Bus and Coach Features & Interviews

Optare’s efficient new UK bus production plant

16 December 2013 #Bus and Coach #Features & Interviews

Vehicle manufacturing comes in all shapes and sizes in the UK. Transport News Brief has already taken a look at the heavy end of transport with the DAF plant, but now we make our way to North Yorkshire.

Here Optare builds buses for the transport of a different payload… paying customers.

 

Housed in a capacious, modern building with more than enough roof clearance to accommodate the new double-decker due for launch early 2014, Optare’s bright bus assembly plant in Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire, is a far cry from the site it replaced.

Dating back to the early 1920s, and once the home of bus and coach body builder Charles H Roe, Optare’s old factory was at Crossgates in Leeds. Over the years it evolved into a higgledy-piggledy set-up that made it difficult to achieve the level of efficiency vehicle production requires nowadays.

Home to Optare since 2011, the new 140,000sq ft Sherburn-in-Elmet plant replaces three old sites explains Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Glenn Saint.  The new production site takes over from Crossgates; the former East Lancashire Coachbuilders factory in Blackburn; and a location in Rotherham too, part of which has been retained for aftersales activities.

“Virtually all of our Leeds employees came with us when we moved – Crossgates is only 11 miles away – and we brought some over from Blackburn as well,” he says.

“The Sherburn plant is turning out approximately 500 buses annually – all single-deckers at present – but has the capacity to produce 1,200,” he continues. Most of them go to UK customers but some are exported with vehicles despatched to Australia, Switzerland and the Netherlands, among other destinations.

Optare has also been busy shipping knock-down kits for local assembly to South Africa.

Just over 300 people work in premises that were originally intended for warehousing and built as a speculative venture. They were empty before Optare decided to acquire them on a 17-year lease.

“We’ve got around 200 [associates] on the factory floor,” Saint says. “The building is also home to our engineering team plus our headquarters staff who deal with administration, finance and so on.”

The factory is on a single-shift for the moment – extra shifts are sometimes required for the paint booths – and the employees are organised in teams.

Some 10% of the assembly workers are on short-term contracts and the plant uses a continuous U-shaped flow-line with dedicated line-side sub-assembly areas.

Rather than using the traditional approach of mounting a body on a separate chassis, Optare constructs its distinctively-styled buses around a welded monocoque. That helps contribute to their lightness without compromising durability.

The framework is constructed off-site by a subcontractor  based a short distance away – WEC Group subsidiary Sherburn Metalwork – then transported to the Optare plant.

“What we focus on is assembly rather than fabrication,” Saint comments. “It’s a leaner approach to manufacturing.”

Through modernising its manufacturing facility and consolidating its sites, Optare is well placed to embark on a new age of manufacturing. The fresh start is in line with the broader UK automotive manufacturing sector where growth and opportunity is filtering in to every level of production and the wider supply chain.

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