On Monday morning we drove the approximately 1 hour from Grand Lake St. Marys State Park in OH to Decatur, IN to attend the once daily (M-F) 9AM Fleetwood RV factory tour. The trip was made in the Odyssey of course, which was much more economical than driving up there (and back) in the coach, even though Fleetwood offers free overnight sites.
This was an early day for us and as usual breakfast was on the agenda. We first thought we would try JB Pastries which was close to the campground in St. Marys. We drove by there on Sunday and noted that they advertised breakfast – it turned out that this was just a fast food type of joint so we moved on hoping to bump into something along the way.
The journey was all 2 lane state highways (mostly SR33) on decent road surfaces and was an easy ride despite the heavy truck (and farm machinery) traffic. Scenery consisted of farms, farms and more farms as well as a few small towns like Rockford, OH (pictured left). It was interesting to us, although I imagine it would become boring after a while.
About 10 miles outside of Decatur in Wilshire, OH we came upon Becky’s Village Restaurant right at the intersection of 33 & 81 which appears to be a busy truck route. It looked OK and there were lots of trucks outside so we stopped.
A table full of old timers gave us the once over as we walked in, and I guess we’re back north because nobody said “hi y’all doin’ today?” Cute place, waitress (Becky?) was friendly though and we both ordered bacon & cheese omelets. They were OK, but not great – skimpy on the bacon and cheese so kind of dry. Nevertheless we were now more awake and ready for the tour.
Shortly thereafter we arrived in Decatur which seems to be a fairly small town but has a good bit of industry nearby. The Fleetwood plant where the tours are held is listed as 1031 US 224 E and was easy to find, although be careful using Google Maps and possibly some GPS systems as they are off a bit. Use 1667 E 650 N Decatur, IN 46733 for the address or this lat/lon: 40.840713,-84.903613
We made better time then we expected and arrived too early so we went exploring the two other Fleetwood locations in Decatur. At 1420 Patterson St. is the service facility where there are 52 free overnight sites with electric hookups (photo right). Water and a dump station are also provided.
There is a third facility more or less around the corner at 1010 Commerce Dr. (photo left) where we were told there are limited overnight sites also – we did not see any hookups there but did find a dump station.
So anyway, back to the tour and the reason for this post. In summary, despite low expectations (we didn’t think Fleetwood could top the Tiffin tour) we were very impressed not only with the tour, but with the Fleetwood operation and the construction details we observed.
At the reception desk we were greeted in a friendly manner and directed to a conference room to wait for our tour guide, Tom. There was only one other couple from Quebec and a young man (Brian), so the tour was not going to be crowded, yay!
Tom was right on time and was friendly, informative and very knowledgeable of the Fleetwood products. Normally he would have provided us with radio headsets, but it turned out that this was a rare “inventory” day so the production lines were not in full swing – this turned out to be a benefit not only for noise reduction but because we could move around more freely within the plant. We were given the usual safety lecture, issued safety glasses and reminded that (as we expected), photos were absolutely not allowed since there are proprietary processes employed throughout the plant (we are still amazed that Tiffin was OK with us taking pictures – I guess you could read something into that, but maybe it is just their culture.)
After a brief spiel about the Fleetwood product line-up, the tour started with the chassis assembly area. There are three basic lines in this plant, one for Class A diesel pushers, one for Class A gas and one for Class C. I think the only exception is the new Excursion 33 diesel pusher which is built on the gas line.
For diesels, Fleetwood is currently using Freightliner for the single rear axle coaches and Spartan for the tag (dual rear axle) coaches. A Ford chassis is used for the gas units and is currently the only gasoline powered motorhome chassis in production as far as I know.
On the diesel line we saw the bare chassis (representative photo above), the fabricated chassis “bridge” and the bridge mated to the chassis. The “bridge” is a self supporting welded steel framework that essentially creates the foundation for “the box” (coach living area) and forms all the luggage and utility compartments. The photo to the left is not an actual Fleetwood product but will give you the idea of what a chassis with bridge looks like.
The bridge is fastened to the chassis with “Huck Bolts” which are a type of high strength hardened rivets used in the heavy truck, aircraft and commercial construction industries. Huck bolts will never loosen and if removal is necessary they must be cut off with a torch. This is the same system Freightliner uses to assemble their chassis as we learned when we toured the Freightliner plant in Gaffney, SC (I don’t know if Spartan uses them as well).
During this part of the tour we saw some of the luggage compartments being finished. If you read our Tiffin Tour post, you may remember I was a quite a bit dismayed to find Tiffin used wood to form some of the luggage compartment walls and floors. Not so at Fleetwood – the panels are all fiberglass or heavy roto-molded plastics – we saw only fiberglass being used on these particular chassis’.
Also at this point we could also see the tankage. The fresh, gray and black water tanks were designed in a triangular shape and interlocked with each other and within rails in the bridge. This seems like a good use of space and from the looks of it those tanks will never move. Also, even on the lower end coaches Fleetwood has gone to a non-intrusive, non-contact (I think ultrasonic) tank level sensing system.
A non-coach related bit of interest was the unique inventory management Fleetwood uses for consumables such as screwdriver bits, metal abrading wheels, etc. They have “vending machines” – yep just like the one with candy bars in it – that have all the tools the workers might need. A worker uses the barcode or mag stripe on their employee ID to “pay” for the part which gets dispensed immediately. The inventory count is updated and a third party supplier replenishes the machines as needed. Besides the obvious benefits, I suppose this greatly minimizes “shrinkage” as well as identifying any worker issues.
Next we saw the floor assembly process. Whoa! This is a radical departure from what we saw at Tiffin. Tiffin just fastens some untreated OSB on top of the bridge and the finish floor goes on top of that. That leaves raw wood (OSB at that) exposed underneath that they deal with by undercoating it.
Fleetwood creates an entirely separate structural floor assembly starting with a welded square tube rigid aluminum framework that is then filled with insulating foam. The bottom side is covered in a painted aluminum sheet metal and the top is a layer of cabinet grade plywood with exterior rated glue. Not only is this structurally superior and completely weather resistant, but it must have significantly better thermal and sound insulation vs. the Tiffin approach.
Even better, the edges of the floor incorporate a specially designed aluminum extrusion that mates with a similar extrusion on the sidewalls and rigidly locks the assembly into place. A similar joint is used where the roof and walls meet. This method creates a more rigid assembly and is key to maintaining the integrity of the box as it travels down the bumpy road. During the Tiffin tour it was not explained exactly how they create their roof/wall/ceiling joints but it is something I would definitely look into further.
Tiffin creates their finished tile floors as a completely separate assembly – they are even produced in a separate facility where they cement all the tile onto 1/4″ Luan, grout it and then cut it to shape using a CNC water jet cutter. The entire assembly is shipped to the production floor when needed – these assemblies are up to 45′ long and are maneuvered using suction cup lifts. This is an impressive process for cutting the entire tile floor to shape all at once, but it adds no structural integrity and after seeing the Fleetwood approach I don’t think I will ever be able to get comfortable with that weather exposed and non structural Tiffin OSB floor.
The Fleetwood process for tiling the coach floors is basic and not as impressive as Tiffin’s CNC water cutter, but the end product is probably more durable based on the more rigid floor assembly. They have a cut list and cut all the tiles for a particular coach and then cement and grout them into place right on the production line.
Another process Fleetwood uses is vacuum bonding of the walls and roof – I think it is used on the floor as well but I’m not 100% sure of that. The walls, for example, are an outer layer of fiberglass, a welded square tube aluminum structural component (like the floor and roof), cored with foam material and an inner wall material similar to laminate. Sheet metal layers are placed within the assembly in areas where light duty fasteners will be used such as valences and light fixtures. Structural aluminum is engineered into areas where heavy duty connections are required. The layers are all glued up with a fast bonding urethane adhesive and then placed in a vacuum bagging rack where the air is sucked out and they are compressed uniformly until the glue sets. This makes for a strong, flat and evenly formed assembly.
The roof gets the same vacuum bonding process. For the higher end coaches a fully molded fiberglass outer layer is also utilized, lower end coaches get TPO. As I recall from the Tiffin tour, their fiberglass roof was a thinner sheet so it could just be formed around the edge curves. The Fleetwood roof assembly also has an aluminum extrusion interlock with the top of the walls. The final fiberglass cap layer has a lip that extends 2″ below the joint so leaks are not a major issue with this system.
Most coaches fabricate A/C air supply ductwork and wiring channels into the roof. Fleetwood is now also fabricating air return ductwork into the roof – this adds return air grills all along the outboard edges of the ceiling on each side of the coach. The supply grills run down the center as usual. This not only creates more efficient cooling due to the better distributed and larger return air flow, but quiets the A/C noise considerably since the A/C unit itself does not extend into the box directly.
Next we saw a little bit of the wood supply area, but did not see any actual wood working fabrication taking place, so I can’t comment on the joinery techniques. We did learn that the higher end coaches now get real wood or wood veneer throughout. I mentioned a pet peeve of mine about the vinyl coated panels and face frames present in our Discovery and why veneer wasn’t more extensively used – I was surprised to learn the answer is an engineering issue – specifically weight. According to Tom, veneer used throughout adds about 1800 pounds to the weight of an average coach – yikes! So on the non tag axle rigs this is an intentional engineering design factor – OK, that makes sense and eases my complaint (but I still don’t like it).
Next we saw the paint booth area. The Fleetwood setup is about as large as the new Tiffin paint plant in Belmont, MS and has several paint booths and an enormous amount of square footage under one roof. I won’t go into too much detail here as the process was essentially identical to Tiffin – I doubt there are any better ways to do it and it is an extremely labor intensive process.
Since we had a guided tour of the paint area this time (at Tiffin they just let us wander), we learned some new things. For example the paint layer smoothing processes that Fleetwood employs. I don’t know if Tiffin does this, but on the top end Fleetwood coaches (American Coach) the edges of the paint color layers are abraded and polished so they blend into one smooth surface – as you run your hand over the finish from one color to the next you will not feel a ridge – this has to add days to the already lengthy painting process. On the lower end coaches this process is done in a simpler manner and you can still feel a slight ridge where the different paint colors merge.
In the paint area, we were able to board a new American Eagle – this is a beautiful coach and had many ultra high end amenities like an air powered aircraft door. Also, unlike previous older models we have seen, this unit was not as gaudy with over the top moldings, mirrors and other decorations.
Later we got to see the new Excursion 33, an entry level diesel pusher. It’s on a Freightliner chassis with a 300HP Cummins ISB diesel. This is a well laid out 33 footer and has the entry door just behind the front wheel well (unlike most diesel pushers where the door is in front of the front wheel well). This allows for a unique drop down (motorized) bunk over the front dash. The galley countertop is long and spacious and a 40″ TV drops down from behind the cabinets – very cool. Fleetwood positions this model for first time diesel buyers as well as experienced full-timers looking to downsize but not wanting to go back to a gas unit.
So besides the more efficient factory and materials handling operation, and what I at least for the moment feel are some superior construction details (as compared to Tiffin), another takeaway is that Fleetwood seems to have additional strength in their engineering processes. For example, as coaches become more refined and upscale, a lot of weight is being added with things like tile floors. My impression is that at Fleetwood a tile floor is not just added without considering all the design load factors for the chassis being utilized. And while I previously thought using vinyl vs. real wood veneers was just being cheap, perhaps that substantial weight reduction is a valid example of engineering taking precedent over marketing.
Now, consider Tiffin, you will find a brewing issue in the forums related to Phaeton (and maybe other models) having to do with the front axle weight rating being exceeded and a probable recall. I’m not saying Fleetwood is immune to these kinds of problems but my sense is they are more likely to have done the engineering due diligence up front whereas perhaps Tiffin has not?
So between the two, TIffin still gets the gold star for taking care of their customers. And while they build a beautiful looking coach with some great new floor plans, I can’t say I am as enthralled as I once was after seeing the Fleetwood construction details. We are looking forward to attending factory tours of other makes down the road and making further comparisons.