Subletting Apparatus Bodywork, Part 1

By Bill Adams

 

When a fire apparatus original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has another manufacturer build a fire apparatus body, it is called subletting, outsourcing, or subcontracting.

 

The product is occasionally, and sometimes derogatorily, called a prefabricated body. Subcontracting bodywork is not new. In the 1970s, Mack Fire Apparatus outsourced bodies to both Hammerly and Howe for its MC, MB, and R models. Conestoga built bodies for LTI. Competitive apparatus manufacturers today will occasionally supply bodies to each other-albeit for varied and sometimes valid reasons. Some custom chassis manufacturers outsource their cabs. Subletting is a contentious topic with proponents and opponents equally vociferous. Many on both sides will not comment and wish the topic would quietly go away. It will not. Recently, several manufacturers who do not build complete apparatus have been advertising and actively promoting prefabricated bodies to both end users and OEMs.

Subcontracting apparatus bodies is not restricted to the United States. It is common in Europe. A recent story in Business Observer, a Florida newspaper, announced that the PolyBilt Body Company, of Ocala, Florida, shipped a copolymer fire apparatus body to Japan where, according to the article, “it will be installed on a Fire/Rescue vehicle chassis to be used in service with the Uruyasu Fire Department.” That continues another trend. Interestingly, importing and exporting fire apparatus bodies between the United States and Europe is an intertwined international phenomenon. Most of the manufacturers are the same. It’s like a parallel universe.

The intent here is to explain the process of subcontracting apparatus bodywork, its history, what’s on the market, how and why it is offered, and the advantages or disadvantages to both purchasers and end users. Because the process is an international phenomenon, Part 1 will examine the history of fire apparatus and body exporting and importing as well as some of the players involved. Part 2 will deal with the specifics in the domestic marketplace.

Importing and Exporting

Although exports of American aerial devices to Europe are virtually nonexistent, Pierce manufacturing supplied this aerial platform to China, one of more than 30 rigs Pierce delivered to that country in the past year, including high-rise pumpers, heavy-duty rescue trucks, heavy-duty industrial pumpers, and ladder and platform aerial trucks
1 Although exports of American aerial devices to Europe are virtually nonexistent, Pierce manufacturing supplied this aerial platform to China, one of more than 30 rigs Pierce delivered to that country in the past year, including high-rise pumpers, heavy-duty rescue trucks, heavy-duty industrial pumpers, and ladder and platform aerial trucks. (Photo courtesy of Pierce Manufacturing.)

International trade in fire apparatus is not new. America’s first “fire engines” were made in England. According to The Fire Engine, An Illustrated History, by Simon Goodenough, the first, a Newsham, was imported in the early 1700s. The Europeans are incessantly looking at the American aerial device market. Apparatus historian Walt McCall states, “Magirus (from Germany) sent an aerial to the United States for demonstration purposes in 1924 that was exhibited at the IAFE convention in Buffalo, New York, that year.” About a dozen Magirus aerials were sold in the United States in the late 1920s. One went to Sidney, Ohio. In the early 1950s, FWD sold several aerials in the United States on FWD chassis with aerials supplied by Geesink, a Dutch manufacturer. Cedarburg, Wisconsin, still has one.

Magirus returned to the United States market in 1956 with several aerials built on Maxim chassis. Also in the 1950s, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, purchased six Magirus 100-foot aerials on B model Mack chassis, and New York City and Chicago each purchased a 144-foot Magirus on a Mack. The imported aerials were all rear mounts, mostly mounted on domestic custom chassis with little compartmentation and no ground ladders. They were not well received. Bronto, a Finnish manufacturer of aerial devices, entered the United States market in the early 2000s, aligning itself with a major manufacturer. It is currently aligned with E-ONE. In 1998, Rosenbauer International acquired the Metz Aerial Group located in Germany. The Kennett Fire Company, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, purchased a Metz around the same time. In 2004, Metz Aerials USA LLC was established, also in Kennett Square. Today, Metz aerials are available through Rosenbauer. An older Rosenbauer brochure describing the story behind introducing the Raptor and T-Rex aerial devices has a very telling statement: “The T-Rex entered the U.S. market after three years of hard work to ‘Americanize’ the Metz B32 to meet and exceed the standards put forth by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).” Successfully Americanizing the product demonstrates how Rosenbauer’s attention to the domestic market has led to its success in introducing European technology.

KME provided this industrial pumper to Saudi Arabia. It is typical of specialized American pumpers being exported. (Photo courtesy of KME
2 KME provided this industrial pumper to Saudi Arabia. It is typical of specialized American pumpers being exported. (Photo courtesy of KME.)

I find no history of Americans actively exporting aerial devices to Europe. European manufacturers do not appear to show interest in penetrating the American pumper market with complete apparatus. Conversely, apparatus historian Harvey Eckart says that American manufacturers began exporting complete pumpers early on. “Ahrens-Fox records record a pumper delivery to Cuba in 1916 and seven to Holland in 1928,” he states.

Today, importing and exporting complete fire apparatus between Europe and the United States is virtually nonexistent. However, many American and European OEMs ship completed apparatus throughout the rest of the world. Exporting completed rigs is a major part of many manufacturers’ strategic marketing. Rosenbauer received one notable order in 2011 for 1,125 complete apparatus for Saudi Arabia-at the time, a number larger than the total yearly production of America’s largest apparatus manufacturer.

Prefabricated Body Manufacturers

 These before-
after-paint photos are of a PolyBilt-Japan unit for Uruyasu, Japan, which features a uniquely designed three-part modular body. PolyBilt-Japan manufactures both unibody and modular bodies in that country
3, 4 These before- and after-paint photos are of a PolyBilt-Japan unit for Uruyasu, Japan, which features a uniquely designed three-part modular body. PolyBilt-Japan manufactures both unibody and modular bodies in that country. (Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of PolyBilt-Japan.)

Subcontracting standalone apparatus bodies appears to have started in Europe with the Dutch. Plastisol Composites BV is headquartered in The Netherlands. According to its Web site, Rob Walraven, current owner and CEO, took over the company in 1985 from his father. His vision was to specialize further into firefighting vehicles and continue developing complete bodies, chassis cab, and crew cab extensions. Established in 1973, Plastisol started with water and foam tanks. Today it exports more than 90 percent of its products all over the world. Its market share in its home market is more than 50 percent.

United Plastic Fabricators (UPF), in Massachusetts, started in 1986 specifically to manufacture polypropylene booster tanks for fire apparatus. Andrew Lingel, vice president of operations, says, “UPF’s first service body was designed and built in 1993, the first tanker body built in 1994, followed by rescue and pumper bodies in 1995.” He continues, “Currently there are many OEMs that export apparatus that include UPF components such as tanks and bodies. UPF has exported bodies directly to international OEMs over the years, and we will continue to offer the international market a completive body option.”

This United Plastics Fabricating (UPF) PolyBody for Bogata, Columbia, was specified with a separate water tank-not commonly found in polypropylene body construction
5 This United Plastics Fabricating (UPF) PolyBody for Bogata, Columbia, was specified with a separate water tank-not commonly found in polypropylene body construction. (Photo courtesy of UPF.)

PolyBilt is joint venture between ProPoly, in Miami, Florida, and W.S. Darley & Company, in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Tim Dean, president of ProPoly, which started building thermoplastic booster tanks in 1991, says, “The PolyBilt story began as a vision by Peter Darley to have an alternative material for fire apparatus bodies. We began research and development in 1998 and finished the first body soon thereafter. In 2002, ProPoly and W.S. Darley formally organized PolyBilt Body Company, LLC, as partners.”

Manufacturing Pride

Many domestic and foreign apparatus manufacturers, especially those that fabricate metallic bodies, discount the practice of outsourcing bodywork. Regardless of size or country of origin, most are justifiably proud of their body-building proficiency and workmanship. Manufacturers on both sides of the pond promote their expertise as custom body builders. Those who build the entire apparatus, including the cab and chassis, stress the importance of sole-source suppliers.

As an example, in the United States, Dave Kelly, a product manager with KME, says, “As a general rule of thumb, customers are best served by purchasing their chassis and bodies from a true sole-source supplier as the apparatus body builder has developed its body architecture over years of experience to fully integrate with the rest of its truck. However, outsourced bodies may be good choices for departments that need some special feature, such as a different material, that the typical apparatus builder may not specialize in. It’s important to keep in mind that the body architecture affects a lot more than just the body itself-areas like body mounts, harness routing, door construction, plumbing connections, light mounting, hosebed layout, and shelving installation. As these things change, the apparatus builder must account for them in its design, and this may affect price and serviceability.”

 These are before-
after-paint photos of an apparatus body fabricated in Japan by PolyBilt-Japan. Its partner, Nikki Industries, fabricated the atypical aluminum midship pump module
6, 7 These are before- and after-paint photos of an apparatus body fabricated in Japan by PolyBilt-Japan. Its partner, Nikki Industries, fabricated the atypical aluminum midship pump module. (Photos 6 and 7 courtesy of PolyBilt-Japan.)

There is a perception in the United States that only smaller OEMs will use outsourced bodies. The same view is prevalent in Europe. SIDES is a French apparatus manufacturer with a capacity for 600 rigs per year. Hawkesfire represents SIDES in the United Kingdom (UK). Its managing director, Andrew Hawkes, says, “All body and coachwork by SIDES is carried out in house, including tank manufacturing. It tends to be the smaller European manufacturers that would use external contractors to produce the bodywork.” The UK encompasses England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Rosenbauer International AG is headquartered in Austria, with manufacturing facilities throughout the world. Senior Vice President Herbert Poellinger, the head of Rosenbauer Asia, Pacific, weighs in on sole-source supplying in the global marketplace. “On the international market, we see a concentration of larger manufacturers, which will keep building their own bodies,” he says. “Smaller companies are vanishing, as buying an outsourced product is usually more expensive than building it yourself as long as the volume is up. Rosenbauer never participated in that, as our strategy was and is to keep manufacturing all core elements of our products to remain competitive not only in price but especially in aftersales internationally. Our customers value the fact that if they buy a Rosenbauer, nearly everything is made and backed up by Rosenbauer.”

He continues, “A customer, let’s say in Vietnam, may not find an agent for an outsourced pump module or an outsourced body physically in the country that will do the warranty for a truck delivered by a manufacturer that outsources. Therefore, the customer may run into after-sales problems as manufacturers will load the warranty and after-sales responsibility to their outsourcing partners, which usually don’t perform overseas, and you’ll have one seriously unhappy customer. Therefore, such outsourcing strategy might, if at all, work in a country where there is enough structure and support for the outsourced component, like potentially the United States but not generally in the international market.”

Partners, Partnerships, and Alliances

When offshore entities enter domestic markets, they usually align themselves with domestic OEMs. Domestic OEMs know the marketplace. An alignment can be a verbal agreement, a formal partnership, a newly formed corporation, a joint venture, a financial buyout, or an informal handshake between manufacturers. It is immaterial what it is called. However, purchasers should ensure they follow governmental procurement laws and regulations when dealing with an offshore entity. A challenge is to define what legally constitutes an offshore entity. Buyers, beware: Some specification writers and apparatus vendors may disparagingly use the inference of a foreign entity to discourage competitive bidding. Read between the lines. Don’t be a hypocrite. Check where your telephones, computers, cars, and clothing come from. You could look foolish prohibiting something foreign-made in one part of your specifications and specifying foreign made items in another.

Photo 8 shows a partially loaded 40-foot container of multiple bolted stainless steel bodies that were shipped to South Africa.
8 shows a partially loaded 40-foot container of multiple bolted stainless steel bodies that were shipped to South Africa.(Photos 8 courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

Not all international alliances had smooth startups. In the early 2000s, Gimaex, a large international fire apparatus manufacturer headquartered in France, entered the United States fire apparatus market, forming a new corporation-Gimaex of America, LLC, with corporate offices in Florida. It was introducing European technology, including an aerial device and a style of bodywork, new to the American fire service. It appears it tried to partner with apparatus dealers rather than OEMs, and the venture never materialized.

Although it is not a supplier of stand-alone bodies, Gimaex has reentered the domestic marketplace in a formal joint venture with Spartan ERV. According to Spartan ERV’s Web site, Gimaex and Spartan ERV will “combine their complementary skills, resources, and capabilities on agreed projects to develop, manufacture, and distribute innovative products to fire service markets in North America, South America, Asia, and Europe.” Besides a European aerial device, one of the products being introduced is an aluminum profile system of body construction.

Photo 9 shows the bodies being
9 shows the bodies being “bolted up” in the Johannsesburg Fire Department repair facility. (Photos 9 courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

Similarly, PolyBilt partnered with a UK manufacturer when first entering the UK market, and it also didn’t work. Dean says, “One cannot stress the importance of knowing your partners well.” PolyBilt-Europe is now a joint venture between PolyBilt Body Company and the John Dennis Corporation (JDC), a UK apparatus manufacturer. Dean says, “JDC builds about 50 percent of the UK fire market needs with PolyBilt bodies.” Recently, PolyBilt Body Company formed PolyBilt-Japan with Nikki Industries, an established Japanese company. PolyBilt currently fabricates bodies in Florida, Wisconsin, the UK, and Japan.

Around 2006, Plastisol BV formed Plastisol Composites North America (PCNA) and built a factory in Groton, New York. It initially intended to be a supplier of glass-reinforced plastic (GRP) fiberglass bodies to the North American fire service. It also did not work as originally envisioned. Keith Purdy, managing director of PCNA, says, “Plastisol has revisited the North American model, and a revised business strategy for the Americas (North and South) is being implemented, as there is a clear market for the GRP products in America.”

Shipping Air

Regarding exporting bodies alone, Alan Saulsbury, president of Fire Apparatus Consultants, of Homer, New York, states, “Shipping costs really prevent any economic reason for this item. OEMs are shipping too much ‘air.’ The same is true for water tanks.” That statement has merit when you ship a completed body.

This turnkey body is ready for shipment to Taiwan
10 This turnkey body is ready for shipment to Taiwan. (Photo courtesy of CustomFIRE.)

One American manufacturer has a solution to the “air” problem. CustomFIRE of Osceola, Wisconsin, features an “all bolted” method of construction. Besides enabling future revisions and ease of reparability, a hidden advantage is shipability.

Wayde Kirvida, factory sales for CustomFIRE, states on the company’s Web site that the former fire chief of Johannesburg, South Africa, was visiting a supplier when he stopped at CustomFIRE to see how a local fire truck manufacturing company operated. He liked the way CustomFIRE did things and asked the company to develop fire truck bodies it could ship to South Africa, where a manufacturer would assemble them. By individually packing the parts, CustomFIRE sent nine body kits to South Africa in two 40-foot containers. Assembling the bodies in the United States and shipping them would have taken four or five containers.

Jim Kirvida, president of CustomFIRE, says, “We have shipped body kits to both fire department shops and local manufacturers domestically and internationally in South Africa and Asia. A ‘pilot body’ can be built, taken apart, and the disassembled parts shipped. We’ve shipped mini pumper bodies and full size 12-gauge stainless steel pumper bodies including midship pump modules.”

A Global Market

Poellinger says, “If a truck manufacturer does not have the ability to manufacture bodies cost-effectively, then it will not remain in the international marketplace very long. We have seen this especially in the UK. First they stopped building the bodies and tried to outsource, now most of them are not in the marketplace any longer. We just started Rosenbauer UK to enter the UK market with our own products. Outsourcing bodies has been done and is still happening in Europe. But with the competitiveness of the market, it is not really a viable business any longer. Outsourcing only supports small companies, which don’t have the knowhow or the facilities to do it on their own. The outsourcing trend comes and goes, at least in Europe, every couple of years.”

This photo shows a rear ¾ view of a body just leaving the paint shop after fabrication in the UK
11 This photo shows a rear ¾ view of a body just leaving the paint shop after fabrication in the UK. It is destined for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and sports typical body styling for UK pumping appliances. (Photo courtesy of PolyBilt-Europe.)

Lingel adds, “Despite challenges at times with exchange rates and shipping costs, we see great opportunity to continue to expand the international sales of the PolyBody® and the Integrator™ bodies.”

Purdy states, “Moving forward, Plastisol will strive to provide American consumers with a superior product and contemporary design to meet the changing needs of the fire service.” Walraven adds, “Plastisol continues to make a significant investment in this American specific company (PCNA). We are fully committed to providing what is simply the best product available today on the market.”

Dean concludes, “We remain excited to see the growth in international markets and keen interest in the PolyBilt concept. We are seeing strong growth in Asia, South America, and different parts of Europe.”

An online article titled “What future for UK Bodybuilding?” posted by Greenfleet, an environmental group based in England, says, “The UK bodybuilding business faces its biggest challenge in the last 50 years.” Why should the American fire service care what happens overseas? As mentioned, outsourcing fire apparatus bodies in the United States and the UK has occurred at the same time, sometimes with the same players, and sometimes with similar results. Don’t forget where America’s first fire truck came from. And, remember that fire hose, rear-mounted aerial ladders, four-door enclosed cabs, large-diameter hose, and sexless couplings also originated overseas. Regardless of whether or not traditionalists and domestic manufacturers want, like, or accept it, the American fire service is part of the global market.

BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.

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