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February 27 2019
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Skopje plant delivers for Van Hool's EX range

Pressure from North America for cost-effective coaches led Van Hool to open a facility in Macedonia in 2013. It also assembles the EX range, available in the UK and Ireland in both two- and three-axle form

Van Hool’s plant in Macedonia manufactures the EX range of coaches

Van Hool’s coaches have long held a reputation as customisable, top-of-the-range tourers. The Belgian manufacturer can still deliver on that requirement, but the business extended its focus somewhat with the unveiling of the more standardised EX range in 2014.

The EX is assembled in Macedonia. It is currently available at three lengths: 12.5m, 13.3m and 14.2m, with a mid-sized variant to follow.

Van Hool opened the Skopje plant on the back of the North American market demanding a more cost-effective coach, a move that preceded much the same happening in Europe as competition from China and Turkey grew.

More recently, production of the Belgian-built TX range on two axles ended. Now, the only option for such a Van Hool is an EX, although it is also offered on three axles. That change of strategy was made for a reason, says CEO Filip Van Hool.

“The two-axle coach market is price-sensitive. We realised that for many buyers in that sector, a TX had become too expensive. But for customers who require a customised two-axle coach, we can add many things to an EX in Belgium prior to delivery.”

Regardless of whether they require further fit-out at Koningshooikt, all EXs - and CXs for the North American market - are driven to Belgium after completion at Skopje. Doing that serves two purposes: One, it gives a thorough shakedown, and two, a comprehensive pre-delivery inspection after arrival confirms that they are up to standard.

But that is not to say that the Skopje plant requires assistance from its Belgian mothership. The opposite is the case. routeone was able to take an exclusive look at the Macedonian facility.

On a grand scale

The factory stands on a 17-hectare plot in a special economic zone around 15km from Skopje city centre. It employs 1,350 people and there is a great deal of room for expansion. Other businesses that supply Van Hool are located nearby.

In 2018, 750 coaches rolled out of the plant. That compares with 600 vehicles at Koningshooikt, although the manufacturer points out that of the latter, many are customised or examples of its ExquiCity bus rapid transit product. They thus require significantly more hours to produce.

Coaches are built on an assembly line basis; 750 was 2018’s total number

The goal at Skopje is to streamline production as much as possible while retaining the quality standards that Van Hool has long been known for.

The assembly process there is handled in steps. Coaches move in a U-shape from framing to internal fit-out and final checks; that contrasts with the practice in Belgium, although Filip notes that with the latter’s focus now on small-series vehicles, each application works best for it respective products.

At the latter stage, where the interior is added, allocation of each coach to a named team leader who is responsible for the finish has worked well in terms of assuring quality.

Covered all bases

Macedonia was not the first option explored for Van Hool’s lower-cost assembly facility. It initially looked to Poland and it also considered Serbia and Turkey. But persistence from the Macedonian government won the day.

That choice has paid off, and the plant is busy. Last week a batch of 30 EX15 and EX16s for Arriva Bus and Coach (ABC) were prominent, 10 of which are for one customer. Coaches for the Irish market could also be seen, along with left-hand drive EXs, and CXs for North America.

The plant works on a just-in-time basis, and components are delivered regularly from suppliers, and also from Belgium. Items such as engines and gearboxes are held on the shelf, and framing and seats come from suppliers nearby. Several consignments are received each day.

Body frames and chassis are made of stainless steel, although certain items around the axle mounting points and as part of the steering are made from standard steel. As a result, the whole coach is treated during the early stages of assembly to prevent corrosion.

Extensive painting facilities are available. All work is undertaken by hand with spray guns, but Van Hool is examining whether robots could be used instead. It can paint any design that the buyer requires, and it can also complete liveries with vinyls.

Both the painting and vinyling of finished coaches is handled at Skopje

A real Van Hool

The EX range has moved over to the latest-generation DAF/ZF driveline. Downspeeding work by DAF has delivered a fuel saving, and the Traxon and the EcoLife Coach gearboxes deliver further refinement. An Allison option is available in three-axle EXs.

On the shelves at Skopje are also engines from Cummins and even Detroit Diesel. They are for the CX range only, but all power units and gearboxes are coupled in a dedicated area prior to being mounted within coaches. Weights are placed within the chassis before that.

Van Hool is in the process of testing the fuel consumption of the EX with the latest driveline, and so it cannot give any concrete figures for the saving over the earlier combination.

Efficiency gains have also come as a result of lightweighting, and evidence of that can be seen during assembly.

“Early on, we struggled to convince customers to move from the TX on two axles to the EX, but that work is finished. We are over that period,” says Filip. “One of the reasons for acceptance of the EX is its fuel consumption. It is 900kg lighter than a TX, like-for-like.”

Two-axle EXs use a sandwich roof structure. It is assembled separately from the remainder of the framing, and the whole unit - including the air-conditioning pod - is added in one operation. Three-axle EXs do not yet have the sandwich roof. But it is likely to follow because of the VECTO mechanism, which is designed to reduce vehicles’ energy consumption and CO2 emissions.

VECTO will also lead to a rear-view camera fitment to reduce drag. Van Hool is currently testing the concept, but there is no timeframe for its introduction.

Positive future

Van Hool sees the EX is an integral part of its coach range. It doesn’t view it as a dumbed-down TX; instead, it is a model in its own right. The number of EXs that are heading through the Skopje plant suggests that it is holding its own in the competitive European market.

The 10.7m EX11H will join the right-hand drive range soon. A prototype left-hand drive example is currently being tested in Belgium, and both Van Hool and ABC are clear: The model will definitely come to the UK and Ireland. “We are happy with the progress of the Macedonian plant, and also with the EX. It is a versatile tourist coach that suits completion to a high specification,” says Filip.

As seen last week, things are going well for Van Hool in Skopje. The number of right-hand drive coaches present was surprising, and that suggests that confidence in the EX among UK and Irish buyers is growing. It’s an impressive coach that is built in an impressive factory.

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