Friday, August 20, 2004


I have been touring the Excel plant (Peterson Industries) which sits at the north edge of Smith Center along Highway 36. My tour guide is Dave Rorabaugh, the company's western sales rep. We've been walking through the plant so I can see how Excel's travel trailers get put together.

From the time that welding starts on the frame until a completed unit rolls out the door, it takes about two weeks to build an Excel trailer, according to Dave. He said the company usually has orders in hand for trailers about two or three months out.

We need some lead-time to get everything together for a unit," Dave notes. "Everything has to come together at the point you need it. It's like a concert."

Foremen continually turn in reports of what materials have been used so those can be re-ordered, Dave says. "Unfinished trailers cost us money. Getting materials in here when we need them is very important."

The company has a computerized production order; the same information goes to all departments so they are building the same trailer. You don't want a thirty-six foot chassis coming together with thirty-two foot side walls, for instance.

"We try to group runs of trailers of the same size," Dave says. "Sometimes, though, we just can't get away from the occasional 'one-sies.' We do have special orders and customizing that we have to accommodate."

Over here every day the same people put each trailer's wiring into a harness. Over there, the same people install the harnesses in the trailers.

"Some manufacturers have people pull wires," Dave says. "We get uniformity of installation with these harnesses."

We walk through the area where refrigerators and TVs for the trailers are received and stored. We stop at the shelving where the scrap fiberglass is kept waiting to be used as storage doors. One-inch foam insulation is attached to the fiberglass.

We meet another Excel sales rep out in the plant. Dave introduces Randy Vaughn who is originally from Lake Placid, New York, and how lives in Kirwin, Kansas. Randy is a convert to Kansas - he says "I'm a transplant and I'm here to stay."

Then we're watching caps and roofs being applied to the trailers. These pieces are actually manufactured by Arlwin Manufacturing, a company owned by one of Vaughn Peterson's cousins and situated just a few hundred feet east of the Excel plant.

All the windows and trim parts for a specific trailer get put on one cart and the cart is labeled for which trailer it belongs to. "They know they're not done," Dave says of those installing the trim, "until they've installed everything on the cart."

An overhead rail system allows one person to handle a cap, to pick it up and move it to the trailer for installation. "That system is handy," Dave says. "It's safe, and it's efficient for the workers - a plus for everybody."

"The furniture is built over here," Dave says as we enter a quieter area of the plant. "We make our own sofas, mattresses, windows, treatments, curtains, bedspreads, valances."

I'm introduced to Rachel Favinger, who is working at one of the tables. Rachel started with the company in 1969. She ended up the head of sewing; she retired; she came out of retirement to work part-time. Dave suggested that maybe she worked for the enjoyment of it, not the money. Rachel admits "I did forget to pick up my check here a few weeks ago."

"I started the sewing department with Mrs. Peterson," Rachel recalls. "I was a supervisor here for thirty years."

"They brought the sewing machines in and set 'em down and said 'here you go,'" Rachel remembers. "I made them go."

"They brought in a computerized machine in 1990 and set it down," she said. Nothing about it made any sense to Rachel. There were no instructions. "I sat down and cried. I went to Vaughn and cried. Vaughn said 'Get away from it,' so I went home. But when I came in the next day it was still here."

"I got on the phone to the manufacturer," Rachel says. "I got instructions in how to make it operate. Turns out they didn't send all the parts. We got the parts and got it going."

"I was terrible," Rachel said. "I used to go into furniture stores and turn furniture over to see how it was made."

Change orders drove her crazy. She'd have to tell sales reps "you just changed everything we just got done building."

"This work," Rachel says, "is a lot more complicated than people think." Now that she is a sewer part-time, the pressure is off her.

"But she has a lot of experience," Dave says. "She's an expert on the crew that newer people can turn to."

Typically Excel will have five patterns that customers can choose from for their matching sofas, bed spreads, curtains, etc.

A lot of manufacturers, Dave says, offer "queen-size beds, but the one question some customers have is whether it is a 'real' queen. You'll see 'short queens' from a lot of manufacturers - 60-inch by 75-inch. We build only the full queen - sixty-inch by 80-inch. We buy the springs for the mattresses but do the rest of the work ourselves."

To be continued....


AUGUST 20, 1998

About 5:00 a.m. a rain storm rolled through, rolled quickly through, dropped a heavy shower in but a moment. It is all blue skies now, sunshine, bright August day. If it warms up, it might be steamy.

What a view of the country you'd get if you could surf a storm front in from the west coast or the far north, all the way inland to Wisconsin. You'd swirl and blast in the mountains and, if you ever broke free, you'd sweep like a broom across the Dakotas, drag your toes in cool Minnesota water, brush against Wisconsin pines. Of course, there are times when the weather doesn't change much; then you might be like a sail boat becalmed in the middle of the lake.

I see that a woman in Fairwater has her underpanties pinned to the clothesline, one, two, three. They seem pretty skimpy out there, and too colorful to be middle western underpanties. Aren't ours usually white, cotton, baggy?

The sun rises so noticeably later these days and hangs lower in the sky as I head to work. That alone tells me the season is winding down, to say nothing of the cool nights, the evening dampness. The field corn isn't turning yet but that can't be far off. Soon, too, there'll be color in the trees and a different song in our heart - the great green uprising has slowed. Soon, it will once again be like counting days til the end of a jail term.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?