NEP Trucks Come to Life in Secure R&D Home

NEP Broadcasting’s headquarters are housed in a rather unassuming building northeast of downtown Pittsburgh. The company’s integration facility, however, requires a clearance pass to access. Through a relationship with the University of Pittsburgh, NEP Broadcasting integrates its mobile units — usually eight each year — in a former Gulf Oil research and development center. The large space, high security, and ample number of fire-suppression pipes make for the perfect location to design and build television trucks.

At Home in U-PARC
When Gulf Oil was headquartered in Pittsburgh, it owned a cluster of buildings a five-minute drive from NEP headquarters. When Gulf and Chevron merged in 1985, the facility was given to the University of Pittsburgh, which owns the 85-acre campus now known as U-PARC (University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center). More than 120 companies, including NEP, use the office, laboratory, light-industrial, and warehouse space available in the 53 buildings.

“When we got the first batch of NMT trucks, we were going to get 20 more mobile units in a few days, and we needed somewhere to put them,” explains NEP Broadcasting CTO George Hoover. “We asked if there was any place we could park. They showed me this enormous cavernous space that was kind of odd and out of the way, and we said that’s perfect. We’ve been here since 2004.”

That cavernous space was formerly used to research oil-extraction processes, so the building sits in a valley away from the rest of the campus but still within the security border.

“We have more water and fire-suppression pipes down here than we could believe,” Hoover says. “That’s why we’re located way down the hill, so that, if this building blew up, it wouldn’t bother anything else.”

Under a full-security perimeter, the building is situated perfectly to handle the number of trucks that NEP brings through its doors every year.

“That’s a nice advantage to us,” Hoover says, “because we have a secure spot where we can leave TV trucks lying all over, ripped open, and not worry about someone coming to take parts out of them.”

Two at a Time
Inside the U-PARC facility, NEP designs and builds new mobile units, usually working on two at a time. Among the 25-30 NEP staff members working at U-PARC at any given time are a video-systems designer, audio-systems designer, and a mechanical/power/HVAC designer, who create the design drawings for all of the trucks.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to have only one build going on at one time,” Hoover says. “You could do 10 at a time in sequence, but, in our business, everything either needs to be done for football season or the beginning of January, so seldom if ever do we get that perfect sequencing. Two is about as many trucks as you can fit in here, particularly if the trucks are twins.”

NEP generally builds eight trucks each year, ranging from full trucks to B units to twins, but half of what the company does involves upgrading and replacing as opposed to adding to the fleet.

“That’s the constant churn of everything,” Hoover says. “We get about five years out of a truck before you have a major technology and facelift change — HD, digital audio, something. Every 10 years, we gut them totally empty, strip them out to a skeleton, and put them back together.”

A Decade’s Series of Trailers
NEP’s design goal is to get 20 years’ use out of each of its trailers — not the technology or fit and finish of those trailers but the physical box. The trailers for the original Supershooters fleet were provided by Mobilized Systems Inc. (now called DRS) out of Cincinnati, but, when DRS became primarily a defense contractor, the lead time on its trailers went from 90 days to nine months.

“Our business does not have nine months to be ready, so we have gotten the last few trucks we’ve put on the road from Gerling,” Hoover says. “Interestingly enough, we’ve been having an extensive dialog with our friends at DRS about the next generation.”

Every 10 years, he explains, the company settles on a new trailer-body design. What Hoover refers to as the 2000 series trailers were designed to fix all the problems in trailers built in the ’90s, from bad combinations of metal to rust and weight issues. NEP is now trying to determine what the next decade’s series of trailers is going to look like.

A Warehouse Mentality
“We want to take advantage of assembly-line manufacturing,” Hoover says. “For the original trucks, there was a guy with a handsaw slicing up every individual piece of metal. While they’re sort of the same, our long-term goal will be to have every trailer use standard, stock components, so you can just call up and get four bay doors if you need them, as opposed to bringing the truck out to see if it’s really that size and remember what hinge we used.”

NEP has also set a design goal of getting back to 90 days for mobile-unit production. Using standard components, the company will be able to warehouse all the assembly parts so that building a trailer is merely a matter of bolting the pieces together.

“You can get away from the mechanical side being totally custom-designed but still have flexibility because every truck is slightly different,” Hoover says. “We want to come up with a platform that allows you to move things around above the water line where the people stand but uses standard components below so you don’t have to re-engineer everything anytime you build a new truck.”