevented overseas competitors from taking a stronghold in this country with products produced offshore is that we can get an e-order from any of our clients, who expect us to manufacture and supply them a seat in five to 10 working days,” Armstrong continues. “We have about 93,000 different SKUs – most of which are fabric goods variations such as cloth, vinyl, carpet and leather. But, if we were to manufacture the entire product in China, for example, there is no way that our customers could have the seat they want when they need it. So that reinforces my earlier claim that for our particular business and being a JIT provider of products to these industries, we have made a conscious and strategic decision to align our assembly facility in North America – close to our customers’ assembly and manufacturing plants.”
In the Passing Lane
Although this industry, as others in the world, has been affected by economic vicissitudes, Armstrong sees a smooth road ahead for National Seating. “The last peak year for the production of Class 8 vehicles happened in 1999, when over 300,000 of these vehicles were produced in North America,” explains Armstrong. In 2003, only 170,000 were produced – representing about a 43 percent reduction from the peak year. “Everyone scaled back appropriately. For 2004 we are anticipating about 215,000 Class 8 vehicles to be produced and more in 2005 and 2006. So, we are very encouraged by the 25 percent increase from where we were last year to what the business looks like for this year.”
The company expects to penetrate other markets too, including recreational vehicles, marine, and light vehicles such as pick-up trucks and SUV’s. Says Armstrong, “National Seating is at the threshold of new opportunities by expanding our proven technologies into other markets – all in the spirit of improving driver comfort and safety with products with a proven track record.”