Mon Feb 4, 2019
Author: John McCurry
Late this year or early in 2020, Airstream will open one of the largest RV production facilities in North America—perhaps the largest—at its campus in the small Ohio town of Jackson Center.
Near-record rainfall in central Ohio in 2018 put the project behind schedule, but work progresses now, with steel due to rise at the site later this month. Airstream COO Justin Humphreys(pictured left), who is overseeing the construction project, says he hopes the plant will be complete by November, but acknowledges further weather delays could push the move-in date to December or January.
“We will have a better understanding once we get through this winter,” Humphreys says.
Although he says he can’t verify it, Humphreys says the huge facility may be the largest single RV manufacturing facility in the world when completed. There’s no doubt the plant will be a massive facility with 750,000 square feet across 17 acres under one roof. Airstream will add about 300 new jobs as it ramps up production. The additional jobs will bring the company’s total employment in Jackson Center to around 1,200.
Airstream broke ground late last summer after weeks of rain delays, but quickly discovered there was a soil problem. Too much fat clay—a problematic issue when pouring concrete causing foundations to sink or shift—was the diagnosis. The solution: remove the soil.
“We had to peel back 48 inches of soil, fill in with limestone and repack,” Humphreys says.
Humphreys declines to reveal how many units the new factory will produce, but says Airstream will be able to more than double its current business if future growth warrants.
“We will have plenty of capacity in the future,” he says.
Humphreys describes the factory planning process as very enjoyable. Consulting with employees in each department to learn the biggest “pain point” has been a valuable learning experience and enables the company to address layout inefficiencies in the new plant design.
“It has been fascinating to learn what those pain points are and how to resolve them,” Humphreys says.
Airstream will gain two plants with the construction of the new production facility. When the new plant opens, the existing 255,000-square-foot travel trailer plant will be converted to produce Airstream motor coaches. The current motor coach plant will become parts storage space.
The new plant will have an L-shaped production line, compared to the current U-shaped line. The overall goal will be to increase production.
“We would like to use more CNC (computer numeric control) routers, and the new plant will offer plenty of space to do that,” Humphreys says. “Where we can add robotics, we will. It would be around the welding operation. The nice thing is we can start considering this type of technology now that we have the space.”
As is the case with the new manufacturing floor, Airstream is putting a lot of thought into its new office space. Humphreys and other Airstream executives spent a day visiting corporate offices in Dayton, Ohio, about an hour south of Jackson Center. The objective: discover the efficient and desirable aspects of new office spaces and learn how to promote an open office atmosphere.
“One office has a very open area, similar to what I think Google would have,” Humphreys says. “Everyone has an assigned neighborhood, not an assigned desk. It really stretched our thinking on how open and different office spaces can be, not because we are going to follow that, but it challenges us to think about the office experience.”
One feature Humphreys says Airstream will borrow from a company on the tour: white noise in the open cubicle area to mitigate ambient noise.
Airstream also plans to buy renewable energy credits for the plant’s operation to ensure all of the energy the plant uses is from renewable sources through its power company. Airstream’s penchant for sustainability goes back a long way, Humphreys says. In other words, the company was “green” before green was cool.
“It’s a big part of who we are,” Humphreys says.
The campus will include a training center for both employees and Airstream dealers.
“We have a big commitment to training,” he says. “We will have enough room in the training center to pull in an Airstream and do a full walk-around. We are excited about the opportunity to increase our training initiatives.”
The company’s new 13,000-square-foot museum will be attached to the training center. On display will be vintage travel trailers, including the personal trailer of Airstream founder Wally Byam.
“We are trying to focus on the next 50 years, and it’s been challenging, but it’s been a lot of fun.”