TRAILER MANUFACTURERS must cut production cycle times or risk losing business in today's competitive market. Customers demand shorter order-to-delivery times than ever before, according to Pennstyle Campers Inc, producer of Car-Mate trailers.

Pennstyle, a Leeper, Pennsylvania-based custom manufacturer of various types of trailers for the under-26,000-lb GVWR market, recently added 18,800 square feet of production space as one of several steps to reduce production cycle times.

"We have cut our order-to-delivery times in half," says Greg Snyder, purchasing agent for Pennstyle. "Our normal procedure is to deliver a trailer within four to five weeks after getting an order. Previously, we had production backlogs of eight to 12 weeks, and our customers wanted trailers faster than that. I'll bet we lost $1 million in sales last year because we didn't have enough trailers in inventory."

In 1996, Pennstyle began producing trailers steadily throughout the year, even in the fall and winter when demand for trailers lagged. By anticipating future demand for its most popular trailers, the company kept busy producing units for inventory. Once the fastest-moving trailers were in stock, the company was in a position to fill orders more quickly. Pennstyle produced a total of 5,455 trailers in 1996.

"Pennstyle used to build to order, but last fall the company made the decision to keep production at peak level," says Fred Ochs, president of Pennstyle. "We check which trailers are the big sellers and then we build ahead.

"We also established nine-hour work days in 1996 to keep from having long production backlogs."

Sales of Car-Mate trailers have increased steadily over the past nine years at an average rate of 20% to 25% per year, Snyder says, and annual sales growth for Pennstyle has been as high as 35%. In the past four years, the company has added 16 workers, bringing the total number of Pennstyle employees to 106.

Car-Mate Models Pennstyle produces customized cargo and utility trailers for most cars, pickups, or light trucks.

Standard Car-Mate cargo trailers range in size from 6' to 53' long by 48" to 102" wide. Interior height ranges from 46" to 96", and GVWR ranges from 1,500 to 9,990 lb. Depending on customer size and weight requirements, the trailers are equipped with one, two, or three axles. Customers have a choice of 12 standard aluminum colors and five frame paint colors.

Some Car-Mate cargo trailers are built longer and heavier. For instance, Pennstyle builds a 42-ft car hauler with an enclosed front upper coupler section to store tires or a generator. The trailer could have up to three axles and a GVWR of 24,000 lb. For the carnival industry, Pennstyle builds bunkhouse trailers from 28 ft to 53 ft long. The 53-ft model accommodates up to 16 people.

Cargo trailers account for approximately 50% of the total trailers produced by Pennstyle. Utility trailers, hydraulic dump trailers, landscape equipment carriers, and other non-enclosed utility trailers account for about 40% of total production. The remaining 10% is represented by Pennstyle's specialty line of carnival trailers.

Customized concessions trailers and bunkhouse trailers make up part of Pennstyle's carnival line. The bunkhouse trailers are designed to provide accommodations for carnival employees. Built with shower rooms, these trailers also can be built to include game-wall bays on one side of the trailer, opposite the sleeping quarters.

"We build all types of trailers made for the under-26,000-lb market, except boat and livestock trailers," Snyder says.

A recently expanded cargo trailer line that Pennstyle is promoting to a great extent is the motor sports line. The company custom-builds trailers to haul sprint cars, motorcycles, go-carts, dirt bikes, and snowmobiles for racing events.

Motor Sports Trailers For example, Pennstyle builds a 7' x 12' cargo trailer for hauling motorcycles. The trailer has wood cabinets to store gear, a checkerboard vinyl floor, and front wheel chocks to anchor motorcycles.

Pennstyle is a sponsor of local sprint car owners and race tracks, as well as nationwide motorcycle and rider events, Snyder says.

"A couple of thousand people participating in one of these races bring their bikes or cars in trailers," he says. "If they see a winner with a Car-Mate trailer, they may want to purchase one for themselves."

Pennstyle sponsors a division of sprint car teams and a local race track where they compete. To promote Car-Mate trailers, Snyder, a motorcycle enthusiast who sometimes rides his motorcycle to work, recently attended a Harley-Davidson rally held in Sturgis, South Dakota. Pennstyle also displays its products at Bike Week and Speed Week each winter in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Besides exposure from sponsoring sanctioned races, the Car-Mate name gets added exposure from ads placed by Pennstyle in motor sports industry publications, Snyder says.

"We're targeting different industries now," he says. "We are shifting from promoting the concessions industry to helping our network of dealers grow."

Network of 100 Dealers Pennstyle relies on a network of 100 dealers in the eastern United States to sell most of the company's products. Pennstyle dealer locations range from Maine to Michigan and as far south as the Carolinas.

Dealer sales represent about 80% of overall company sales, Snyder says. About 10% of sales are factory-direct to concessions industry customers. The remaining 10% are retail sales of truck caps, trailer hitches, truck accessories, and trailers. Walk-in customers purchase these items at a parts and accessories showroom at Pennstyle headquarters.

"Since 1989, we have held an annual open house for our dealers at company headquarters," Snyder says. "We provide lodging and dinner for a few nights, and we give the dealers a walking tour of the plant. This gives dealers the opportunity to learn how our trailers are assembled and increases their product knowledge."

The open house is held in the fall when new products are introduced, Snyder adds. "Since we started the meetings, we've seen more dealer loyalty," he says. "Meeting with dealers first-hand has built tremendous goodwill in our industry."

Facility Expansions To satisfy increased customer demand, Pennstyle recently built a 13,800-sq-ft weld-assembly shop, where trailer frames are assembled. Formerly, frames were assembled in a nearby building that also doubled as the fabrication shop. The older building now is used mainly for fabrication.

"We have invested in new CAD software that effectively will link steps in Pennstyle's design-to-manufacturing process, resulting in much more efficient production," Ochs says. "The new system will allow us to improve our time-management and to lower materials cost."

Another step Pennstyle plans to take to streamline production will be to hire additional material handlers. This will allow metal fabricators, cutters, and welders to concentrate on their specialties. Welders now do their own material handling and cutting before assembling trailer frames.

Third Assembly Line Besides building the new weld-assembly shop, Pennstyle recently expanded another production building. The company widened its trailer production building 25 feet to add a third assembly line. The new line extends the entire length of the 200-ft-long building. The building now measures 100' x 200'.

At one end of the first assembly line, large customized Car-Mate trailers are produced; at the other end, finishing and repair work are completed. Finishing work includes installation of windows, grills, and fryers in concessions trailers, and living quarters for motorsports trailers.

"We go to great lengths to build trailers exactly according to customer specifications," Snyder says. "If the customer wants a kitchen sink in the trailer, we can do it."

The company does all its own installation work, such as the living accommodations in bunkhouse and motorsports trailers.

The other two assembly lines are for production of small and medium cargo trailers.

The basic Car-Mate trailer is built on a steel frame. Side and corner posts are wood, steel, or aluminum, depending on how the trailer will be used. Floors are 3/4" pine plywood. Interiors are lined with 1/4" sanded fir plywood. Cargo trailers have .030" aluminum skins attached to the sideposts with screws. On some trailers, such as car carriers, customers have the option of ordering the plywood interior lining covered with .030" aluminum skin.

"We were among the first manufacturers to install chrome corner posts and aluminum fenders on cargo trailers," Snyder says.

Pre-painted aluminum coils for Car-Mate cargo trailer skins are supplied by Elixir Industries, Leola, Pennsylvania. Elixir also supplies diamond treadplate aluminum, which is custom-installed on the front of most Car-Mate trailers.

Aluminum roofing coils are stored in the center of the trailer production building. Aluminum coils weighing up to 5,000 lb are mounted on a stand designed and built by Pennstyle. The 49"-wide coils are placed on four pairs of trailer wheels on short axles; the coil rolls easily as the aluminum is uncoiled onto a cutting table, where the sheet is measured to proper length and cut.

"We use a one-piece, .032" aluminum roofsheet that is installed over the roof bows," Snyder says. "This is almost twice as thick as .019" seamed galvanized steel commonly used for cargo trailer roofing."

Pennstyle uses approximately 220 tons of aluminum per year, including roofsheet, sidewall sheet, and extrusions, Snyder says.

Before final assembly, trailer frames go through a seven-stage painting process in an EPA-compliant paint and wash building on the 18-acre Pennstyle facility. Pennstyle invested almost $1 million in the building and equipment for the system, which was installed in 1992, Snyder says.

Started in RV Business Pennstyle knows the recreational vehicle industry, because the company started in that business. Jim Pfendler went into the RV business in 1960 when he opened Pennwood Trailer Sales.

In the early 1980s, Pfendler began building trailers almost by accident, he says. He had provided the money to a friend to start a small trailer shop. After the business failed, Pfendler took over. At that time he had nothing to show for his investment except the name, Car-Mate.

"We were just going to build a few trailers, and one thing led to another," says Pfendler, who retired last November but still has an office at Pennstyle and takes an active interest in the business.

Pennstyle was purchased by key company administrators and managers in October 1996. The company is a member of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers.

"Our goals are to continue to expand our business and gain more visibility for Car-Mate trailers," Snyder says. "We have a strong dealer network and a new quality assurance program to help us achieve these goals."