Our primary reason for staying in north central Alabama at the Corinth COE Park, was because we wanted to tour the Tiffin RV plant in Red Bay, AL which is in the northwest corner of Alabama just a few miles from the Mississippi border. The Tiffin plant was not convenient to the route we wanted to take heading back north, so it seemed to make sense to park the RV along our route and drive the car the 1-1/4 hours each way and save some fuel – we could have stayed in the Tiffin campground for $20 or maybe free (but Corinth was only $14 so we easily netted out ahead of the game).
Tiffin, a family owned business, is the maker of some of the most popular models of RV’s – Phaeton, Zephyr, and the Allegro. In our short two years in the world of RV’s, we have heard nothing but positive comments about the company and how Bob Tiffin will stand behind his product and do whatever it takes to make a customer happy – even for older coaches and for pre-owned units bought resale!
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit, but quality wise, the construction seemed just typical to me, but I might have more to say about that once we have toured Fleetwood (in a couple of weeks) and other makers down the line. To us though, it’s probably the after sale support that would be one of the most valuable features and Tiffin still seems to excel in this area.
In regard to the current models of diesel pusher coaches, the line up starts with the Allegro Breeze and Allegro RED both sub-40 foot models, next in line is the Phaeton (which is generally in the same class as our Discovery), then the Allegro Bus which improves on many of the systems and finally the flagship and ultimate in luxury, the Zephyr. If and when the time comes for us to upgrade, we might consider a pre-owned Tiffin so we thought while we were reasonably close it made sense to take the tour and see how these buses are put together. Red Bay, AL is not exactly on the way to anywhere.
Corinth Recreation Area was about 1 hour 15 minutes from Tiffin and the tour was at 9:30 a.m. so it was an early morning for us. We left Corinth around 6:45 a.m. and stopped at the Double Springs Diner for a quick breakfast (already mentioned in another post). As we drove past the beautiful landscape with rolling hills, farmhouses, green pastures dotted with cows and horses and small towns, it reminded us of New England, particularly New Hampshire and Vermont.
We arrived in Red Bay around 8:45 a.m., a little early for the tour so we took a ride around the town. Cute town with a population of about 3400. We later learned during the tour that Tiffin employs about 1300 people in their Red Bay and Belmont, MS facilities (about 6 miles away just over the state line), so the company is a major player in the local economy and it is clearly a “family business” in many ways.
Another tidbit of information learned was where the name Red Bay came from. According to the tour guide at the plant, the name was derived from the very red dirt in the area and bay trees (similar to the magnolia tree, the bay leaves that we use in cooking do not come from this tree). We also discovered that Tammy Wynette grew up just over the border in Mississippi, but claims her roots are in Red Bay.
Around 9:15 a.m., we headed over to the Visitor Center where we were greeted by several Tiffin employees. There were probably about 12 people on the tour from Canada, Texas, Michigan, Nevada and Tennessee and interestingly only a small majority were current Tiffin owners.
We were provided safety glasses and since we would be walking through a few very noisy areas, we were all given wireless headsets so we could hear our tourguide – this system worked very well. Before going out to the plant, we first watched a video that talked about the history of Tiffin, the quality of their coaches and how the Tiffin family elements contribute to their success. Our two tour guides were Brenda and Lloyd.
We were surprised to learn that the company actually encouraged us to take photos during the tour of the factory – most businesses of this nature usually strictly prohibit this. We were also surprised at how freely we were allowed to roam the lines and some of the support plants like the floor cutting and paint shops – it was great!
The tour started in the wood fabrication area. Truckloads of rough sawn (and presumably dried) cherry and another species that escapes me (maybe Aspen?) were stacked all around us waiting to be shaped, milled, sanded, stained, sealed and assembled into cabinets, trim and other finished wood components.
The cabinet joinery used for the most part uses the pocket hole technique which is a good solid, time saving joint. You should be able to see the pockets in the photo to the left. Our Discovery is built this way too and I own a few Kreg jigs and use the technique often myself.
One thing that sticks in my head though during the tour – as I was watching a worker assemble pocket hole cabinet parts, he was doing so without clamps. With pocket joinery this often results in mis-alignments, because as the screw drives thru the pocket into the mating piece of wood it pushes the joint open if it’s not clamped. And since the screw is at a very steep angle, when it tightens up, the alignment is knocked out of whack. Hmmm, that was a little disappointing, but maybe they figure its just easier to sand out any errors?
Anyway, the next area was assembling the house built Tiffin “Powerglide” chassis. I was a little put off that wood was being used for the floors of some of the luggage compartments, this area is potentially exposed to the weather so I hope that it is marine ply! Our Discovery has all roto-molded plastic and fiberglass compartments. I would think fiberglass sheets or some sort of composite core board would be better for this application.
I wonder about the profitability of in house chassis construction considering all the R&D required, not to mention the service and support issues. Isn’t it just cheaper (and safer?) to outsource this to a vendor that specializes in this area, has done all the engineering due diligence and has an established service network?
Having said that, the specs seem to indicate that the Powerglide has a bit of an edge over the equivalent Freightliner in terms of GVWR and such. Besides this, maybe the difference is in the driving, I have only ever driven a Freightliner so I can’t say – at least for now! What I do really like about Freightliner though is the easy availability of professional service centers all over the country and a 24 hour hotline. Also, I can go online, enter my VIN and have complete access to every technical document related to my chassis.
OK, sorry, I digress (again). Next we saw roof and wall structures being prepared. These panels primarily have Styrofoam cores and CNC machines are used to shape the air ducts, cutouts, wiring channels, etc. in the foam. The area looked like a blizzard had hit due to all the white foam chips on the floor.
Next stop was the wire harness fabrication area. Since my summer job as “The Volt Doctor” involves a lot of wire, you might imagine the excitement generated by a 20,000 ft drum full of 14 gauge stranded – then again you might not!
Although, for boat work I use only Type III marine grade finely stranded and tinned AWG wire – here they were using stranded un-tinned (bare copper color) SAE wire. Tinned wires are silver in color and greatly resistant to corrosion, but for RV interiors, corrosion shouldn’t normally be much of an issue – it’s another matter entirely (IMO) for wires exposed to weather on the chassis – I have seen salty environments (not just on boats, but salty roads during New England winters) turn bare copper into green mush. Also note that AWG has about a 10% larger copper cross section than the same size SAE wire.
Anyway, as with our Discovery (and Freightliner too) every wire has it’s purpose printed on it every 6″ by a wire printing machine. Each wire is run thru the printer then coiled into racks to wait for the harness assembly. The harness assemblers pull the needed wire and lay them out to proper length using long vertical racks with pegs every few inches. Finally connectors are attached, the harness bundles taped, wrapped with split loom or similar and sent along to the assembly line.
Next on to the assembly lines where the final product starts to take shape. First the precut floors (often all tile) are mounted onto the chassis. The photo to the right shows how the entire floor assembly is moved about using suction cup lifts.
BTW, the “subfloor” used (under the tile assembly) was OSB (Oriented Strand Board) which is often used in house framing as a less expensive alternative to plywood. It’s cheap, but personally this is an area where I would prefer to see some marine (or at least exterior) grade plywood since the bottom of this is probably exposed to the weather. Maybe there is a protective layer of FRP (fiberglass) on the weather side that I did not see?
After that come the exterior walls, roof and front and rear caps. Finally the pre-assembled (inside and out) slides are fitted. I’m sure there are dozens of other operations that we didn’t notice or get to see.
By the end of the line, a dullish gray (gel coat) newborn coach is rolling out the door and heading for the paint shop over in Belmont, MS six miles away. Also, newly painted coaches (all Tiffin’s are “full-paint” nowadays) come back to this area for final touch up and inspection.
At this point we were invited to hang around and board as many coaches as we liked including those that were not yet painted and coaches that were out in the yard about ready to ship. The employees working aboard were very friendly and didn’t seem to mind us pestering them. All were available to ask questions and were extremely polite and informative.
BTW it takes about 15 days to build an average unit start to finish, with 5 of those days spent in the paint shop. Order time for a new unit is at least a month however, and depends on backlog. I think we were told maximum capacity is about 11 units per day coming off the line.
After drooling over several Phaeton and Allegro Bus units we decided to head over to Belmont, MS where the paint shop and floor assembly functions were located. These operations had recently been moved to the facilities Tiffin recently purchased of another defunct motorhome maker there.
The paint shop was enormous with we think at least 12 paint “booths” each 50 or 60 feet long and 15′ or 20′ high. There was that or even more room between each booth to maneuver the rigs and a massive ventilation system to keep the air clean and odors at bay. We gained a strong appreciation here for the vast amount of labor involved with the painting process.
Everything else must be masked off – whew, what a job that must be! Then after the primer and base coats (each coat is baked on at 150F), the design masking begins. They use enormous templates and this must be done over again for each color – most of these coaches have 3 colors besides the base coat! Finally, 4 coats of clearcoat are sprayed on the final paint job (some of the lower end units might only get two coats but I’m not sure if I heard that right). The clearcoat provides the shine, the colored paint itself is flat – I believe these are the same techniques used currently by most auto makers and it makes for a long lasting finished product. Then comes the touch up and repair. The painting process takes at least 5 days.
The floor assembly function is in another large building at the same Belmont, MS plant. Tile floors are laid out and cemented to 1/4″ luan then grouted – very similar to a home installation. The periphery of the assembly is not finished at this point and look “ragged” due to the excess tile points sticking out. Then giant suction cup frames pick up the entire assembly (up to 45′ long) and maneuver it to the CNC water jet cutting machine.
This was the coolest machine. The giant steel slatted “bed” is at least 50′ x 10′ and the CNC X/Y mechanism is bolted to the floor along the edges. The business part of the machine is a 55,000 PSI water jet that cuts thru this 3/8″ floor grade tile like butter. Of course it also cuts thru the grout, cement, luan and even the underlying steel bed!
We watched the cutting of a main floor section for a Phaeton from beginning to end which took a little more than 15 minutes. This exact cut plan is pre-programmed into the computer by engineering for each specific coach being built. Every plumbing, heating or electrical cutout and the exact edge shape were formed by the water jet. Some of these are intricate patterns that could probably not be done any other way – the cuts were smooth as glass.
The operator stopped to talk to us, answered all our questions, showed us how the machine worked and even cut out a small intricate shape to demonstrate the precision of the machine. The photo at right is a 3/8″ thick piece of ceramic tile! By the way, the water jet tips are carbide steel and they do need replacing from time to time.
So in summary, this was a fascinating day for both of us and thoroughly enlightening. The biggest takeaway I think are the vast amounts of human labor involved with building one of these machines. Yes, the CNC floor and foam systems were automated, but that was about it, almost everything else required a human touch.
You can see all the photos we took by clicking here.
You probably noticed that I may seem to be a bit critical of construction techniques and materials choices. That probably comes from our boating experience where everything is ideally (and necessarily) overbuilt and must be extremely weather resistant. Clearly the typical RV “box” is not built anywhere near the same degree of ruggedness as a good boat (although the chassis may be another story) – consider that there are plenty of 50 year old yachts with fiberglass hulls that are just as structurally sound today as they were when new – how many 50 year old coaches do you see on the road?
Do RV’s need to be that well built? Maybe not, but it would be nice if wooden coach floor deck or luggage compartment bottoms didn’t start to rot out after 10 years. Anyway, bear with me as I get more experience with RV construction – after all, this is our first motorcoach factory tour!