On March 5, 2020, two of Leizerman & Young’s partners, Andy Young and DJ Young, toured the Kenworth Assembly Plant in Chillicothe, Ohio. Local Chillicothe Attorney Mike Warren deserves the credit for inviting and organizing a nationally diverse group of truck safety fanatics for the tour. Other members of our tour group included: Dan Munley of Scranton, Pennsylvania; Matthew Wright of Nashville, Tennessee; Eric Penn of Jacksonville, Texas; William “Joe” Ervin of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Harry Adler, Executive Director of the Institute for Safer Trucking, Washington, D.C.
Our group was particularly fortunate to have as our tour guide Rodney Spencer, the Plant Manager of the Kenworth Chillicothe Plant. Mr. Spencer and his wife, Lee, graciously spent over three (3) hours on a Friday evening providing us with a presentation and walking tour of the assembly plant. Lee even prepared for us a delicious homecooked meal! We, without a doubt, received the W990 (the Cadillac of Kenworth Trucks) of tours.
It became quickly apparent that our group was truly excited to participate in and embrace the full experience. Mr. Spencer responded in kind, answering all of our questions and engaging in lively conversation. We learned that this plant assembles between 120 to 140 Class 8 Kenworth semi-tractors a day. With a plant expansion scheduled to open in 2021, the plant will soon be able to increase production capacity to over 200 trucks per day. The great State of Ohio can boast that the assembly and production of approximately 90% of Class 8 Kenworth Semi-Tractors seen on U.S. roadways were built at this plant.
Unsurprisingly, truck safety technology was a favorite discussion topic within our group. Many of us had been under the impression that a fully autonomous Class 8 Semi-Truck and Trailer would roll off assembly line floors in the near future. Mr. Spencer, however, explained that it is likely that it will take a decade or more for the technology and road infrastructure to become fully compatible and mature. Yet, he was proud to report that crash avoidance technologies have increased in popularity and continue to improve, thereby further protecting the safety of everyone on the road. Automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane assist are more frequently requested on new purchase orders. Mr. Spencer also seemed proud of Kenworth’s environmental advancement technologies toward clean-air diesel emissions, CNG natural gas trucks, and the future potential for electric trucks.
To our delight we were able to observe firsthand some safety technology being installed on the trucks. For instance, over 90% of the chassis were assembled with air disc brakes on all axles, rather than just the front steer axle. It was encouraging to see a clear industry preference for the greater stopping power of air disc brakes versus the older drum brake technology. This indicates that Kenworth’s customers care about accident prevention and a truck’s ability to stop short of a crash. Interestingly, the chassis assembly process was performed upside down to give the workers the advantage of gravity. Observing the steer axle and drive axle assemblies lower onto the up-side-down chassis for installation and then watching the entire chassis rotate to the proper side for wheel installation was nothing short of amazing.
Shortly after a chassis was rotated back to an upright position, we watched a team of diligent Kenworth workers install a large Cummins ISX engine on a chassis frame in less than 5 minutes. The engines were trimmed and ready as they were hoisted into position. Workers scrambled around all sides of the engine as it was slowly lowered and mounted on the new truck frame. The impressive size of the engine caused the chassis’ suspension to flex and sigh as it permanently shouldered its weight.
In a different part of the plant, we climbed a catwalk and watched a carefully choreographed ballet of robotic movements. Fanuc robots, grouped four to a station, rapidly assembled truck cabs out of what seemed like thin air. As the cabs crawled from one set of four robotic arms to the next, we saw day cabs being built next to 76-inch sleeper bunk cabs. Later, these cabs were painted every possible color scheme under the rainbow to fit customer logos and branding schemes. We saw trucks that were being assembled for Heartland Express, FedEx, and many other recognized truck company names.
Kenworth clearly has a market niche for building trucks that are made-to-order. Mr. Spencer proudly informed us that customers have an “infinite” variety of purchase options. As we continued the tour, we could see how Kenworth has mastered the assembly process to provide a unique truck purchase experience for each customer. No two trucks on the assembly line were the same. Each differed in axle configuration, engine, or cab. We were all impressed by the fact that Kenworth offers over 800 variations and options to its customers. Mr. Spencer explained the importance of these variations and options for safety. Both seat comfort and interior sound deadening help the truck driver remain comfortable and alert allowing for an easier time driving longer miles without an early onset of fatigue.
So individual is each truck that some smaller company owner-operator customers have come in to witness the full assembly of their custom truck from frame rails to final roll off of the assembly line. The proud truck owner is even given the opportunity to sign his or her name to the truck’s floor before the interior carpeting is installed. Mr. Spencer shared that he has seen customers with “tears in their eyes” as they watch their dream truck come to reality in front of them.
Particularly important to all of us on the tour was the work ethic shown by the Kenworth employees. You could sense the positive vibe on the assembly line floor. All employees looked happy and waved at our tour as we passed by. There is no question that Mr. Spencer is a phenomenal plant manager who cares greatly for each Kenworth employee at the Chillicothe plant. We were lucky to have Mr. and Mrs. Spencer spend their Friday evening with us. Thank you! Thank you also to Kenworth for providing a strong livelihood for so many folks in Southern Ohio! Our group asks only that you help steer your customers toward the purchase of all safety features and technologies (without option) offered for sale on your trucks. We look forward to hopefully partnering with you in the future on safety initiatives designed to help keep our highways safe.
- Andy Young, March 14, 2020