A dramatic boom in sales caused growing pains for Triton Trailers, which saw its manufacturing efficiency plummet as demand for its aluminum and steel trailers jumped.
“We were doing our manufacturing process in several parts of the building, wherever we could shoehorn it in,” Triton Trailers’ Continuous Improvement Manager Tony Schellinger said. “This line was doing it one way, and that line was doing it another.”
Triton Trailer’s sales for the commercial side of its business doubled over the course of a year but its labor efficiency, which historically had been 90 to 100 percent, dipped into the 40 to 50 percent range.
“For years, we had two guys who would make the trailers. They had all the knowledge,” Schellinger said. “Then, we added more people who had never seen the production process before and they didn’t know what the heck they were doing. On top of that, we had one supervisor trying to run the show and doing laps around the plant just trying to keep up. It was terrible.”
Convinced that something had to change, Schellinger began looking into how Six Sigma, a set of techniques and tools for process improvement, might help.
A Six Sigma analysis would end up pinpointing efficiency issues at Triton Trailers.
“Every time we added a production line, our efficiency would go down,” Schellinger said. “The Six Sigma tools really helped us isolate where to focus our energy.”
Triton has about 150 employees at its lone plant, a 165,000-square-foot facility in Hartford in Washington County. A major line of business for Triton is producing trailers used to transport pull-behind power generators used by contractors and highway crews.
“We build the framework and then the generator manufacturers bolt the generators to it,” Schellinger said.
The generator market has experienced a significant jump in business due to the increasing number of natural disasters, which creates the need for backup energy sources in the immediate aftermath of a storm and during the rebuilding process.
“When there’s a big hurricane, the orders can come in the next day,” Schellinger said.
Commercial generator demand also is high in the oil industry as a source of power in remote oil fields.
“When oil prices skyrocket, the fields open up,” Schellinger said. “Generators are brought out to the fields to power the drills and lighting. They are off the grid out there.”
Triton’s other line of business focuses on the production of aluminum trailers primarily designed to tote personal watercraft and snowmobiles. During peak production periods, Triton Trailers ships 100 to 150 jet ski trailers per day.
“In the jet ski market, we have seen double-digit growth of 15 to 20 percent year after year for about five years,” Schellinger said.
At the same time, Triton has seen a decline in demand for trailers used to haul snowmobiles due to lack of snowfall over the past few winters and some consumers getting out of the hobby.
“But as one area of the business has declined, another has picked up,” Schellinger said.
John Reiser and Bob Peisch formed Triton in 1975 in Reiser’s garage as a manufacturer of boatlifts. Rapid growth led to a move to a plant in Allenton a year later. Over the years, the company manufactured storefront canopies, farm gates, wood-burning furnaces, and performed miscellaneous job shop work before shifting its focus to top quality aluminum and steel trailers.
By 1995, Triton had outgrown its facility and moved into the Hartford facility. After Reiser retired, Triton operated under the leadership of his daughter, Rochelle, and son-in-law, Tony Priesgen.
Jacsten Holdings, a Milwaukee-based private investment firm, purchased Triton Trailers in 2013, resulting in a major culture change for the business.
“New ideas are being implemented and there has been a huge amount of growth since Jacsten came in,” Schellinger said.
Trailers have become Triton’s sole line of business. Domestic business accounts for most of the company’s sales.
“We believe we build a better trailer than our competitors,” he said. “We go to the market with a premium product.”
Triton had considered bringing in a consultant to determine how the company could improve the efficiency of its production process.
“Ultimately, we decided we could do it internally, but we struggled with it,” Schellinger said. “I knew I needed more education and that’s where the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training came in.”
Schellinger has worked at Triton since high school, starting as a welder and working his way into other positions, including supervisor and line manager, before overseeing Triton’s continuous improvement efforts.
“I have this sixth sense for not doing stupid stuff, but I had no formal training on Lean or Six Sigma or how to run a project or a meeting or anything like that,” Schellinger said. “I was given the opportunity to do some projects and it was pointed out that I could probably use some formal tools.”
So, Schellinger enrolled in the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership’s Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training and certification session in Fond du Lac.
“The first couple weeks were a little bit overwhelming but then things started marrying up and making a whole lot of sense,” Schellinger said of the WMEP’s public offering, which provides proven methods to minimize waste and reduce costs.
The training includes eight sessions of in-class training by Certified Master Black Belt and Black Belt trainers, who talk through participants’ individual projects and ensure that participants know which tools to use for their current and future projects.
The training exposed Schellinger to the array of tools available through Lean Six Sigma.
“There is so much content,” Schellinger said. “There is no reason you’d want to apply all of those tools to any one project, but it’s very good exposure so that when a project has a certain nuance you can use a specific tool. It really taught me different ways to approach different situations.”
Jennifer Arnold, a WMEP senior consultant, led the Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training.
“Jen’s personal experience really helped drive home the practical application of the tools,” Schellinger said. “Jen was always available, whether it was before class, after class, or between classes.”
Triton considered other Lean Six Sigma providers before deciding on the WMEP’s training program.
“The main reason we decided to go with WMEP is, first and foremost, its value,” Schellinger said. “It cost less to sign up and I feel that WMEP has a stronger hands-on network. Jen has years and years of experience using the tools in the industry. With other providers, you might get a textbook approach. That really made the difference.”
In addition to working with Schellinger during the classroom training, Arnold also visited the Triton Trailers plant to see the changes implemented as a result of the training.
“I was very impressed by the improvements and Tony’s application of the Lean Six Sigma tool set,” Arnold said.
The Lean Six Sigma project initially focused on the generator-hauling side of Triton’s trailer business.
“Six Sigma told us that we needed to get control of our process, which means we can’t rely on tribal knowledge,” Schellinger said. “Now, we have that lean aspect to take the waste out of the process.”
A rail system, which workers have dubbed the Roller Coaster, has been built using custom trolleys and carts to improve the production process and safety. Each production line is named after a popular roller coaster, such as Crazy Train, Lightning Bolt and Raging Bull.
Triton took what it learned from the generator trailer project and then applied it to its watercraft trailer production.
“We put in two assembly lines for our four most popular models. We haven’t worked overtime and we’ve lost somewhere between 10 and 15 factory employees through normal turnover and haven’t replaced them,” Schellinger said. “Efficiency has completely changed the dynamics out there.”
The improved efficiency gained through Lean Six Sigma means that Triton Trailers has been able to boost production to meet increasing demand – it has taken on an additional $5 million in annual sales – without adding a second shift or expanding its plant.
“We were able to increase our capacity,” Schellinger said. “That’s huge. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on that but it’s obviously a huge savings, or cost avoidance, however you want to say it. Within the same facility that was near capacity, we have been able to triple our throughput over the course of two years with no additional facility or labor investment.”
Product quality also has improved.
“People are working closer together, so we are getting more quality in our products because there are more eyes on it,” Schellinger said.
He is confident that other companies – manufacturers and other businesses alike – can benefit from the WMEP’s Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training, much in the same way Triton has experienced highly beneficial efficiency improvements. He also sees a market opportunity for WMEP to work directly with clients on Lean Six Sigma in their plants.
“I would definitely recommend it,” Schellinger said. “There are a lot of good tools and knowledge that can be applied to pretty much any industry.”