Writer's Ramblings

A Decade of H-D in KC

Written by  August 31, 2007

In 1998, the movie Titanic won 11 Oscars, John Glenn returned to space and Harley-Davidson rolled their first motorcycle off of the assembly lines of the shiny new Kansas City Final Assembly Plant, now named Vehicle and Powertrain Operations.

Ten years later, Kansas City’s contributions to the success of Harley-Davidson are significant. The 1998 Sportsters were the first production motorcycles assembled there. During 2000 and 2001, the company’s best kept secret, the revolutionary water cooled, high revving V-Rod was being built and tested behind tall dark curtains. In 2002, production of the Dyna line moved from York, Pennsylvania to Kansas City and the new V-Rod began rolling off the line.

In late April 2007, I met with Karl Eberle and United Steelworkers Local 760 Union President Richard “Stick” Doyle, (one of two Union Presidents who work side by side with Karl). Our interview took place in their conjoined offices on the mezzanine level of the plant. The office is not at all what one would expect for the VP/ General Manager of one of two Final Assembly facilities the Motor Company operates.

Karl’s average sized desk sits in the corner of two glass walls providing some separation between the Union President’s offices and other Administrative and engineering staff. Opposite of the entry, sits a small, dark credenza, covered with awards and unique gifts presented to him over the years. Presiding ominously over the office space is the mounted head of a caribou that Karl bagged himself in Alaska, which they take time to decorate during the holidays. Situated between the office entry, the caribou, and the desk was a small conference table where our discussion took place.

During the next hour and a half, while the office phone seemed to continuously ring, Karl, Stick and I talked about the facility and its changes since it opened. They also shared brief accounts of the many operational challenges they routinely face to meet the dynamic design changes in product lines, coupled with the growing demand for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The relationship between Karl and the Union leadership is unique. While they may not always see eye-to-eye on every issue, they share a mutual respect for one another. This allows them to work through their differences to find common ground and reach consensus.

Staffing began in March of 1997 with the original 58 employees and has now grown to approximately 1,000. At the time of the interview, labor contract negotiations for the Kansas City employees were underway. Coincidentally, three months to the day after my conversation with Karl and Stick, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), the United Steelworkers (USW) and Harley-Davidson reached a new five-year collective bargaining agreement for Kansas City Vehicle and Powertrain Operations employees. This was done without any interruption in production, which in today’s business environment is a significant accomplishment itself.

From the ground up, the Kansas City facility was the first of Harley-Davidson’s current production facilities built specifically for motorcycle production. It opened with 332,000 square feet and only one assembly line, but lots of open floor space. Since then, much change has occurred and every square foot is now accounted for. The addition of an east end warehouse, added in 2004 brings the facility’s total size to 450,000 square feet.

Breaking down the total footage; the three final assembly lines, staging and shipping area occupy approximately 125,000 square feet, while fabrication of tanks, fenders and frames utilize 100,000. Painting occupies another 80,000. The balance of available space is segmented for Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) assembly, Revolution powertrain (V-Rod) assembly, quality assurance, staff break and lunch room and the ever- popular visitor’s center where nine tour guides ensure the visitors’ experience is both educational and entertaining.

In the fabrication area, gas tanks, oil tanks and fenders are assembled and welding of frames takes place. Large rolls of virgin sheet metal sit waiting to be stamped out into the various sizes and shapes for the different models. The spools are unrolled onto dies, specific to the component and model being built. Huge hydraulic presses then stamp out the shapes. The freshly stamped components are then precisely cut and placed in a fixture for seam welding. The parts then go through several stages of cleaning and polishing before being placed on an overhead line that works its way to the paint area.

In the paint area, over 2,500 pieces are painted daily. The complexity of the paint and the available variations requires a great deal of planning. Never before has the demand for custom graphics been so high. Since high volume doesn’t fit well with low volume custom graphics, paint work for CVOs and for replacement parts is not completed in this paint shop.

Frame construction is a unique challenge unto itself. Containers of tube steel, cut and bent to the proper angles and lengths, are staged near large robotic welding machines. The tubes are placed in fixtures where robotic arms then move about; performing the multitude of welds that take place for each frame type. On top of the welding assembly lines are the different fixtures that support each model built. With welding completed, the frames are placed on another set of overhead hangers and routed to the paint area. The finished frames are then placed on racks and then moved to an area just off of the assembly lines, along with carts of matching painted tanks and fenders.

At the time the facility opened, only one set of manufacturing robots was in place, performing the polishing of freshly stamped out steel components. Those robotic polishers still function in addition to another thirty-three robots; performing activities such as painting, frame welding and seam welding and closure of final shipping containers.

The logistics of keeping the assembly lines moving create the most challenging aspect of the facility. The objective is to keep four hours worth of production components staged. This is not just an available floor space issue, but ensuring that proper sequencing occurs, is a unique challenge in itself. Division of responsibility plays a large role in keeping the line moving. It requires continuous communication between the employees of each production area and everyone knowing their role to identify and resolve potential issues long before the production line is forced to halt.

Assembled engines and transmissions for Sportsters and Dynas are delivered from Milwaukee daily. Each engine is built to the meet regulatory specs for the market the bike will eventually be delivered to. Ensuring the right engine is installed with the correct exhaust and wiring occurs up front. At the beginning of each line, a new frame is placed on the assembly cart and the build order is attached to the frame, identifying what needs to be installed for that particular bike. A significant function of the build order is to ensure that when the bike is complete, it will meet all of the design and regulatory requirements for the intended market, be it national or international.

The V-Rod deserves special mention here. It is the only Harley-Davidson motorcycle where the powertrain and chassis are assembled in their entirety in one location. The experience has been very beneficial to the operations of the facility. Because V-Rod engines are built in Kansas City, adjustments to production schedules are easier to support. Typically, these motors are built about six hours prior to being installed in a frame.

Subassembly processes are also extremely critical to meet production objectives. Wheel lacing, tire mounting and balancing, takes place in the east staging area. Front end sub-assembly, including forks, wheel, lighting and triple-tree assembly, as well as handle bar assembly, both occur in circular areas immediately next to the production line where they will be placed on the bike.

Completed bikes are then lined up and each go through a series of operational tests, where employees run each bike through the paces on a roller test, as well as verify lighting, brakes and other operational components. From there, the new motorcycles are moved over to shipping where they are crated and staged for delivery.

To reduce fatigue and improve ergonomics, assembly line employees typically rotate job roles every two hours. Karl maintains “We try very hard to make this a successful place for our employees.” A wellness center, with fitness equipment was added, along with a therapist and trainer, which is very beneficial for employees doing repetitive tasks. Staff members are also encouraged to get involved in many different local community and charitable activities. For example, rewards are provided to employees who participate in the Kansas City Corporate Challenge, including paid time off.

Employee turnover at the plant remains low. Per Stick, “One of the most amazing things, of the ten years the place has been opened, only about seventy-five people have voluntarily resigned.” On their own, employees have also raised the bar as community stewards. The Employee Rider Association plays a very active role in several fund raising activities. They recognize their position in the community and the reward of being part of the Harley-Davidson team.

Going forward, Karl says to expect the face of the Harley’s operations in Kansas City and the products produced there to continue to evolve over the next five years in response to customer demand. Today demand may be strong for the Night Rod, but tomorrow’s hot bike is anyone’s guess and Harley-Davidson is always full of surprises when it comes to new product development. Karl reiterated that the Motor Company must remain flexible and adapt to stay in step with its dealers and customers.

In my visits to the plant, each one has provided a new and interesting viewpoint. Sadly enough, many Kansas City residents do not understand just what lies in their own back yard. Often, when Stick tells people he works for Harley-Davidson, they ask if he works at the North Oak dealership. His response, “No . . . I build them!” In the mean time, take an opportunity to tour the facility weekdays between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Story and photos by Nic