Factory Tour – Inside KMM

Factory Tour – Inside KMM

2015.kawasaki.factory-tour.mule-production-line.JPGThere aren’t many buildings on the planet to rival Kawasaki Motor Manufacturing’s rail car production plant on the gently rolling plains outside Lincoln, Nebraska. At over 1600’ long, it’s positively enormous, Then again, Kawasaki is used to building things on a big scale and besides rail cars, motorcycles, construction equipment, helicopters, and a long list of other products, they also build supertankers that would barely fit inside the cavernous structure. They’ve come a long way since their humble beginnings at the Tokyo shipyard back in 1878 when Shozo Kawasaki established his factory, but it’s the plant next door we are most interested in. Just across the lot is the birthplace of every Kawasaki Teryx, Mule, Jet Ski, and nearly every Kawasaki ATV.

The Toy Factory

Kawasaki’s main manufacturing plant outside Lincoln is 1.3 million square feet of manufacturing mecca. Raw steel, parts, and plastic pellets roll in the back door straight from the mills, and before long the transformation begins. In a bit of Orwellian efficiency, every part, process, and product is tagged and recorded for quality control, but also to track manufacturing time. Because they are a world class manufacturer, Kawasaki emphasizes efficiency. The old saying “time is money” does not really apply here; in this place, time is big dollars. The system they invented to keep track of everything is called the Kawasaki Production System – KPS for short – and it enthusiastically encourages worker involvement in all aspects of production to continuously improve the product. In effect, each employee is really a partner in production rather than simply an assembly drone, and their skills and experience are valued by the company. Kawasaki also takes great care for worker safety regardless of the work area. Employees even have their own in-plant health club and workout facility, including a small gymnasium! Every employee we observed or spoke with understood the importance of their tasks and took them seriously, and no one appeared indifferent or lackadaisical. With a widely varying product line, employees also need to be well trained, yet flexible enough to respond quickly to changes. Long before they get to actual production, employees are given classroom training, with additional training along the way as required for new tasks or processes. Like all major manufacturers though, Kawasaki also makes use of automated equipment for extremely repetitive and possibly dangerous tasks.2015.kawasaki.factory-tour.mule-pro-fxt.on-stage.jpg

Thanks to their extensive experience in heavy manufacturing, Kawasaki is one of only a handful of companies on the planet that actually build their own equipment and tooling. Need a 3000 ton press to mold Jet Ski hulls? No problem; they’ll just build the three-story behemoth. Kawasaki also is a world leader in industrial robotics, and robot production once centered at the Lincoln plant before the space was allocated towards powersports products. In a Terminator-esque fashion, they had robots building robots, all the while biding their time, yet making ready to someday become our cold, soul-less overlords (Save us John Conner!). Robot production has now transferred to another facility, presumably not named SKYNET. Today the robots at the Lincoln plant happily toil away at the most tedious or dangerous tasks such as: welding, moving heavy parts, eagerly sticking their arms into presses, painting, and handling hot or dangerous materials, all with no visible contempt for their human masters. Most of the robots at the Kawasaki facility are programmed for welding, and there are 350 welders at the facility.

One of the smallest and most unique robots in the plant is named “MAD MAX.” Mad Max is really a fully automated, little tow truck about the size of a mechanics creeper. Max spends his days following a line on the floor, making the trip from the end of the production line back to the beginning and picking up empty parts carts along the way. Max happily plays an ice cream truck-like tune the whole way, and should somebody intrude on his space, he sounds a scared alert and stops. Thankfully, he doesn’t leave an oil puddle on the floor!2015.kawasaki.factory-tour.pony-truck.stetch.jpg

Off Road Production – Flexible Manufacturing

Production begins with the raw materials – mostly steel tubing and sheet – being cut, formed, and welded into shape. Kawasaki has several laser cutters programmed to cut sheet steel into blanks which are then pressed or bent into their final shape. Tubing is also trimmed either by laser or with a cut-off die, and CNC benders make accurate bends in the tubing. The recently formed parts are then placed into welding fixtures which are attacked by a group of welding robots, with some extra fine or finish work performed by very skilled workers. This area of the plant smells of hot steel, cutting oil, and manufacturing prowess. The sizzle of welding guns at work and a few sparks complete the image of a hard working facility where metal is molded by the mettle of man.

The production of plastic parts is a relatively quiet, clean operation. It begins with a small silo of raw pellets about the size of a BB that are basically heated to their melting point, then are forced into dies under enormous pressure, and after a very short cooling period are removed from the die which splits open. One unique process, though, is the painting of outer bodywork. To get the unique colors and super durable finish patterns such as camo, a thin film with the pattern is placed on a tub of water. The uncoated plastic piece is slowly lowered onto the film and into the bath, and when removed the film has completely wrapped itself around the plastic. A quick application of heat dries the piece and permanently joins the wrap and plastic bodywork together.

Kawasaki’s production lines are, above all, designed to be flexible. It was very common to see two or even three different machines marching down the line, and at each stage the differences became more apparent. The KPS manufacturing system also emphasizes quality control, and while skilled workers manage the system, skilled tools track every part, process and vehicle at every stage of production. Smart tools, preset to correct torque specs and even the correct sequence in production, record their data and feed info back to production computers. If a fastener or stage of assembly is missed, it alerts the crew who immediately rectify the problem. Employees constantly monitor production boards and should they discover a problem, they have the authority to stop the line until it’s fixed. The noise here is not the spark and sizzle of welders, but instead is from tools in action, bells, and alert tones signaling successful assembly. We once said it presented the mechanical cacophony of an ice cream truck driving through a casino, and we’ll stand by that description. At the end of the line is “rolling road” where the engine is fired, full engine checks are made, and the machine is run through its full range of capabilities. After that it’s into a crate then onto a truck bound for your dealer. Total production time averages 25 man hours per vehicle, and 3 days after the raw materials and parts arrive, they are in a crate fully assembled.2015.kawasaki.factory-tour.atv-production-line.jpg

Workin’ on the Railroad

Kawasaki is also a world leader in rail car production, but production here takes on a scale that makes one feel small. While we were there, they were building 85’ long cars for the New York subway system, but rather than having the cars built on a traditional line, Kawasaki had a very unique solution to retain manufacturing flexibility. The entire building operates much like a giant air hockey table. Each car is assembled on a long welding platform, but it can be moved in any direction by two guys with no outside mechanical assistance. Each platform rides on a thin cushion of air, allowing the workers to push the car at will. At first you think, “My God, these Nebraska farm boys are TOUGH!” The secret though is the super flat, highly polished floor. It’s so flat and clean it’s a bit like walking or floating above a gray mirror. It’s almost like they are building rail cars in space. When the stainless steel and aluminum (coated to deter graffiti – go figure!) car is finished, it is either placed on the rolling rail “truck” or shipped by truck or train to its final destination. Some final assembly is performed at the final destination as required by the contract clause, no doubt mandated by the local mayor as part of an election payback. Got to show the voters something!

Take a Tour

Kawasaki is very proud of the fact that long before Toyota, Nissan, BMW, or any other foreign manufacturer, they built the first plant in America for vehicle production. Since opening day in 1974, over 215 different products and 3.2 million vehicles have rolled off their line thanks to dedicated employees that still retain their Midwestern work ethic. Today over 1500 employees make the machines we ride, and remarkably, there are 5 employees that were there for day 1 of production so many years ago. With employees like they have now, Kawasaki will be building on the prairie outside Lincoln for many years to come.2015.kawasaki.factory-tour.mule-frame-welding.JPG

You can take your own tour of the Kawasaki Lincoln facility. It’s well worth the time, and details are as follows:

  • Tours are available every Thursday at 10:00 a.m. – Length is 1 hour

  • A maximum of eight (8) individuals may attend.

  • Tours must be scheduled through the Human Resources Department.

  • Advance notice is appreciated but not required.

  • Tours may also be available for educational institutions by submitting a letter of request.

Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp., U.S.A.

6600 N.W. 27th Street

Lincoln, NE 68524

Phone: (402) 476-6600

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April 15, 2015

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