Navistar Opens the First US Truck Assembly Plant in Nearly 3 Decades

April 1, 2022
The San Antonio plant arrived on time and within its $250 million budget.

For 29 years, the Kenworth Renton Assembly Plant in Washington state, owned by Paccar, was the newest truck plant in the United States. That changed on March 25, 2022, when truckmaker Navistar held a ribbon cutting for its San Antonio Manufacturing Plant on the city’s South Side.

The 1-million-square-foot Navistar plant, designed to manufacture both conventional and electric medium-duty trucks on the same line, sits on 460 acres—enough land to build a second, duplicate plant if it’s needed someday. For now, cattle graze behind fencing on an unbuilt portion of the site.

“I believe this plant is going to lay the foundation for Navistar for many years to come,” Mark Hernandez, Navistar executive vice president of manufacturing, told assembled local dignitaries and media at the day’s grand opening event. On a planned break to celebrate, a lively mass of plant workers in red, white and blue T-shirts designed especially for the occasion took selfies. A photographer shooting from a ladder had them all squish together so they could fit in a class picture backgrounded by white truck cabs.

Hernandez, a veteran manufacturing leader of several truckmakers, first pitched the idea for a super-efficient, cost-saving smart factory to Navistar 3 ½ to 4 years ago. “The technology in this plant reminds of me of the past when we had to build trucks from paper,” he said. “Everything wasn’t automated and all the parts were out on the assembly line. I look at this facility and say ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’”

Electronic vision systems throughout the plant—including one in chassis, and one in the body shop—alert operators to problems and will not allow the build to move down the line until the defect is resolved. Multi-use Fanuc robots in the body shop feature multiple weld configurations and robot-learning software. Some 600,000 parts are digitally tracked and routed on AGVs from the on-site material storage and retrieval system to specific stations where they are needed. New forklifts will be hydrogen-powered and the long plan is to generate that power on plant grounds. Overall, Navistar’s goal is to cut energy usage by 20% by 2030; all LED lighting in the plant and translucent wall panels that let in light also help toward sustainability goals.

Room for Training, and Suppliers

On a 150-acre site 10 miles away, Navistar’s Advanced Technology Center, a key research and development site for Navistar, will host product development, testing and validation. The center has truck bays for a training component: as part of an onboarding partnership with Alamo College, new employees will spend two weeks here learning assembly and lean principles. (The current crop of new employees tore down four trucks from Navistar’s Escedebo, Mexico, plant as part of their training.)

The San Antonio location is strategic in several ways, one of which is easier access to suppliers. Many of Navistar’s suppliers are located in Mexico and Texas. Like three of Navistar’s four other plants (the fourth is in Springboro, Ohio), the San Antonio plant is located on the 1-35 corridor. A Supplier Park on 1-35 to co-locate strategic suppliers is in the works; so far, seven suppliers have expressed interest in co-locating, says Navistar business manager Eric Stevenson.

Getting Things Rolling

The first vehicle off the line was an all-electric International medium-duty truck, more for show than anything as most of the 52 vehicles per day (8 ½ minutes per truck) when the plant finishes its slow ramp-up will be diesel initially. Still, Navistar already has several hundred orders for electric trucks on the books, says Goren Nyberg, Navistar executive vice president of commercial operations. Plans call for the plant to manufacture 50% EVs by 2030. School buses and medium-duty trucks, “are our way into electromobility,” Nyberg says of Navistar. Electric chassis are slated to be built on site within a year, in a 30,000 square foot addition that is currently in the bidding process. In most trucking facilities, the chassis is electrified in a separate facility, says Stephen Mudd, the area director for general assembly.

The fact that the plant was in operation on opening day created a difficult dance between truckmaking and rubbernecking. A local media photographer got too close to the action, setting off alarms and temporarily shutting down a line. The booming-voiced Mudd led a media plant tour, rousing stragglers with his staccato “keep up.” Today is his birthday, he mentioned, joking that at first he thought the festivities were for him.

A native Kentuckian who came up as a technician in Ford’s Louisville plant, Mudd was laid off during the Great Recession, then spent ten years at Paccar, working his way up to plant manager. He came to Navistar in 2021. “Everything I’ve ever learned over 22 years in manufacturing has come to this point right now,” he said, adding that he was excited about the opportunity to build culture from the ground up. “It’s a lot easier to build culture than to change culture.”

“The manufacturing part, that’s the easy part,” added Mudd, who worked his way through college while at Ford. “Teaching people how to build trucks, that’s what opens up a lot of doors. I’ve worked my way up in manufacturing. It’s opened so many doors for myself and my family.” He wants that for others, he said. Starting wage at the San Antonio plant is $18 an hour. College tuition reimbursement is part of the  benefits package.

Over in the body and paint shop, robot arms zip back and forth and suited-up workers paint truck doors. Rick Nesbitt, the body-in-white/paint shop manager, said the plant is Navistar’s first to have non-destructive weld testing, allowing performance checks without damaging parts. The body shop is fully staffed at 12 employees—three to four times less than more conventional body shops, he said. The paint shop uses a “piggable” spray system (that’s the lingo for the specialized spray nozzle) that spreads paint in a W pattern, using only a pint of paint per truck versus 2 to 3 gallons in a conventional paint shop. The entire paint cycle is 6 hours, 75 minutes from start to finish.

The plant’s 400-person first-shift-only workforce is expected to max out at 650 in the coming months; a second shift could be added as electric vehicles ramp up but so far there are no firm plans. Mudd says the day shift hours are a big draw for the workforce, 38% of whom live in the low-income Opportunity Zone where the plant is located. In addition, “quite a lot of employees come from Toyota,” a nearby plant which is on less-desirable rotating shifts, says Mudd.

The price tag for the plant: $250 million, and it was built on time in a 2 ½-year span that included the pandemic. The team “set up this plant in record time, with record quality,” noted Navistar CEO Mathias Carlbaum in his remarks. Carlbaum also predicted that “in the coming 10 years, more will happen in the transportation sector than has happened in the last 100.” Traton, Navistar’s parent company, is betting on that. The European commercial vehicle maker, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, acquired Navistar last year, taking it private. 

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