A helpful hand: A robotic arm lifts a heavy metal piece to bring over to a hydraulic press brake machine used to make an upper coupler part on Friday at Great Dane in Terre Haute. Staff photo by Howard Greninger
A helpful hand: A robotic arm lifts a heavy metal piece to bring over to a hydraulic press brake machine used to make an upper coupler part on Friday at Great Dane in Terre Haute. Staff photo by Howard Greninger
As automated machinery worked in the background, Great Dane officials Friday held a dedication for the start of the company’s more than $50 million investment for a new central fabrication facility at its Terre Haute plant.

“We are really excited about this step in Great Dane’s history,” said William Crown, president and chief executive officer of CC Industries, the Chicago-based holding company for the Crown family’s privately held companies, including Great Dane Trailers, GILLIG, J.L. Clark, Miracapo Pizza Company, Provisur Technologies, Riverside Rail, Selig, Southern Devall Group, and Trail King Industries.

CC Industries also owns CIE, a commercial-scale distillery headquartered in Marion, Indiana.

“We have enjoyed a long history in Indiana, beginning with our Brazil plant in 1974. We opened an assembly plant in Terre Haute in 1996 and we have a branch company store in Indianapolis,” Crown said. “All together, that makes Indiana home to more than 1,500 employees and associates and is the state that boasts the most Great Dane personnel of any state.

“We will move fabrication of key components into this facility where we can do it more efficiently and support all of our plants (and) also, to support our customers as they move goods and products that homes and businesses need across the country and keep our economy” strong, Crown said. Great Dane’s Terre Haute plant, at 4994 N. 13th St., employs more than 500 employees, and the company will add 125 highly- skilled employees who will have an average salary of $25 a hour, with annual salaries of $50,000 to $75,000, depending on experience, said Matthew Johnson, Terre Haute plant manager.

Great Dane fabricates parts at nine manufacturing plants located in Jonesboro, Arkansas; Statesboro, Georgia; Kewanee, Illinois; Brazil, Indiana; Terre Haute, Indiana; Wayne, Nebraska; Danville, Pennsylvania; Elysburg, Pennsylvania; Huntsville, Tennessee; and Rice Lake, Wisconsin. Rick Mullininx, executive vice president engineering, said the central fabrication facility “is bringing all the welding operations [of its nine manufacturing sites] into this one location.”

The fully automated facility, with lasers and welders, will give Great Dane a greater production volume.

“For us, bringing all this into one location allowed us to make the investment. We will be ramping up in the second quarter and that will continue into early next year. Then we will start a future phase to bring more welding in here,” Mullinix said.

“The vision for this started about five years ago but it took us time to master the technology, find the right partners, form a strong team and from there we are able to launch that vision,” Mullininx said.

The facility will begin by making an upper coupler, which connects to the semitruck, and then rear frames. Each coupler will be installed on Great Dane trailers across the country.

The first automated systems will encompass about 170,000 square feet, with other phases added by the end of 2024 “and in the end we will have about 420,000 square feet,” Johnson said.

The move to increase production comes amid an increased demand for trailers accelerated by the e-commerce boon. Terre Haute’s automated site “will be a critical facility in the entire network of Great Dane,” said Brian Sage, executive vice president of manufacturing for Great Dane.

U.S. Sen. Todd Young, attending the dedication, said, “Great Dane makes those products that help move America. I would like to thank Great Dane for making those products in Indiana. The state of Indiana is known for a lot of things. We are known for our sugar cream pie, auto racing, high school basketball, but increasingly people are coming to understand it is advanced manufacturing.

“We are the most manufacturing intensive state in the country,” Young said.

Young referred to The DRIVE Safe Act, part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law in November, that allows for drivers age 18 to 21 to drive semitrucks across state line for interstate commerce. Previously drivers in that age bracket were limited to in-state driving, Young said. The measure allows tens of thousands of people to be eligible to be interstate truck drivers to ease the country’s truck driver shortage and supply chain crunch.

In a walk-through of the facility, Nick Seaton, a buyer for Great Dante, said the Terre Haute plant will have two 10-hour shifts, four days a week, with overtime possibilities. The plant will be able to make more than 40,000 upper couplers per year, which equates to one upper coupler produced every 4 1/2 minutes.

“With the supply chain shortage, this is a crucial advantage for us to be able to produce this and move these out to our plants,” Seaton said. “It is the first automated system at Great Dane.”

The plant now has two laser automated cutter systems installed, each with a tower that can hold about 60,000 pounds of steel material that enables the laser to work for about four hours, said Andrew Thraen, controls engineer for Great Dane. Both towers will produce about 300 sheets of steel per day, each with precision- drilled holes, he said.

Talbott Fisher, robotics/ welder engineer, pointed to a mechanical arm that can lift 150 pounds, which used to be a two-person operation, onto a 230-ton hydraulic press brake machine and onto a 750-ton hydraulic press brake machine used to make the coupler assembly.

“There are 24 different parts that run through these press brake systems,” Fisher said.

Great Dane’s Terre Haute facility previously housed companies including Allis-Chalmers and J.I. Case, and the plant was also home to an operation that built airplane parts during World War II, according to a company statement.
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