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Inside Manufacturing in South Carolina

I recently had the extreme pleasure of joining Don Bent, chief operating officer, Oshkosh Defense, on a tour of a manufacturing facility right here in South Carolina where they are building the future postal truck.

“Delivery vehicles are actually the perfect opportunity for battery electrics and the reason is because they drive relatively short distances,” he says. “They start and stop a lot and then they come home every night to the same location so they can recharge them. It is the perfect opportunity for that.”

Oshkosh Defense has been in the 900,000-sq.ft. space, which is 20 acres under roof, for two years, getting the facility ready. Just in the past few weeks, the first vehicles came. There are four sections of the building: where materials come in, a body shop, finishing, and assembly. Eventually, the company will be producing 84 trucks a day across two shifts.

I want to take a couple of minutes to share my top five takeaways that will impact the future of battery electric vehicles, manufacturing, and sustainability for all.

Focus on Employees

The plant is designed in a way that takes into consideration the quality of opportunity for all employees, which at full production will be about 1,000 people across two shifts. The space is bright and clean, which people tend to enjoy more and are often more productive.

The company also looks at how to work and move around the line in a way that is as ergonomically safe as possible. For example, it has a lifted line, which allows workers to adjust the height of the line, giving people flexibility and comfort to adjust the height. Lift assist robots can also help with weights above 35 pounds. Oshkosh Defense chose this weight because the majority of people can lift 35 pounds. Offering this assistance creates a larger pool of people that the company can now recruit from.

“If you look at manufacturing today, there is a very high percentage of employees that are male,” he says. “Women are not attracted to manufacturing as much, and we are really trying to change that. About half the population is female. If we ignore females as potential employees, it is a hindrance to us in the long run.”

Focus on Technology

Of course, there is also a great focus on technology. Bent and I had an opportunity to talk about how the company was able to run scenarios about the line and the amount of uptime it will run. As the company ran through all those simulations, technology was able to tell the ideal run time.

Today, we hear a lot more about analytics and AI (artificial intelligence), but as Bent tells me, “The interesting thing is AI has been around for a while.”

But what about those robots rising up? Bent showed me a fully automated robot in assembly, but in the same breath told me people think robots are replacing everything in assembly and they are not.

He says, “Where robots make sense are where you have extremely dangerous situations or extremely heavy components.” This brings me to my next point: safety.

Focus on Safety and Education

Like many manufacturers today, Oshkosh Defense has a focus on safety throughout the plant and on training workers. For example, while I was there, they were offering a weeklong class about how to deal with high voltage.

Bent and I discussed how Oshkosh Defense is training workers at the plant and the postal office is training the carriers on the vehicles. In order to move to this next era of technology in manufacturing and electric vehicles, staff need to be trained on how to do it safely. This is something both organizations are doing.

Focus on the Client

Like any good manufacturer, a big priority is the client and product itself. The truck is designed with the postal service in mind.

“This vehicle is more than twice as large as the LLVs (long life vehicles), twice the interior storage capacity. People think bigger is worse, but in this case if they have to loop back into the post office, reload, and then go out again, they are actually more efficient by having a bigger vehicle.”

In addition to being twice as large, vehicles have longer life, are twice as heavy, and have air conditioning, which the current vehicles don’t. Still, even with the larger size and the AC on, these vehicles have 14% better fuel economy. (Oh yeah, I even got a chance to sit in a truck as it still be assembled, pretty cool.)

“That is how technology has advanced, even on the internal combustion engine side,” Bent says.

Focus on Sustainability

One of the final big takeaways from this tour was the company’s focus on sustainability. We all know factories consume a tremendous amount of packaging. One of the big parts of the sustainability efforts here is eliminating waste.

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. We really focus on the reduce, meaning if you don’t create it in the first place, you don’t have to worry about reusing or recycling,” he explains.

All in all, we see the company keeps employees, its customers, and its community front of mind in everything that it does, which helps to set it apart.

“We take more of a European approach, which is social responsibility,” he says. “These are our neighbors and our community, and this is where we live, and we try to take care of the environment now and in the future.”

My final thought.

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