"Most of our production is buses and coaches" says Dr. Petr Hajek, executive head of SOR. "Last year we produced over 550 coaches." Today, Sor has a head count of 600 and more than 75% of its coaches are for the domestic and Slovak market.
About 25% is exported mainly to countries such as Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Serbia and Russia. "We are also successful in Belgium, Hungary and Denmark, and recently 20 coaches went to the Faroe Islands."
Engineer Frantisek Diblik, Chief Technologist of SOR, is one of the promoters and founders of the company and tells us how it all started in 1990 when, along with three other managers who came from another major bus manufacturer, they took over a company specialised in the production of prefabricated elements for the construction field and re-directed it towards the automotive industry.
"Thanks to our expertise and experience" - explains Diblik - we started out by manufacturing spare parts for buses, but the real goal was to produce coaches. Therefore, in 1995 we manufactured our first vehicles for passenger transport, a small 7.5 m bus, which was not very common on the market and, in fact, there was no competition. Nevertheless, it was still difficult to start with a product like that, because at that time the name of our old company was synonymous with coaches in our country. However, gradually we expanded the range of models produced, adding the larger buses from 9.5 to 12 m and also differentiating the models. Production has steadily grown until reaching a production of more than 200 buses a year; but the real turning point came in 2005 when J&T, a finance group joined SOR. In 2007 production reached 400 buses. Since then we have kept these volumes even through the 2008/2009 economic crisis.
Today SOR is the absolute reference on the Czech market and has major supply contracts with the cities of Prague (650 coaches in five years) and Bratislava (100 coaches).
Coaches are sold through public tendering where the determining factors for winning are price, lower consumption and lower operating costs. "We have a good price and performance relationship. " We can provide whatever necessary for a modern coach at a good price. Our coaches have an attractive design and in no way inferior to those of our best competitors." Says Martin Drabek, technologist of the company.
The low service cost also comes from the major use of technology in the company's production processes; but how can a low price and technology be combined in one product?
"Today, no serious producer can avoid fitting accessories of the highest quality," says Drabek. "Parts such as engine, gearbox, brakes, axles and air conditioning components are pretty much standard and are made by specialized manufacturers whose parts have to be used in order to be competitive on the European market. This is not where the savings are. The difference is in the chassis.
Then there is the hourly cost of maintenance, the margins on spare parts and the reliability of the coach. All these factors contribute to achieving a reduction in the operating costs that have already been mentioned."
Speaking of the production processes employed by SOR, it must be said that the laser technology, especially that supplied by the BLM GROUP for cutting structural components of the chassis, is the heart of the production activity. "I can't imagine production without the use of lasers," says Mr. Diblik. "Before, we had several traditional mechanical cutting machines, but the demand for more accurate pieces and the increase in production volumes led to us opting for the laser. It was a normal and natural selection."
The first choice fell on the LT COMBO, a universal machine that processes steel sheets and tubes and for this reason it was the first to be used over three shifts. With the increase in production volumes, however, the amount of rectangular tube to be cut also increased. "When we had to increase production, we chose a laser tube system because in our area there are no third party suppliers of laser cut tubes to count on and therefore the second machine also acts as a stand-by in case of failure to the first" continues Diblik. "We managed to double production in the same production area. The advantages, however, are not only measurable in increased production. Before having the laser, we carried out many recovery operations that are no longer necessary because the laser ensures an already finished piece. The accuracy of the components thus increased, meaning that new types of joints could be made with fittings that were previously inconceivable and, in turn, this has simplified the welding equipment. The cutting bending system has helped to reduce the number of cuts. Very useful as well is the engraving that speeds up the next step by indicating the point where the next process has to be carried out, if any with the precision of a laser machine.
"Among the strengths of the laser systems adopted by SOR there is definitely the Rofin laser source, which is a guarantee of quality and reliability in the field of CO2 lasers, despite having to process many high-reflective materials that still cannot be cut and knowing that ADIGE could also provide a fiber laser system capable of carrying out this work. "
"2012 is likely to be a complicated year," says Mr. Hajek. "The public transport companies have been actively trying to reduce costs. For this reason I say that 2012 will be positive if we can maintain the production levels of last year. To be better than our competitors, we have always been pioneers in thinking about certain coach models that would allow us to anticipate trends and issues.
We were the first to make "low-entry" vehicles and the small 8.5- m coaches, but above all we were forerunners in developing and manufacturing electric buses. Our electric battery run coaches guarantee self-sufficiency of 150 km with a single recharge. We were the first to make articulated coaches with five doors, now others have done the same."
"We rely on this ability of ours for the future," continues Hajek. "Although we are small we feel that we are leaders in new ideas that we put on the market. This is what has always helped us to grow and our competitors have always been behind us."