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Mel Watt: Taking the Freightliner tour

By Steve Huffman
shuffman@salisburypost.com
CLEVELAND ó U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., toured the Freightliner plant here Thursday afternoon and said he liked what he saw.
ěThese are beautiful,î he said as he watched the huge trucks come together. ěYou ought to be very proud.î
The Freightliner workers sure appeared to be and seemed equally proud that Watt, the only congressman that North Carolinaís 12th District has ever known, chose to visit their plant.
Wattís stop in Cleveland was one of about 20 work sites heís visited throughout the 12th District this week. He said heís doing so to get an understanding of the jobs occupying his constituents and a better understanding of the problems theyíre facing.
ěFrom where he came from, heís a real down-to-earth guy,î said Joe Dunlap, a visor buildup man in the Freightliner plant.
Watt had stopped momentarily at Dunlapís work station, with Dunlap demonstrating his job.
Watt dressed for the occasion before venturing into the plant, strapping steel toes over his dress shoes and donning knee pads so he could kneel on the cement floor. He also pulled on gloves and safety glasses.
In the plantís back wall section, Watt assisted the download operator as, using a huge crane, he lowered freshly-painted cabs onto dollies. From there, the cabs began the trip through the plantís various work stations, where theyíre built to customer specifications.
ěHeís been working, heís been down at downloading,î Veronica Hobbs, Freightlinerís Truck Operating System manager, told some of her fellow workers as she led Watt through the plant.
Hobbs told Watt she likes much about her job. She said she majored in education in college, but has worked for Freightliner for 14 years, making her way up through the companyís ranks.
ěI like it because itís hands-on,î Hobbs said.
Chris Smith, Truck Operating System coordinator for the United Auto Workers, said the truck thatís captured the fancy of Freightlinerís customers is the Cascadia, a new design thatís lean and more fuel efficient than previous trucks.
ěItís the wave of the future,î Smith said.
Watt said he was impressed with the vehicle and said he was glad to hear that Freightliner recently called back to work 650 idled employees.
Watt said he was also impressed that Freightliner sought feedback from its employees on methods for improving the workplace.
ěTheyíre looking for employee feedback on how to refine the process,î Watt said. ěThatís something Iím seeing almost everywhere I visit. Everyone is looking for ways to make the process more efficient.î
In the plantís lobby, Watt paused before leaving to speak with Rod Rayl, manager of the plantís Final Cab department.
Rayl reiterated what Smith had said earlier, that the Cascadia is the design of the future and has resulted in a boost in Freightlinerís sales.
Rayl said companies that buy large numbers of trucks are constantly looking for better fuel mileage, especially with the price of diesel pushing $5 a gallon.
ěEven a tenth of a mile (per gallon) improvement is a huge savings for them,î Rayl said.
He said several companies bought a handful of the Cascadias a year ago and were satisfied with the redesigned rigs. That satisfaction, Rayl said, has resulted in additional orders.
ěA happy customer is a repeat customer,î he said.

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