Smart moves

A large RV component manufacturer invests in a coil-fed laser cutter to process parts faster, smarter and more economically

YOU CAN ALSO LISTEN TO THIS ARTICLE

Whether you’re planning a dream trip to cruise Route 66 headed to Surf City, USA, or simply want to spend some quality time in the state park outside of city limits, an RV investment is a smart choice. These homes-away-from-home are stocked with amenities and can offer every convenience of a regular domicile, but on four wheels.

 width=

From pop-up campers to fifth wheels with multiple slide-outs, there are a slew of options for recreational enthusiasts of all interests and incomes. So whether you long to cook shrimp scampi in the shadow of Half Dome or watch the sun rise from Pikes Peak, chances are high that Lippert Components Inc.’s products were used in the RV that you will rely on to get you to your destination and back home safely and comfortably, time and time again.

Lippert Components, a third-generation, family-owned manufacturer, is a large supplier of components to the RV and residential housing industries. Lippert reported more than $2 billion in sales last year and logged one of its best quarters in 2020.    

The company’s RV and motorhome components find their way into the most popular RV brands on the market, and, like the smart vehicles they feed into, Lippert components are manufactured in the smartest way possible. From robotic welding and bending operations to sophisticated laser technology, Lippert understands the value of Industry 4.0 manufacturing and is constantly investing in smart equipment to stay competitive and meet growing demand.

The move to coil

Lippert has facilities in the United States, Canada, Ireland, Italy and the United Kingdom where the company manufactures a range of products, including chassis, axles, suspension solutions, slide-out mechanisms, thermoformed bath and kitchen products, stabilizer and leveling systems, navigation systems, electronic components and more. The bulk of its manufacturing, however, takes place in Indiana – in the heart of RV country.

 width=
The Dimeco Linacut interface offers manufacturing data, such as machine idle time, processing parameters and material positioning info. It also features a video of the laser as it is cutting the coil material.

In Goshen, Ind., about 10 miles from Elkhart, where the company’s headquarters is located, a dozen or more plants populate the sprawling Lippert manufacturing campus. At Plant 4, the company produces RV, trailer, park model and residential housing chassis using the latest manufacturing technologies. Among those technologies is a Dimeco Linacut coil-fed laser cutting line, which allows the company to maximize material usage, reduce strains on the labor pool and increase throughput.

Before investing in the coil-fed laser cutting line, Lippert produced many of its chassis components on a flat-bed laser, a process that was scrap heavy and labor intensive. Each sheet of metal could only produce a finite number of parts and breaking out those parts was difficult and time consuming.

Lippert’s laser cutting line utilizes coil that is the same width as the parts that are being processed. Minus the small holes and notches that the laser cuts from the material, the system approach eliminates scrap altogether. And, the continuous nature of coil-fed equipment means that there is significantly less downtime for loading material. As an example, three to four coils are used per shift at Lippert compared to the hundreds of metal sheets that had to be loaded per shift when the company processed everything on a flat-bed laser.

Lee Stanley, engineering manager at Plant 4, has noticed a variety of benefits since the coil-fed laser cutting line was installed in late 2017. Being able to switch from sheet metal to coil has resulted in financial savings, but from an employee standpoint, it’s removed a lot of the back-breaking work from the daily grind.   

 width=

“We’ve seen an increase in throughput with specific product lines that we run across the machine, and a lot of that is based on the fact that coil is just more efficient in regard to material handling,” Stanley says. “But the overall reduction in labor that we’ve experienced since the old days of loading and unloading sheets onto a flat-bed laser has been a gamechanger.”

To date, Stanley says that the chassis division has maxed out the capacity on the Linacut across all three shifts, a factor that will definitely influence the team’s viewpoint in regard to future equipment investments.

“As the chassis division continues to grow, so will the makeup of the plant,” he says. “We are looking forward to putting more coil-fed equipment in place in the future.”

Employment 4.0

Around the world, Lippert employs nearly 9,000 staff with about 70 percent of its manufacturing taking place in and around Elkhart and Goshen, a fairly rural part of Indiana. With the closest major city being about two hours from Lippert’s headquarters, the labor pool is fairly shallow, meaning the company is constantly looking for ways to recruit quality employees and once they’re employed, retain them.

 width=
Real-time alerts can be sent to the Linacut interface or straight to an operator’s smartphone.

One way Lippert is accomplishing that goal is by investing in the best equipment and technology available. In terms of the Linacut, its touchscreen interface represents the type of Industry 4.0 manufacturing that the next generation of manufacturers might be more drawn to. In addition to offering important manufacturing data, such as machine idle time, processing parameters, material positioning info, maintenance history, and throughput and material usage, real-time alerts can be sent to the machine interface or straight to an operator’s smartphone. The interface also features a video of the laser as it is cutting the coil material moving through the machine.

“Lippert is trying to always stay in the forefront of automation and technology – and that philosophy basically lays all of the ground rules for the engineering department here in the chassis division,” Stanley says. “We’re always trying to make things better – for our customers and our employees.”

The more cutting edge the equipment, the more enthusiastic employees are to not only come to work, but to truly become a part of the Lippert family.

“We have new people coming in that are excited to learn their equipment to the best of their ability, but who are then motivated to learn new skills to help them grow with the company,” Stanley says. “Equipment like the Linacut doesn’t just get the new hires excited, though. We have a lot of seasoned people in the plant that are just as excited to take new people under their wings. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a tremendous improvement in the atmosphere at the plant and the camaraderie between the staff.

“So yes, smart equipment definitely plays a factor in employment and retention of our workforce,” he adds. “The younger generation seems to pick it up incredibly fast and embrace it, and that is nice to see.”

Stanley has personally seen the industry change and evolve over his more than 40 years in the manufacturing industry. To say the least, he doesn’t miss the days when everything was done manually.

“Dimeco and the other machine builders that we rely on are really pushing the technology behind the scenes to make their equipment more user friendly,” he says. “For someone new, it can be overwhelming to learn how to operate a huge press brake or a laser, so the easier the technology is to learn up front, the more comfortable they’ll feel using it. In the end, the level of comfort an operator has with the machine ultimately affects the quality of the parts that are going to be coming off of the equipment.”

 width=
A closeup of a Linacut laser cutter.

When Stanley was coming up in the industry, it wasn’t all that uncommon to see a new operator train on a machine for as long as six months to a year. Nowadays, he sees new hires that are able to run a machine within a week or two.

“Training is, of course, an ongoing process,” he says. “As people grow and want to do more things here at Lippert, we always have to have someone behind them to take their spot. But we’re ready for that. Sales are going through the roof, and Lippert is incredibly well positioned to take on the additional throughput that increased demand requires. We are not slowing down by any means.”

 width=
Lippert Components produces RV, trailer, park model and residential housing chassis using the latest manufacturing technologies, including a Linacut coil-fed laser cutting line.

Dimeco

Lippert Components Inc.

Get industry news first
Subscribe to our magazines