New ownership has brought an updated production philosophy and a new motorhome, the Wanderlodge M380, to the nest of this venerable motor coach maker based in Fort Valley, Georgia.
By Lazelle D. Jones
The year was 1963. The Beach Boys were offering a whole new sound in music. In baseball, Sandy Koufax was hot, and so were the Los Angeles Dodgers. And in Fort Valley, Georgia, Blue Bird Corporation, a school bus manufacturer founded in 1927, was building the first-ever Wanderlodge bus.
That first Wanderlodge was based on a 17,000-pound Chevrolet-powered chassis and accrued 235,000 miles before being retired and put on display at the corporate headquarters in Fort Valley. Today Blue Bird Corporation manufactures school buses, commercial buses, and recreation vehicles. The company employs 3,000 people and operates four plants in two countries. Currently, it is building on its success in the diesel-powered motorhome market with the introduction of a new product that will be featured at FMCA’s Perry, Georgia, convention this month.
In 1999 Blue Bird Corporation was purchased by Henlys Group, a company based in the United Kingdom. Since that time, major initiatives have been instituted in Blue Bird’s Wanderlodge division. Henlys Group invested millions of dollars in Blue Bird, both for improvements to the production side and for the design of new models. Efficiency experts, quality assurance and quality control gurus, automotive designers, and plant production managers were brought onboard and placed in key positions to make decisions and implement changes and new systems. Since 1999, their charge has been to create an environment that allows Blue Bird to enhance its presence in the recreation vehicle market.
According to Bryan Hays, Blue Bird’s director of RV sales and marketing, beginning in the spring of 2002, a totally new Wanderlodge motorhome will be offered, one designed to meet the needs and requirements of coach enthusiasts seeking a premier motorhome at the $350,000 retail price point. The company will be debuting the Wanderlodge M380 at FMCA’s “Southern Sensation” convention in Perry, Georgia, March 19, 20, and 21. “This all-new motor coach will position Blue Bird in a new segment of the high-end market. At this price point the competition is keen, and Blue Bird intends to be a solid contender,” Mr. Hays said.
The new Wanderlodge M380 is designed to cultivate the potential market represented by maturing baby boomers. However, the company’s current LX and LXi product lines will remain Wanderlodge’s flagship motor coaches. “The actions Blue Bird has taken during the design and development phase of the M380, and their efforts to work smarter and more efficiently, have enhanced the existing LX and LXi product lines,” Mr. Hays said.
One of the major steps taken has been to move the motorhome manufacturing process under one roof, to enhance quality control and quality assurance. The LX, LXi, and M380 chassis and bodies will be constructed in a facility in Fort Valley that is dedicated specifically to motorhomes. Mr. Hays pointed out that the Blue Bird Wanderlodge is constructed in a manner similar to bus conversions, in that the chassis and shell are completed first; then, the interior is outfitted.
Another action being taken is to implement an automotive standard referred to as ISO 9001, the next generation of ISO 9000. Introduced 20 years ago in the automotive world, ISO 9000 established a formalized quality assurance and quality control program, along with written procedures that are themselves controlled. When a manufacturer passes an ISO program systems audit and receives ISO certification, this signifies that its production processes have met certain quality standards. Blue Bird will apply the ISO 9001 program to all of the company’s product lines after achieving this certification.
Before looking in detail at the all-new M380, it’s worth noting what Blue Bird has done on the production side to improve efficiency and product quality. Using a production line process, as opposed to stall construction, Blue Bird now employs what the automotive world refers to as “lean manufacturing” and “value stream mapping.”
To do this, Blue Bird brought in John Polasky, a plant manager with experience working for Japanese auto manufacturers. In the 12 months since his arrival, Mr. Polasky and the Wanderlodge team have applied these techniques.
What do these terms mean? Mr. Polasky explained, “Lean manufacturing is a company’s systematic approach to eliminating waste. Waste can be in excess inventory, excess motion, defects, rework, or any part of the process that needs improvement. Value-stream mapping is a microscopic study of the production process. It identifies waste, from raw materials to production times.” He added that these strategies have been implemented at Blue Bird “to build the highest quality coach at the best possible price.”
Other people who have a working knowledge of these new manufacturing processes have joined the company as well, including a new purchasing manager, quality assurance manager, and plant manager.
Mr. Polasky noted that visitors to the Blue Bird plant today will see a more streamlined facility and a happier, more efficient workforce. Employees have taken advantage of training programs that focus on reading engineering drawings; measurement and calculation; and computer and math skills.
After considering the changes made in operations and management at Wanderlodge, let’s switch gears and look at the product itself. Barry Hines, director of engineering for Blue Bird, explained that the company took a “clean sheet” approach to designing the new Wanderlodge M380. For example, this coach has independent front suspension, a new feature on Blue Bird products. On the rear, a non-rail-mounted suspension incorporates four air bags.
The chassis was designed with the size, weight, and location of the generator, holding tanks, and other RV components in mind. This new design is very close to being a full monocoque construction. Blue Bird engineers chose aircraft-grade aluminum composite for the exterior of the new M380. They investigated other options, such as fiberglass, but decided that aircraft-grade aluminum offered advantages in terms of safety, durability, appearance, and performance, based on reduced weight.
The aluminum skin consists of two sheets of aluminum with a layer of insulation laminated between them. It is attached to the coach using adhesives developed in the aerospace industry. The end caps of the coach are made of fiberglass, with a welded tubular steel structure behind each cap.
The storage bay floors are fabricated using ribbed stainless-steel sheets with a sound-deadening undercoat applied to the undersurface. The M380 can be refueled from either side.
The living room slideout is a standard feature, and a bedroom slideout is offered as an option. Blue Bird has designed its own slideout mechanism, which uses above-floor linear bearings to eliminate intrusion into the storage bay compartments. An air-operated actuating mechanism extends and retracts the slideout room, while a low-profile air seal protects the slideout from the outside environment. Blue Bird officials indicated that they have conducted extensive testing of the slideout room structure to ensure reliability. The slideout room mechanism has successfully undergone more than 30,000 extend-and-retract test cycles.
At the time I researched this article, the M380 was being tested at the Bosch Automotive Proving Grounds in New Carlisle, Indiana; specifically, this involved 250,000-mile to 500,000-mile tests to validate the chassis and structural integrity. The Bosch facility is an independent vehicle testing laboratory used by the RV, truck, and automobile industries.
The M380 is packed with amenities and luxuries that people expect from a Wanderlodge, but with a lower price tag. “For many people, owning a Wanderlodge is a lifelong dream,” Mr. Hays said. “With the M380 we will make that dream a reality for a whole new generation of RV enthusiasts.” As part of Wanderlodge’s new marketing initiatives, the company will expand its dealer sales and service network across North America.
More than 1,400 motorhome owners are members of the company’s Blue Bird Family of Friends owners club. Each fall Blue Bird hosts the “Rally in the Valley” for the club, wherein attendees share food, entertainment, and camaraderie. The most recent rally was held at the Georgia National Fairgrounds & Agricenter, the site of FMCA’s “Southern Sensation” convention this month. Blue Bird also provides an RV park called the “Bird’s Nest” on company premises for Blue Bird owners.
The Wanderlodge M380 is forecast to be in full production by May and delivered to Blue Bird dealerships in late July.
Tours of the Blue Bird Wanderlodge manufacturing facility in Fort Valley, a few minutes from Perry, are available at 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For more information about tours or about the Wanderlodge product line, phone (478) 822-2400 or visit www.blue-bird.com