Thursday, May 3, 2007

Cauldron of Motorcycle Souls

(Today's post needs its own tag: extreme machinery geek.)

Today's field trip involved a drive 30 miles West of Milwaukee to tour the assembly plant for Buell Motorcycles. I've toured several automotive assembly / manufacturing plants over the years, most recently the Toyota plant in Kentucky a couple years back where Camrys and Avalons are manufactured. I've also toured the Ford Truck plant in St. Paul a couple times over the past 20 years, but that plant is an assembly plant only, whereas the Toyota plant I visited actually manufactures many of the parts that go into your Camry, from the engine on up. (Assuming you give a damn about any of it, this distinction between assembly and manufacturing is not a trivial one, as the process of getting the very sophisticated parts which go into the assembly is most of the story.) Anyway, this Buell plant is an assembly plant, and it's the first motorcycle manufacturing plant I've seen. And while the basic business of assembling pieces to create a finished product does not differ in any fundamental way from the car plants I've seen, it has a quite different flavor here.

Administrative & office building

In the abstract, it's hard for me to get a handle on exactly what kind of industrial and design mechanism would be required to bring a motorcycle like my Ulysses into existence. And having seen how car plants do it, I just didn't know what to expect. The Buell Motorcycle Company is quite a small concern, industrially speaking, certainly a drop in the bucket compared to Ford or Toyota. Buell is owned by Harley-Davidson, which is a considerably larger concern, but even they are pretty small potatoes compared to a car company. But Harley, I learned, is largely a hands-off partner in Buell's operation. They began as simply a supplier of some of the parts Buell used--engines and transmissions, mostly--and things have evolved to where the two firms exchange some engineering data and collaborate on joint projects; but for the most part Buell remains an independent company. I had thought that the purchase of the company by H-D would have resulted in a large influx of R&D dollars, but I was told that is not the case. Buell do virtually all their own design work, as well as their own research and development. When one looks at the companies Buell is striving to compete against for sales (Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, BMW, Ducati, Aprilia, Triumph--some of these are gigantic concerns), the fact that they aspire to be competitive out of two relatively small buildings in East Troy, WI is impressive. And you sense this vitality among the staff. In the world of motorcycling, this is a small group of passionate, dedicated people who are changing the landscape. That's just way cool.

Buell's two buildings. The assembly plant is in the foreground.

Regardless of where my expectations came from, the facility was considerably smaller than I expected. All of the Buell Motorcycle Company fits into two low buildings, each a bit smaller than the size of a football field. One building is mostly for offices and engineering, and the other is the manufactory. It's this latter that we toured. The visitor's entrance, in the non-manufactory building, is a tiny lobby with two motorcycles, three chairs and a water cooler sitting unceremoniously next to a receptionist's desk. I had driven over a couple days ago and asked around town about how to locate the place. By the time I found it, it was 3:pm, and I was told that the last tours kick off at 1:30 pm. So I came back today, and there was a bit of a scramble to find someone to escort me around. It was eventually decided that I could tag along with one of three groups of supplier / distributor representatives from Europe who were touring at the same time (most of whom, I could not help noticing, were wearing Buell or H-D clothing). Well and good. Everyone was courteous and helpful, and the place was abuzz everywhere with the business of designing and building motorcycles.

The manufacturing plant

Going through the factory doors is like passing thru some sci-fi portal into another world. There's a recurring theme at this blog of me scratching my head in wonder at what lies behind or underneath common things, and this is another instance of that. A motorcycle may not be particularly mysterious (though we might come back to this), yet they come into being by way of a process that most of us might never have had reason to think about; they don't just get jesused into existence as a finished product, and how they come to be is a gigantic part of the mountain that Erik Buell has had to climb to have his name on this product. First is the product itself, maybe; but shortly after comes the how. The design of the manufacturing process itself is just one step too far removed, I'd guess, from what most of us have reason to ponder. But that manufacturing process is what the whole plant is about; it's what hits you as you walk through the doors.

The factory is an industrial space, clearly pointedly designed for some utilitiarian purpose, and there is little done to beautify it. There's a little crew break area off to one side, with vending machines and tables, separated from the main space by a half wall. It's not terribly loud, but there's a constant din of white-ish noise; regular conversation takes concentration and close proximity. Odd looking and inexplicable machines and devices are everywhere, and the main work space is brightly lit. There's a weird mix of high and low tech, with many things being done by hand, but there are computer terminals with large monitors at each work station, and there seem to be a lot of high tech diagnostic tools in use.

The bikes are built at a series of stations--17, I believe, arrayed in a large "U" shape--each of which is designed to task the workers with a similar amount of labor, so that the line moves on at regular intervals. One begins with the engine, manufactured and assembled elsewhere and shipped to this factory for installation, and gradually the bike takes shape around this core. The bikes are built each on a wheeled platform, like an industrial hospital gurney, which can be raised and lowered depending on the task at hand. The workers go through their repetitive and specialized tasks with the familiarity of a movement performed a thousand times, unhurried but purposeful. When each station is done with its assembly (say, routing cables thru the frame and attaching the frame to the engine at one of its three attachment points; or putting brake lines and foot pegs and controls on and adding fluid), the workers push the gurneys to the next, immediately adjacent station. There is usually a minute or so when the tasks are done while the line waits for everyone to finish where the workers chat and tidy up their spaces before it's time to push the bike on and accept the next one from up the line. Everything is brilliantly lit, and there's a separate process for getting the necessary parts to the work stations, sequenced so that the part at hand is the appropriate one for the specific bike being assembled (there are five or six different machines made at the plant, all on the same assembly line). No one said, but I'd guess the whole process takes maybe 90 minutes or so to go from nothing to finished bike.

One thing that was especially interesting (I regret that they did not allow me to take pictures of any of this) is their computer-controlled torque wrench system, which knows, by sequence and by which socket is installed, how much torque to apply, and which keeps a record of how much torque was applied to every bolt and when each task was performed. The bikes are assigned a VIN number at the first step, which is applied to the chassis and the engine--like giving a new child a name or a social security number--and that bike then quickly amasses a record of its brief life at the factory.

And I would take that new life analogy further. The end of the assembly process is, of course, a finished motorcycle. The last step before packing and shipping is to put the finished product thru a thorough evaluation, an operational test of everything on the machine. This happens with every bike. The bike is wheeled from the final assembly station over to a lifting turntable, where it is then moved onto a set of rollers. A pipe is connected to the exhaust, a computer is hooked up and a fuel line is connected to the engine (the bikes are shipped without fuel in them, so they don't want to put gas in the tank). A worker turns on the electrical system of the bike and starts it up and lets it warm up at idle. He then "rides" the bike up to highway speeds on rollers for 3-5 minutes, checking engine, transmission, brakes, and all electrical systems and functions. This is the first time each of these bikes has come to life--indeed, an hour or two before there was no bike to speak of--and I was really smitten by this little moment. As, indeed, was the rest of my group, as we spent more time watching this than anything else. The stirring sound of an engine roaring to life drew our attention immediately, and our guide had to tear us away after the third bike. At the end of the test ride, which amounts to 3-5 miles, the bike smells hot and is even smoking a bit. This is the first time that any of these parts has been up to operating temperature, let alone functioned as a whole.

At this stage, the bikes do not quite resemble the showroom-ready product, as there is still the detritus of the industrial processes which brought them into being: the test rider sits on the bike without a seat; there are protective plastic films over most things, and various tags and covers hang off the machine making it look tantalizing but unfinished. The bikes get their saddle immediately after the test ride (access to stuff under the seat is needed during this evaluation), but the films and tags will not be removed until the bike is safely at its dealer and prepped for its new prospective owner. That dealer, it turns out, may be far afield from East Troy, WI--I was told (by someone not at the factory) that nearly 50% of the factory's production goes out for export, and the visitor lobby had several impressive Buell enthusiast publications from Asian countries (Japan and Korea, I think).

After the run-up, the bikes are wheeled off to be packed into shipping crates, with bikes continually grabbed at random for thorough cosmetic and mechanical goings-over. Any problem found in any of these inspections sends the bike to the "hospital," a special debugging area where things found to be not right are made right before shipping. (As an aside, I remember reading a book about auto manufacturing that said, at the time of the book's writing, that Mercedes-Benz devoted far more hours to this debugging process than any other car manufacturer. This was a testament, the book said, not to Mercedes' outstanding quality--which the book did not dispute--but to the company's very inefficient production protocol that produced so many bugs in the first place. Toyota, by contrast, had very little debugging to do, and this was one of several things putting Toyota at the top of the quality heap. Again, the design of the manufacturing process.) Overall, it seems as though Buell's process is very efficient, as there were only a couple bikes in the hospital, from a day's production of 50-55 units. The bikes are also regularly subject to random screenings checking compliance with the destination country's legal requirements. It's no surprise that governmental involvement with the process adds a flummoxing layer of manufacturing complexity to Erik Buell's mountain.

Our tour guide was very friendly and helpful, and (maybe relieved at not having to struggle with the German accents of my tourmates) he stood chatting with me for a good half hour after everyone else left. I talked to him of my impressions of my Ulysses (amply gone over elsewhere here), and especially of my surprise at the level of refinement which, frankly, I had not expected. His response was straightforward: the Buell company might get by as a niche manufacturer on marketing alone, but if they want to compete with the greatest manufacturers of this product they simply cannot stop pushing relentlessly toward improvements on every front. Time is taken out of the workday every morning for training and worker input to the manufacturing process, an expensive but necessary thing if the desire to advance is taken seriously. Buell is involved in racing--an indispensable R&D tool, I believe--and is also involved heavily in rallies and group rides, which keeps them in touch with the people who have bought, or will buy, their products. This is all far from my areas of expertise, but I can't find any area where I think they are on the wrong track.

It's hard not to want to pull out your checkbook at the end of the tour. There's something really compelling about seeing the process, something that personalizes it and seems to connect you with the product in a way that advertising cannot touch. You see bins of parts come together and form this particular motorcycle which comes to life the line at the end, and it's hard not to want to take home that very bike. Maybe it's inadvertent, but the tour is really the greatest sales tool, especially for something like a motorcycle, which has such an emotional / spiritual pull. My argument has less force if one does not accept the quasi-spiritual aspect of motorcycles generally. But if you do, then it's fascinating to see all these people and resources marshaled to bring such a product to us. Even moreso when the whole enterprise bears the name of a single guy, someone who has devoted his life to this endeavor. I used to know a guy who ran an air ambulance service in St. Paul and gave pilot evaluation check rides for a living, a smart guy who had achieved quite a lot in life. But his aspiration was to move out West and retire to a life of making wine and fixing motorcycles in a little garage shop on his property. I've lost touch with him over the past 15 years, but I think he would have been especially thrilled by today's tour.


Dzesika said...

I'm glad they at least let you take a photo of the sign - which I SO wish were hanging in the lobby of my own office!

wunelle said...

I'm not sure I was allowed, but I took it anyway. The receptionist was way too busy to pay much attention to me!

I suppose it seems corny, but I wonder at the efforts to get something like these Rules To Live By ingrained into a corporate culture--indeed, the formation of a corporate culture at all. The cynical side of me just looks at all this like what looks good to stockholders and what things the gullible public can be made to believe. But on the other hand, I've read a fair bit about some of my favorite Asian companies' tactics, and at some point ethical responsibility makes good business makes winners out of decency. I always WANT to believe that this kind of thinking stands--really stands--in opposition to the swirling cesspool of corporate-think that we see at, say, GM, where rotten thinking seems to come down from the top again and again and again for years, decades even.

I don't know; maybe there's no connection at all. Maybe I'm just a romantic fool! (Brownie points for you if you read the whole thing, anyway! :-)

Joshua said...

I had been meaning to read this lengthy post since its conception, but had not the time to do it. Luckily, I had the last week off (that was a joke), so I decided to make a go of it.

What strikes me most, about this and many other posts, is your almost child-like enthusiasm for the things you love.

To have that at what must be an advanced age (I saw your head on Tv, remember) is remarkable. What are you now, 80, 85?

But seriously, this line is just great:
"they don't just get jesused into existence as a finished product"

Jesus as a verb is amazing to begin with, but the wonder behind that statment is even better.

wunelle said...

Don't make me climb out of my iron lung to kick your ass! ;-)

I'll be sure to schedule the next post around your vacation!

I think it is something like a child's fascination (too bad there are no kids' newspapers looking for reporters!), though I prefer to think of it as a talent for seeing things that adults tend to overlook. Or better yet, I mean, the place was COOL. So anyone not getting that (my wife would have divorced me on the spot) has a kind of handicap. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Jeffy said...

Sounds like a lot of fun, I'm jealous. Any reasonably large manufacturing operation seems likely to be a fun tour, but it is even better when you are the happy owner of one of the products.

For a long time I've wanted to tour that Ford plant in St. Paul, but last time I checked they were no longer doing tours, and now its slated to be closed before too long.

The sign you snapped listing the 'Buell Values' is interesting. I always wonder when I see that sort of thing whether anyone actually pays attention to it and whether it has any impact on the way things work. It seems to me that if you have to put up a sign maybe these values aren't being demonstrated in any tangible way.

I see on Buell's web site that they are hosting a homecoming for their bikes and owners. It looks like that could be a fun event.
(I had to look at their site and see if they operate some sort of employee ferry or something - I was surprised to hear that their factory could be somewhere 30 miles east of Milwaukee).