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Old 06-29-2022, 04:52 PM   #1
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Airstream factory tour... Impressions...

Not sure what forum this topic should go under.

Attended an Airstream factory tour yesterday on my 60th birthday (total coincidence). Our Globetrotter 27 Fb Twin was probably in the factory somewhere as it was scheduled to be completed this week. Unfortunately, they are not able to identify your trailer so you can see it.

Now for some general impressions and observations:

70% of the factory is devoted to turning raw materials into components for the trailer.

Most of the trailer is built by hand. The only automation was a couple of cnc machines that cut holes in aluminum panels for various needs (holes for light switches, plumbing, etc), and also cut a lot of wood used to make cabinets.

As far as I could tell, there is exactly zero pressed wood or, particle board used in the construction. Everything seems to be constructed with marine grade Plywood as it is free of voids.

The trailer overall is built from high quality materials, assembled with screws instead of staples. The entire trailer interior can be disassembled and removed via the door opening if necessary. This is massively better than most 'other' trailers that are often assembled using particle board and staples. After you bounce the cheapo trailers down a few rough roads, the SOB trailers tend to start self disassembly :-)

Was generally impressed, but felt that some level of automation for assembly of the aluminum shell at a minimum could be beneficial in terms of cost and maintaining consistency.

Airstream is proud of the fact that most of the trailer is handmade, but my engineering background tells me that it will lead to variations. And variations are costly. Example, the tour guide stated that sometimes woodwork won't fit because of variations in dimensions of the aluminum shell and they have to modify the cabinets in order to get them to fit. He was proud of the fact that they could rework the woodwork to 'make it fit'.

The aluminum shell is built like an airplane. Everything is riveted together. Thousands of them, applied by hand.

For the frame at least, if I were in charge of manufacturing , I would build jigs in which the aluminum frame pieces are installed for exact dimensional control and then have robots weld the frame components together. Every frame would be repeatable and virtually identical. Then, standard wood work, cut by machine and assembled by hand via jigs would all be guaranteed to fit.

I bet applying aluminum panels and riveting them could be somewhat automated too.

It would also take a lot less labor to build. Currently, the trailers use 3600 to 5800 hand installed rivets per trailer.

These are my personal observations and opinions. Please don't chime in with 'airplanes are riveted too, so this has to be a great way to build things'. I am not commenting on the use of rivets. I am commenting on how the overall shell is assembled and how much the hand built aspects make each trailer dimensionally unique.

This would not be acceptable when building vehicles (except, perhaps for Telsa, lol) and I don't believe it is the best way to assemble the trailer.

Has anyone else been to the factory tour since they moved production to the new building in the last several years? Feel free to share your observations too.
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Old 06-29-2022, 06:05 PM   #2
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what did think of the wiring???
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Old 06-29-2022, 06:16 PM   #3
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Originally Posted by AKmtnpilot View Post
what did think of the wiring???
Could not get a close look after cabinets are installed. The tour participants have to stay in a safe, narrow walkway down the travel corridors in the factory.

However, I could tell that the wiring harnesses sticking out from the inner shell before cabinets go in are too long for the shorter trailers and would result significant excess wiring. It's speculation on my part, but it seems like the wiring harness is 'one size fits all'. I.e. it fits the larger trailers but are too long for shorter trailers. Beyond this speculation, I couldn't observe anything else without being able to go inside trailers that are under construction.

Otherwise, the harnesses seemed to be well organized in general.
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Old 06-29-2022, 06:30 PM   #4
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Additional thoughts.

The factory was well organized, very clean and very neat. Everything has a place and everything is labeled (and I mean everything).

Example: a rack of newly bent, curved aluminum frame components will be on a rack specially designed for that component and which trailer models the components will fit on are clearly labeled. In some cases where it is easy to confuse one component from another, the label will also state that the component should "not" be installed on a Bambi for example.
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Old 06-29-2022, 06:53 PM   #5
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Thanks for the report on your tour.

Were they using visual control systems like 5S and Kanban? Just curious.
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Old 06-29-2022, 07:21 PM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Hans627 View Post
Thanks for the report on your tour.



Were they using visual control systems like 5S and Kanban? Just curious.


I’m not sure of how they’re doing it in the new facility but from the videos of old that were on the internet a lot of “best practices” were missing.

So when I see how the OP was talking about the tour guide made the proud comment of “making it fit” I too cringed.

I agree with the OP comments of automation were possible and a repeatable process, that alongside the need of a robust process, standard work and several quality checks/stations throughout the build process. Couple with your comments of 5s and Kanban. Ok, I’m on my soapbox, lol. Stepping down now.
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Old 06-29-2022, 07:24 PM   #7
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I’m hoping a new facility would’ve been the perfect opportunity to implement all of those changes I, we mentioned above. Following to see if atleast half of those are implemented in the new facility.
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Old 06-29-2022, 07:26 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Hans627 View Post
Thanks for the report on your tour.



Were they using visual control systems like 5S and Kanban? Just curious.
I didn't see any references to 5S or similar systems anywhere.

Usually when a factory is using such a system, there are reminder posters all over the factory as to what to do in each area and why you should be doing it.
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Old 06-29-2022, 07:53 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by foobar View Post
I didn't see any references to 5S or similar systems anywhere.

Usually when a factory is using such a system, there are reminder posters all over the factory as to what to do in each area and why you should be doing it.


Did you see any Floor locations marked for inventory, tool shadow boards, standard work, clutter in work areas or were the work areas well organized?
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Old 06-30-2022, 07:39 AM   #10
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Did you see any Floor locations marked for inventory, tool shadow boards, standard work, clutter in work areas or were the work areas well organized?
Work areas are well organized. Every tool had a dedicated storage location.

They also have protocols for tool use and storage inside the trailer. This is because the subfloor cover goes on first and if someone drops a tool inside the trailer at any time, the entire contents of the trailer have to be removed and reinstalled in order to replace the vinyl floor cover.
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Old 06-30-2022, 08:05 AM   #11
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Thanks for your update! I have been thru couple times also, in the old buildings down the street. I agree using automation could greatly reduce costs, eliminate "eye baling" and "custom fit" challenges, but that could also mean half the town would be out of work, which would likely force one of the 2 restaurants in town to close! I am sure management has looked at this; be interesting to hear their logic and future plans, however. Could get pricing back down to under $100K for most models again!
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Old 06-30-2022, 08:32 AM   #12
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Quote:
Airstream is proud of the fact that most of the trailer is handmade, but my engineering background tells me that it will lead to variations. And variations are costly. Example, the tour guide stated that sometimes woodwork won't fit because of variations in dimensions of the aluminum shell and they have to modify the cabinets in order to get them to fit. He was proud of the fact that they could rework the woodwork to 'make it fit'.
I tend to dismiss Airstream's "pride" here as a bit of marketing fluff. Factory automation would absolutely increase production quality and consistency. To your point, there are more than a few places in my new Airstream where it's clear that certain parts were "made to fit" - and it doesn't look great.
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Old 06-30-2022, 09:30 AM   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by foobar View Post
Could not get a close look after cabinets are installed. The tour participants have to stay in a safe, narrow walkway down the travel corridors in the factory.

However, I could tell that the wiring harnesses sticking out from the inner shell before cabinets go in are too long for the shorter trailers and would result significant excess wiring. It's speculation on my part, but it seems like the wiring harness is 'one size fits all'. I.e. it fits the larger trailers but are too long for shorter trailers. Beyond this speculation, I couldn't observe anything else without being able to go inside trailers that are under construction.

Otherwise, the harnesses seemed to be well organized in general.
Unless something has changed, the wiring harnesses are cut longer than needed even for the 30ft Classic. When I went to install a Progressive Industries internal unit in our 2018 classic, I found FEET of extra wire wadded up under the dinette seat. So much of a rat's nest I actually contacted JC and asked if any of their electricians owned wire cutters. I've also seen reports where two trailers of the same year and model have been found to be wired differently. Our trailer is currently at the dealer because the bathroom lights stopped working. The service guy flat-out told me they would just run a new wire rather than trying to figure out where the factory routed the original wire.

Seems to me AS could save some material, and make troubleshooting down the road easier, if they used wire boards to build wire looms specific for each trailer model. Then the entire loom is installed in the trailer. May like to tout how Airstreams are built similar to aircraft. Well, I worked in aerospace for over 20 years in the electrical shop and I can tell you that every aircraft and spacecraft I worked on the wire harnesses were built on wire boards and then installed.
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Old 06-30-2022, 09:53 AM   #14
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Wiring

Toured the Tiffin factory in March. Every wire is run through a machine which prints a label on it. Something they picked up from the aircraft industry
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Old 06-30-2022, 10:04 AM   #15
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If anyone else is doing the tour anytime soon, let me know. I found this specialty tool behind my water heater near the converter. I’m guessing it is a factory harness installing tool. Anyway, I figure they might need it back!



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Old 06-30-2022, 10:18 AM   #16
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Seems to me AS could save some material, and make troubleshooting down the road easier, if they used wire boards to build wire looms specific for each trailer model.
An unnecessary 3 foot length of romex behind my fuse panel is attached to a foot-long piece of molding that appears to have been broken off a longer piece. The molding with the wiring on it is simply mixed in with the rats nest, not attached to anything in the trailer.

I puzzled over this for a while, then I figured it out. The factory must keep the romex tacked to a piece of molding on a cart or the wall, somewhere they have a length handy. It was the end of the spool, the installer literally broke off the molding the last couple loops were attached to and installed it in the trailer, without bothering to unscrew the tacking.

Would be interested to hear what the wiring installation “workstation” looks like!
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Old 06-30-2022, 10:56 AM   #17
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We have a 30’ FC and our wiring harness was massively too long. What’s worse is how the pre-built wiring harness gets connected to the pre-built DC panel. The DC panel has a nice terminal block for landing the external wiring. They don’t use it though. They put pigtails in all the terminals and connect all the external wiring with butt-splices making the too long wires even longer and adding dozens of potential failure points. All the factory wiring is just shockingly bad.
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Old 06-30-2022, 11:32 AM   #18
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I've seen a few of the "how it's built" videos on youtube. in terms of the productivity discussion, I know very little about manufacturing but one thing that surprises me is how many sizes/floor plans are offered: 16, 19, 20, 22, 23, 25, 27, 28, 30, 33. Seems like you could reduce that by 2-3 sizes.
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Old 06-30-2022, 04:08 PM   #19
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Toured the old plant in 2019 and could have made the same comments the OP is making for the new plant. In the current June Blue Beret, VP sales Justin Humphreys is saying "As we move forward into the prime selling season, Airstream is continuing to make historic investments in tooling, QC systems, and technologies that improve both the manufacturing process and our aftermarket services." That would mean they moved their manufacturing processes as-is from the old plant to the new, scrambled to hire new folks, and are now looking to rethink how they build them. Justin Humphreys will be at the International Rally in Fryeburg in July.
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Old 06-30-2022, 05:30 PM   #20
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Should mention that aircraft use Cherry rivets that cost nearly $1.00 each and are very strong. Airstream uses aluminum or aluminum alloy rivets that are not as strong. Therefore they will pop from routine stress and one should obtain a supply of rivets and tools for routine maintenance.
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