After providing a tour Friday (Nov. 15) of the manufacturer’s new $60 million, 723,500-square-foot production facility at its Jackson Center, Ohio, campus, which will also house corporate offices and a Heritage Center & Museum, Airstream Inc. President and CEO Bob Wheeler told RVBUSINESS.com that the company was “due for a big upgrade.” (To view a slideshow of the Airstream tour, go to the RVBUSINESS.com Home Page and scroll down to the “Industry Videos” section.)
A subsidiary of Thor Industries Inc., Airstream will be transitioning production of its travel trailer lines from its current 255,000-square-foot facility into the new plant about one mile down the street over a 10-day period during Christmas break. At the same time, motorhome production will shift from its 60,000-square-foot current complex of buildings — some of which include quonset huts dating back to 1952 when Airstream settled in Jackson Center — into the newly vacated travel trailer plant across the street.
Completion of the corporate offices and 16,000-square-foot Heritage Center & Museum will follow sometime early next year. In addition, the new facility will have complementary onsite healthcare access for associates and their immediate families, an onsite cafeteria serving breakfast and lunch to associates, and an 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art training center for professional development of associates and dealers.
The project itself — Thor’s largest and most expensive capital expansion project to date — is impressive in several respects. Of the 50-acre property, almost 16 acres will be under roof, and the production space amounts to some 623,000 square feet alone. The new facility is the 12th building on Airstream’s campus, and more than doubles the combined 613,000 square feet of the 11 previous buildings. It’s worth noting that the new plant also will add a third traffic signal to the village of Jackson Center.
Following the tour Wheeler sat down with RVBUSINESS.com to discuss further details of the expansion project. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
RVB: We could ask you what led to this expansion, but perhaps a better question would be what led to an expansion of this magnitude?
Wheeler: “We were really due for a big upgrade in a lot of different ways. One, when we first designed and proposed this plant to Thor, we were running well behind what the market demand was and we planned the facility accordingly. Now, things have cooled off a little since then, obviously, but we didn’t build this manufacturing facility with the next eight months or even the next eight years in mind. We’re an 88-year-old company. We knew that we needed to build it with the next 88 years in mind.
We’ve got plenty of capacity, but it will also allow us to bring all our materials under roof. We don’t have to store them across town. There are a number of processes that we do in outlying buildings here on the campus. All of those will be consolidated under one roof, so efficiency gets better, transportation gets less, and quality goes up. It’ll also improve safety; we’ve got a lot of trip-and-fall accidents because of the compact space, and this new place will be spread out. You’ll be able to work more safely because it has better lighting. It’s just a win all the way around.
But the other piece of this is Airstream is an 88-year-old iconic American brand in the same sentence as Harley-Davidson and Coca-Cola and Mustang. We need to have a visitors center or museum, especially with our rich history. We’ve got such amazing stories to tell over 88 years of global traveling and needed to display the pictures and the videos and some of the travel trailers that have gone around the world. We couldn’t be prouder to have this museum and visitors center where we can celebrate our heritage, our history, and give people a real reason to come to Jackson Center and see us.”
RVB: And that Heritage Center, as well as the corporate offices, are essentially phase two of the project?
Wheeler: “Yes, that’s right. We focused on the manufacturing space first. We’ll move in over Christmas 2019, and be in production Jan. 2, 2020. The offices and the visitors center will lag a little bit. Those will be sometime around April or May of 2020.
The main corporate offices will move down the street — myself and the top managers — but any function that has people tied directly to motorhome manufacturing will stay here. So engineering, production, purchasing folks that are tied directly to motorhomes will stay. We really want them to stay attached to the manufacturing that makes the product that they’re associated with, so we want to try to keep that family together.
Another big part of those offices and visitors center complex is the training center. Airstream requires very specific training both on how to sell and service them, so we built two big service bays. We can bring in travel trailers and motorhomes. We bring in service techs from around the nation. They learn how to perform the specific repairs that Airstreams require, and they return able to provide a better customer experience. Same thing on the sales side. There’s a lot of ‘unique’ about Airstream, so we bring in salespeople from all the dealers around the nation, show them what’s unique and different about Airstream and show them how to explain that to customers that come in with a passion to buy the brand.”
RVB: Your corporate offices have been in a mezzanine above the production floor for decades. How will you feel about not having the hum of the production line under your feet?
Wheeler: “Yeah. Yeah, that’s the one small regret about this move. Every job I’ve had right out of college has literally been located in manufacturing facilities, and I love the hum and that you can feel the vibration and the energy and the heartbeat of the place. In the new plant, although our offices are attached to the plant, it’s not right in the middle like it is today. We’ll have to make a very concerted effort to get out on the floor.
I love walking into my office every day. I see the same friendly faces. Everyone says hello. It’s just a chance to stay really connected, and we’ll have to be more deliberate about that in the new facility. But like I said, we’re attached to the front of the plant so it shouldn’t be that hard.
We’re a brand that’s built around manufacturing, and even those of us who are lucky enough to work in the offices, we can’t lose sight of the fact that these things are put together by people with the sweat of their brow. When it’s a hundred degrees out there, they’re still making Airstreams. I don’t want the offices to get too disconnected from the realities of manufacturing and the hard work that goes into making Airstream, so we’re keeping those two work groups as physically connected and as close as we can.”
RVB: Discuss, as concise as you can anyway, the production efficiencies that will be gained.
Wheeler: “It’s a long, long list of production efficiencies. Today, we store material across town because we’re so packed in here, we have to. We ship it over from our warehouse all day long. All of that material will be stored in the new plant under roof at the point of use, so it will come off the truck from the supplier and go right to the point of use. That cuts out a tremendous amount of wasted work and handling, and potential damage.
We’re really looking forward to be able to set up workstations in a way that the material flows from each station online. We can’t do that today because we’re so tied to our current layout, where we have to get materials off of mezzanines or from across town. All of that comes to the main floor. It’s just a long list of stuff. It’s quality. It’s safety. It’s efficiency.”
RVB: Let’s talk a little more about transitioning the travel trailer production from its current facility one mile down the street to the new one — with the stated goal being no loss of production. We can’t begin to imagine the logistics of such a move.
Wheeler: “It’s kind of like changing the wheels on a car while you’re driving it. So our plan is to move over the week of Christmas, but we’ll build the line out starting from the first line station, and then we’ll be moving those stations down to the new plant. Then, during the week of Christmas, we’ll be making the final moves to start production in early January.
Just the logistics of the move alone are really intense. It takes a lot of planning. Luckily, we’ve got some people who have done it and are experienced with it.
We’ll be hiring some riggers to move the big heavy stuff and get it set safely and properly, but, yeah, this kind of move is an exercise of ‘do all the planning you can and then just hold on for those unexpected challenges and figure out a way around them.’
But we’ve got a great team of people between our manufacturing engineering department and our lean office who have done this before, so I think we’ll be okay.”
RVB: What’s the domino effect once this building is vacated? Who’s coming in?
Wheeler: “This current facility where we build trailers that we’re moving out of will become the new motorhome plant. Motorhomes are built across the street in some buildings that were the original Airstream buildings back in 1952. Just to give you some perspective, those buildings where motorhomes are built today, they used to build bazookas between the World Wars — and I’m not talking about the gum — so that’s how old those buildings are.
With this move, we’re really getting two-for-one. Motorhomes get a big upgrade into a much nicer facility with more space and, of course, travel trailers move into the new plant. So, it’s a win-win for the company and sets us up for the next wave of growth.”
RVB: What will become of the buildings that motorhome production will be vacating?
Wheeler: “There’s really no square foot of Airstream space that doesn’t get used for something. Where motorhomes are coming out of, we’ll be able to use some for parts storage, especially vintage parts. We’ve got an unbelievably busy and extensive parts business that ships out all over the nation.
We’ll also use some of the space for service. When we get a big metal repair job, like an accident, it takes a lot of floor space because you have to take the entire travel trailer apart pretty much piece for piece. We’ll use those old quonset huts for those special service jobs that require a lot of space. So, really, it’s a win-win-win: trailers win, motorhomes win, and service wins.”
RVB: Does this expansion also affect your employment level, which, we understand, is about 960 at the moment?
Wheeler: “Our employment is driven by demand, and our demand will be the same when we move down the street. But what it will give us is the opportunity when the next wave of growth hits to grow intelligently and in a very purposeful way to maintain product quality and to be able to hire and train accordingly. It’s just gives us so much more head room than what we have today where we’re packed into this current facility and working on top of each other.”