Truck Camper Magazine visits Lance Campers in Lancaster, California and finds cutting-edge computer aided design and computer controlled machines taking Lance into the future.
There’s been a sea change at Lance Campers. Since our last visit in December of 2007, Lance has adopted tools and technologies that are literally revolutionary for the truck camper marketplace. While the specific tools and technologies of this revolution are technically nothing new, the way Lance has embraced and cultivated these tools and technologies into their truck camper design and manufacturing processes most certainly is.
The tools and technologies in question are SolidWorks and CNC machinery, but they aren’t the real story. The real story is the synergy that’s taking place as decades of truck camper design and manufacturing experience connect with the state-of-the-art three-dimensional modeling technology of SolidWorks and the ability of multiple CNC machines to quickly, precisely, and consistently turn those models into physical reality.
It was actually a challenge for us to wrap our minds around what Gary Conley, National Sales Manager, was getting at as he kept showing us layer after layer of improvements in design, efficiency, and quality SolidWorks and CNC machinery is allowing Lance Campers to achieve. He could barely finish telling us about one improvement they’ve made with these tools and technologies before going onto the next. Let’s just say that they’re very excited about these changes at Lance.
For all the new tools and technology, Lance still has two traditional production lines moving truck campers and trailers out the door, station by station. Let’s start with an overlook of their production facility and then take a deep dive into where all this SolidWorks and CNC machinery is taking Lance Campers.
During our visit, Gary invited us to the Lance boardroom to listen in on their weekly Skype conference call with their sales representatives across the country. The sales representatives each gave a short verbal report on how their territory was performing and how many campers had sold from what dealers.
At the far end of the boardroom Lance has a window overlooking the entire production floor. It’s an impressive sight as you look over thousands of square feet of production floor and a couple hundred Lance employees.
Later we had the opportunity to view the production floor action from the employee break room located about twenty feet above the central production floor. We observed the valance team, watched a camper roof lowered into position for installation, and followed campers as they moved out the back door into a bright Lancaster, California day. The place was awash with people, motion, and the sounds of air tools and CNC machines.
Other than the new trailer line and the CNC machines, it’s hard to see how much has changed from this perspective. To see that, we visited Les Fowler, Lance’s Product Development Manager, and met his research and development team.
When we walked into the research and development area at Lance, we met a half dozen or more designers focused on SolidWorks workstations. They were all designing various layers of the upcoming 2011 Lance 865.
It’s incredible to see the level of detail possible in SolidWorks and even more amazing as they rotate the three-dimensional camper models on their computer screens and zoom in and out of the models. They can even add or remove walls, highlight just the plumbing or electrical systems, or show any breakdown you can imagine all in a fluid 3-D environment.
Once a new camper model is completed in SolidWorks and approved by management, the camper is sent straight from SolidWorks to Lance’s CNC machines. From there the new camper goes into Les Fowler’s prototype shop to be assembled.
You can see the 2011 Lance 865 coming together as if it were directly translated from the SolidWorks model (center photo) into real wood, aluminum, and composites (right photo). It’s almost as if Lance is able to beam the camper, “Star Trek style” out of their computers and into the physical world. Beam me a camper Lance!
Of course it’s not anywhere near that simple, but you get the idea. Once the prototype is completed, management has their review, further refinements are made, and a new Lance Camper model is born. Warp 9 Lance Campers! Make it so.
Gary told us about how Lance spent many years researching the move to CNC machinery. It’s an incredibly expensive and disruptive change that no manufacturer takes lightly. When Lance got their first CNC equipment in house and operational about two years ago, the results were so promising that Lance charted a course forward with more CNC machines to give the company even more capabilities.
Now the technology has become completely interwoven with how Lance designs and manufactures truck campers and trailers. It almost seems impossible to imagine Lance without CNC machines. In fact, we joked with Gary that next time we visited Lance they would have CNC robots assembling the campers on the production line. Gary smiled and replied, “You just might”. Careful Gary, Jack might hire robots to sell campers too!
Another unique capability that the CNC machines bring to Lance’s table is the ability to cut at consistent angles. Gary took us over to a bin full of different sections cut by the cabinetry CNC machines and it was full of angle cuts, curved cuts, and other shapes that would be extremely difficult for a human being to cut with any speed and consistency. As Gary showed us these different cuts he couldn’t help but explain how these capabilities were fundamentally improving the design and quality of Lance Campers. Naturally we asked him to show us an example.
Gary pulled a dinette section shaped like a lower case “h” to show us how the CNC machines have changed their cabinetry and dinette construction. He pointed out the curved cuts and had us hold a similarly sized section completed with the traditional stick and staple method. Not only was the CNC routed section lighter, but the quality and solid feel in the hand compared to the stick and staple section was unmistakeable. We later went into a brand new 2011 Lance 992 and saw this exact section in a completed dinette. Gary explained that the design of the new dinette would have been practically impossible without SolidWorks and the CNC machines.
Back in 2007, we watched in awe as Bigfoot CNC routed their closed foam insulation wire traces. At that time, no other truck camper manufacturer was taking manufacturing to that level and we were very impressed. So you can imagine how excited we were when we saw a CNC machine at Lance routing wire paths into insulation like a circuit on a microchip. Once completed, these foam sections could practically be hung on the wall as modern art.
Another advantage of using CNC machines is the reduction of waste. Using SolidWorks, Lance is able to design a pattern for the CNC machine that uses every possible square inch of material. Gary explained that with less waste, Lance can invest in higher quality wood, insulation, and other materials to take the level of quality even higher.
Holding tanks are almost never something we talk about beyond their capacity in a given camper, but Lance had another surprise for us. Again using their highly developed SolidWorks technology, Lance is designing complex holding tank shapes that take advantage of every nook and cranny available.
On the production line, Gary pulled out some black and grey tanks that looked like something out of the game Tetris. Lance is custom designing and molding their holding tanks for each camper. Gary explained that this results in significantly more holding capacity and a better use of space.
The camper production line at Lance still starts with the camper floor and goes through the usual production stations until a new camper rolls out into the yard. The difference now is that the production line is more and more the assembly of finished pieces coming off the CNC machines.
Floors start on the production line upside down and are literally flipped with a specially designed floor flipping tool. Once the floor is flipped over, it’s lowered onto a wheeled cart that will carry the camper down the rest of the production line.
As a camper rolls down the production line, every step in the process is signed for by the line workers. This creates accountability within the production team. At the end of the line, the quality control team then goes through an additional check list. If they find anything that’s not up to Lance’s standards, they can look up who signed off on that particular step, bring the issue to his or her attention, and then fix the issue moving forward.
Out in the yard there were about seventy-five truck campers ready to go to dealers. According to Gary, they were all sold and scheduled for delivery. Also in the yard were hundreds of camper doors, multi-story stacks of foam insulation, and rows of aluminum frame materials. In the second photograph you can see the water draining from where the quality control team is flood checking each and every camper that comes off the production line.
Sea changes in technology, processes, and design happen very rarely in the truck camper industry. The last major sea change truck camper design saw was the introduction of slide-outs by Bob Mehrer at Snowriver in 1995. Now single, double, and even triple slide truck campers are common place. The new becomes old hat.
With its meticulous integration of SolidWorks and CNC machinery, Lance could be quietly bringing about the next major sea change in truck camper design. The question is, will other manufacturers follow? Will SolidWorks and CNC integration be old hat fifteen years from now? Only time will tell.
One thing is for certain, Lance Campers isn’t looking back. It’s SolidWorks all the way and CNC machines into the future.