Elkhart Truth: Utilimaster unveils truck to be built in Wakarusa

WAKARUSA — Jeffry Smith had finished his sandwich and chips and was enjoying a few quiet minutes before the dignitaries left the factory floor and the assembly line got running again.

Smith was among the workers, executives, suppliers, customers, and elected officials who crowded into the Utilimaster Corp. plant along S.R. 19 to celebrate the production launch of the new Reach commercial walk-in van Tuesday. The delivery vehicle, unveiled in March, was designed and developed by Utilimaster and Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, Inc. 

“Quite frankly,” Smith said, “(the Reach) is going to change the market.”

Reach was so named, according to Shaun Skinner, to reflect the vision behind the vehicle. As Skinner, executive vice president and general manager at Isuzu Commercial Truck of America, explained, “You’re reaching for something that is beyond what we have right now.” 

Among the features that separates this commercial van from others in the market: 

Ÿ It reduces carbon dioxide emissions by more than 11 tons per vehicle per year.

Ÿ It is 3.1 percent more aerodynamic than other commercial vans of this class.

Ÿ The body is made of composite material that saves 700 pounds per vehicle.

Ÿ It gets about 16 miles per gallon, about a 35 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

The conversations and initial design work on the Reach began about five years ago at Utilimaster in an attempt to answer what customers saw as their future needs in terms of fuel economy, Skinner said. 

Development of the vehicle was well underway when Spartan Motors, Inc., acquired Utilimaster in 2009 and was “one of the key reasons” for the purchase, said John Sztykiel, president and chief executive officer of Spartan. 

Smith, an employee at Utilimaster for 17 years, joined the project when the Reach went into its prototype phase. Building the vehicle, he said, is physically easier than making the traditional commercial vans. The composite material is lighter and the tooling is ergonomically designed so over time, the usual aches and pains associated with assembly work do not creep into an individual’s muscles and joints. 

Putting the early versions of the van together was at times frustrating and the Reach team members logged Sunday shifts as well as 12- and 14-hour days during the week, Smith recalled while a finished vehicle sat parked a few feet behind him.

Although the Reach was started in 2006, it is coming on the market just as the need is growing. Society is becoming customer-centric as more and more homeowners and business owners want goods and services brought right to their door, Sztykiel said. Most importantly, that consumer demand will continue to increase regardless of what the economy does.

“We’ve seen the growth of Internet shopping but we’re having a lot more services delivered to the house, could be food, could be dry cleaning, could be milk, could be a variety of different things,” Sztykiel said. “So as more things get delivered to homes, and these are existing homes, they’re going to need smaller vehicles… Trains don’t go door to door, these vehicles do.”

Utilimaster has put the Reach production in an existing building and created an assembly line of 22 stations. Production begins with an Isuzu chassis, which is basically four tires, an engine and a steering wheel, then progresses forward until each component, including the roof, seats, dashboard and windshield, is installed. At the end, the finished Reach undergoes a final audit.

When the plant is running at capacity, it will work in two shifts and be able to make 20 trucks per shift, said John Susil, the Reach project launch director at Utilimaster.

To accommodate the Reach, Utilimaster has hired more engineers and added about 25 jobs to support the start of production, Forbes said. And, as the work grows, the number of employees will likely double.

However, the Reach assembly jobs will only be in Wakarusa until mid-2012. Spartan Motors is planning to shift the entire production line to its plant in Charlotte, Mich. This move makes sense, Forbes said, because it will put the Reach body assembly closer to the chassis operation. 

The Reach vacancy at Utilimaster will then be filled with the manufacturing of the Spartan motorhome chassis, Forbes said. Bringing the new line here will put the chassis production closer to the recreational vehicle companies that can use the product. 

In addition, Forbes said, Utilimaster is expecting the chassis operation to create up to 75 jobs within the next couple of years.


-Marilyn Odendahl, Elkhart Truth