The Elkhart Truth: Utilimaster gearing up for move from Wakarusa to Bristol

BRISTOL — More flexibility, leaner manufacturing and hopefully more jobs: That’s what Utilimaster is looking to gain this year as it moves into its new Bristol facility.

“It’s a strong commitment to our future. We’re laying out our facility in a more efficient fashion. We have a facility that will be in a condition that easily could last us another 20, 30 years, probably even beyond that,” said John Forbes, Utilimaster president.

The move was announced last year and won’t be finished for months, but work has been under way.

Shelving and equipment are starting to fill the cavernous building on Earthway Boulevard, and workers are testing new assembly processes. When the move is completed in the second quarter, “It will allow us to be more connected,” Forbes said. “Even when you’re in 15 different buildings on a different campus, you have a lack of connectivity. There’s nothing like face-to-face and eyeball-to-eyeball. Even when you have mail and phones from one end of the campus to the other, it doesn’t have the same level of connection.”

When problems come up, it will be easier to address them with everyone in the same building, instead of across the half-mile campus in Wakarusa where Utilimaster has been since 1973, Forbes said.

Kevin Crump, director of lean business systems for Spartan Motors Corp., Utilimaster’s parent company, said the new facility will be far more efficient. “Virtually everything will be under roof,” as opposed to multiple buildings in Wakarusa. 

That means, for instance, that this should be the last winter when employees have to go outside to get aluminum, clean the snow off and sand the pieces to get them ready to be installed, said Forbes.

The new facility will have two walk-in van production lines, and a line can be repurposed for other uses depending on demand of customers like FedEx, UPS and Cintas.

Utilimaster also makes commercial truck bodies.

Walking through the factory, Crump said in setting up the building they’re relying heavily on the example of the Toyota Production System. At the same time, “We’re not Toyota, and we’re not building Camrys. We’re actually building a highly specialized product,” but using the same concepts of eliminating waste.

“We’re actually able to take what we do in Wakarusa and compress it into fewer stages,” Crump said.


As employees worked on a few vans to verify processes in the new building, Forbes said all those employees came from the Wakarusa campus. “We expect to grow our business, expect to keep everybody on the team and hopefully there’s some opportunity ahead to continue to grow and add to employment levels,” Forbes said. Right now that ranges from 800 to 1,000 people, depending on demand.

The move will speed up the company’s delivery to customers. According to Crump and Forbes, a walk-in van built in Wakarusa travels about 2.5 or 3 miles during the production process. In Bristol, it will be a third of a mile.

It takes Utilimaster employees 10 to 15 days to build a van start-to-finish in Wakarusa. At the new facility, that will be only three days, the officials said.

“Things continue to move along well. We have a lot of heavy lifting in front of us,” said Forbes. “The months of January and February, a lot of significant activity will be going on.”