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Operational Excellence

CIE Applies Innovation and Technology to the Intermodal Chassis Industry

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CIE in 2019 decided to begin manufacturing its chassis in North America .

When manufacturers cut costs, they might be tempted to sacrifice quality in their products. But CIE Manufacturing values quality in its chassis over cost, CEO Frank Sonzala insists.

For example, when LED lights became popular in the trucking industry, “The first thing we did was change the chassis by putting in all the newest technology,” he recalls. “We decided early on that we would not risk the safety of our customers and the public at large by choosing the cheapest alternative.”

Headquartered in South Gate, Calif., CIE manufactures intermodal chassis container trailers. Previously, the company operated as CIMC Intermodal Equipment, which is part of the CIMC Vehicles Group, based in Shenzhen, China. However, “We’ve always been an American company,” Sonzala asserts.

Before last fall, CIE served as distributor and assembler for its chassis products. However, in September, the company decided to begin manufacturing the chassis in North America with globally based products, including recycled U.S. steel. U.S. Steel is actually a worldwide product because the United States sends most of its recycled scrap out of the country.

The company also redesigned its ISO 9001:2015 certified factories in South Gate, Calif., and Emporia, Va., to have direct assembly lines for manufacturing, and to become more efficient in their assembly and inspection processes. This was accomplished by adding machinery and equipment, Sonzala says.

Today, CIE has a dealer network across the United States, Mexico and Canada. “We are the No. 1 chassis manufacturer in North America, with a 72 percent market share,” Sonzala reports, “a figure that is substantiated by VIN registrations reported by IHS Markit.”

But the company also is poised to make a name for itself with new products. Recently, CIE introduced its new Revere intermodal chassis at the ATA’s Technology & Maintenance Council annual meeting. “We actually took orders away from the show because of the chassis’ 10-year warranty,” he reports. The Revere Chassis line carries a 10-year warranty on all non-wear parts and boasts top componentry such as Accuride 10-year wheel ends, AXN seamless heavy-duty axle, TSE FT-REX sealed brake chambers and slack adjusters, and the Hutch 9700 Suspension Series.

CIE also is at work at adding advanced technologies and reducing its factory emissions to stay in harmony with its mission of minimizing their manufacturing footprint. With the help of a purifying system, “You can take emissions such as welding fumes and put them back into the atmosphere, cleaner than they were before,” Sonzala says.

CIE also treats water used during its manufacturing process and deposits it into its own ponds, inhabited by koi fish. “It’s nice for the customer to come through and say, ‘Look at all the koi fish in there, this must be a healthy environment,’” he says.

Check and Check Again

CIE also has reworked its quality and warranty programs. Director of Quality Control and Warranties Zhuangfan “Z” Li recently implemented new systems similar to the ones used by Freightliner and Navistar.

Previously, “Our warranty program was not as good as it should have been,” Sonzala admits, adding that CIE has shortened its response time for warranty claims to 24 hours. The firm also has improved its quality initiatives, which were already at an ISO 9001:2015 certified level.

“When our product goes down the line, there’s a quality check at all five stations,” he describes. “When it gets down to the last station, there’s 125-point check before it goes out the door.”

Unique Communication

Communication is another area where Sonzala says CIE distinguishes itself. Currently, “We’re the only chassis manufacturer who has a podcast once a month,” he reports. “It’s about our people, their capabilities and their desire to be No. 1 in the industry.”

The show — which Sonzala describes as a cross between “CBS Sunday Morning” and “The Tonight Show” — features guests who have ranged from vendors to state and national political representatives, the current Chairman of the American Trucking Association Randy Guillot, and of course, the occasional celebrity. “Country music star Karen Waldrup has been on our podcast,” Sonzala says.

CIE credits itself with utilizing out-of-the-box ideas and concepts to better educate the public about the intermodal industry, an industry that affects the daily lives of all Americans. One of these is the CIE Dispatch, a monthly newsletter that has approximately 17,000 subscribers. “We tell them what’s going on,” Sonzala says, noting that the Dispatch has had theme issues as well.

In February, the newsletter was all about “love,” just in time for Valentine’s Day. “It’s a little odd but it makes it more interesting than cramming people with [company] info,” he says.

On the Lookout

Sonzala sees a strong future ahead for CIE as it continues to grow. Someday, “Our plants will be able to produce at least 60,000 chassis a year,” he predicts, adding that the company wants to acquire other firms that make specialty chassis.

This would bring CIE into a market that requires lower production levels, and Sonzala is on the lookout for a modestly sized operation. “I need a force to put out a smaller amount of volumes, and smaller amount of volumes means a better return on investment, too,” he concludes. “If current companies are not as technically advanced as CIE, we may just develop a mini-CIE to handle these markets. The future is bright at CIE and anything is possible.”

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