GRIFFIN, Ga. — When the world shut down in March 2020, due to COVID-19, the owners of Emerald Transportation Solutions, a privately held, end-to-end manufacturer of refrigerated vans and trucks, thought their work would slow also.
How wrong they were.
Instead, as people all over the world stayed home and ordered groceries and other necessities to be delivered, the need for refrigerated last-mile delivery vehicles skyrocketed. Emerald’s vans and trucks became essential to getting groceries to people who didn’t want to leave their homes.
The company, founded in 2013, swelled to four facilities and two surface lots in Fayetteville, Georgia, but that created challenges and inefficiencies Emerald executives knew they would need to address to keep the momentum and growing market share. They contacted Georgia Oak Partners, an investment firm, about investing in the growing company.
When Georgia Oak realized Emerald didn’t have the expertise needed for the redesign, the firm connected Emerald with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. The Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) group was tapped to work on plant efficiency and optimization, and the Safety, Health, and Environmental Services (SHES) team developed improved employee safeguards.
“We’re unique in a couple of ways,” said Wes Funsch, Emerald’s chief operating officer. “First, our trucks are lighter, so we allow more product in the truck. We run about 65% of the weight of most domestically built insulated products. Two, you call up and order a 17-foot truck that can hold zero degrees, and that’s what we deliver — custom built to your needs and specifications.”
The alternative model to Emerald’s process is more cumbersome. For that same 17-foot truck that holds zero degrees, a buyer must go to an automaker to find a chassis that can handle a 17-foot body. The buyer purchases it and sends it to a body manufacturer to build and install the 17-foot body. After that the buyer must contract with a refrigeration specialist to install a refrigeration system. And if there are any additional or special features required, those have to be project managed as well.
“With Emerald, you make one phone call, we do all of that for you, and we deliver the final truck,” Funsch said.
The company started almost literally in the founder’s basement, then expanded to four buildings in Fayetteville, where assembly took place. It was an inefficient way of operating — moving vehicles to and from different buildings as they were put together. Output stalled at fewer than two trucks — and often only one truck — completed each day. As business took off in 2020, leaders knew something had to change.
The search began for a single facility that would be large enough for a streamlined assembly process under one roof. An old, unused building in Griffin, Georgia, about 20 miles to the southeast, fit the bill.
To ensure production could keep pace with rising demand, Emerald contacted the GaMEP for help in designing the workflow for the new facility. The company’s immediate goal: Complete three trucks per day. The longer-term goal was to build four to five trucks per day.
Sam Darwin, operational excellence project manager for GaMEP, came in to examine the layout and workflow in the four buildings, business operations, and sales growth projections. His job was to design a system in the new facility for optimum efficiency.
He spoke to employees, watched the way they moved back and forth in the old buildings, checked out the new larger building, and got to work. His layout eventually involved not just the facility and equipment; it also came to encompass the whole production system.
“We designed an assembly line, which is not what they were doing before,” Darwin said. “It was all single bay, bring this truck chassis in and start adding stuff to it. Then it would go to another building, and somebody did something else. It was extremely inefficient. The new assembly line — actually, a couple of different assembly lines — is a continuous flow.”
That means trucks are moved from station to station — not building to building — every four hours or so. “And, every day, you have a couple or three trucks coming out,” Darwin said. “It made them much more efficient and faster at building trucks.”
The design was nearly perfect right off the drawing board.
“Sam worked with the Emerald team and was able to develop a layout that we 90% follow today,” Funsch said.
Following the move, David Apple, GaMEP operational excellence project manager, visited Emerald to teach employees a problem-solving course – A3, a method for solving any challenges that might come up in the business. Using problems that Emerald had, he taught employees the step-by-step method for tackling and solving them.
Emerald leaders also realized that a streamlined system to track information that goes along with building vehicles – VIN numbers, orders, payments, and more – was essential as well. A series of spreadsheets had been used for tracking, which meant that in many cases, the same information had to be updated on multiple sheets by multiple people for every vehicle.
Kelley Hundt, GaMEP East Metro Atlanta region manager, worked with Emerald to resolve these data issues by helping to implement an enterprise resource planning system (ERP).
“Going with an ERP system allowed them to have one data repository, with all of the data relating appropriately,” she said. “That reduced efforts to keep track of the information that they need, while at the same time improving the reliability and timeliness of that data.”
Health and Safety
Efficiency wasn’t the only goal of the move. The health and safety of employees in the new facility was paramount. Emerald brought in the SHES team to survey the facility and the company’s health and safety practices and make recommendations.
The SHES team looked at elements of Emerald’s overall safety and health management system, and started off with two essential questions:
- How does the company anticipate and detect hazards?
- How does the company prevent hazards and plan for and control hazards?
Challenges the SHES team identified during the inspections included electrical safety, fall protection, compressed gas cylinder safety, and clearing exit routes — issues that are common in manufacturing facilities.
The health team performed contaminant and noise-level monitoring. These were found to be within guidelines. They also examined Emerald’s hazard communication program, and other health and safety documentation.
“There is an obligation on the part of the company to correct any serious hazards that we find,” said Paul Schlumper, director of the SHES group. “When we go in and work with a company, we’re going to write a report and have a list of things. If anything is classified as serious, they’re required to correct those items. We make sure they know that up front.”
The people at Emerald were prepared to do anything SHES recommended, Funsch said. “There are a lot of things that the SHES group pointed out as deficiencies that we’ve turned around and put into place to make the plant safer for our employees.”
The results of Emerald and SHES working together have been to create a safer workplace for all by:
- Correcting electrical hazards, including open junction boxes
- Adding restraints to keep employees from falling off ladders, trucks, and more
- Adding an emergency action plan
- Making Safety Data Sheets accessible
- Holding monthly safety meetings
- Tracking and documenting training
- Adding an environmental health and safety manager
Thanks to its work with Georgia Tech, Emerald is an efficient, growing, and safe company. Emerald’s 65 employees now build three trucks or vans per day, up from one to one and a half. In 2023, the company projects throughput will average 75% more over 2022. And that’s just the beginning. The work Emerald has completed lays a foundation for greater expansion and a growing future.
“Hands down I would recommend the GaMEP and SHES groups,” Funsch said. “They were more forthright and helpful than anyone else we worked with. They got back with me in a timely fashion. They got back to me with a detailed response. They followed up. They gave the impression that they cared.”
Note: Emerald Transportation Solutions signed a waiver of the confidentiality clause (1908.6(h)(2)) for the OSHA 21(d) Consultation program, allowing this story about the company’s work with the Safety, Health, and Environmental Services (SHES) program at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute to be published.