April 2, 2007 – Inside Kawasaki’s PWC plant

Kawasaki recently invited select members of the press to tour Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Corp., U.S.A., the company’s Jet Ski, ATV and utility vehicle production facility in Lincoln, Neb. Situated on a 335-acre campus, the facilities occupy more than 1.7 million square feet of manufacturing, office and warehouse space.
The facility was originally established in 1974, and was quickly hailed as an example of how Japanese production practices could be brought to America. Today, the facility employs nearly 1,400 employees, as well as another 600-700 contract workers.
Why Lincoln? Company officials suggest a variety of reasons. The city is almost ideally located, occupying a central position in the country along Interstate 80, an established major trucking corridor. In fact, many trucking firms also call the area home. In addition, Lincoln has been historically non-union. The original manufacturing facility already existed, although it had never been occupied. Add in some likely incentives from the city, and you’ve got a match made in the Cornhusker state.
Assembling The Parts
Though it sits in the middle of Nebraska’s open plains, the Kawasaki campus is technically a foreign trade zone. That means items can be imported duty free, as well as exported to foreign countries duty free. While the vast majority of Jet Ski production is home grown in Lincoln, two key items are actually imported, the engine and the hull. Engines come from Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan and a firm in Canada that specializes in fiberglass production manufactures hulls. Unlike the decks, which Kawasaki makes with an in-house mold from Sheet Molding Compound (SMC), hulls are laid up in more traditional boat fashion with Fiberglass Reinforced Plastic. Essentially, the hull is made from the outside in, with a layer of gelcoat sprayed into a mold, and then layers of fiberglass built up to give the hull its shape, strength and rigidity.
While hulls are brought in, decks (the upper half of the Jet Ski) are churned out by Kawasaki’s enormous, 3,000-ton SMC press, an imposing machine that occupies one end of the production line. The press works in conjunction with a two-part mold. The male half of the mold gets what the company calls a “charge pattern,” essentially sheets of premix fiberglass material that already combine the glass material with polyester resin. The sheets are laid atop the mold and weighed for consistency, before everything is whisked into the press. The upper, female half of the mold closes over the lower half, and tremendous heat and pressure cause the material to cover all parts of the mold, equally filling the voids and shaping the material into the form of the boat’s deck. When complete, the material has a smooth, finished appearance to both sides, unlike gel-coated fiberglass, which shows the woven glass pattern on the interior.
Completed decks are then led into a booth where a high-pressure, 4,000 PSI water jet cutter uses a mix of water and a sand-like media to precisely cut out the openings for things like stowage compartment openings and control cables. Decks are then led into a painting area, where they are hung vertically, and then sprayed to the appropriate finish color.
Manufacturing Philosophy
From here on out, both hulls and decks are funneled down a perpetually moving assembly line, where an army of workers man individual assembly stations, installing a variety of components as the unit passes slowly by.
Kawasaki uses what is known as the Andon system, a process that allows individual workers the ability to alert superiors, and even stop production, when a problem arises. Workers trigger a light and audible warning at their individual station; their station number is also displayed on a large overhead board, allowing a supervisor a quick visual cue as to where the problem lies. Should the problem not be quickly resolved, the production line is stopped, resulting in more audible warnings. Throughout a tour, numerous sirens can be heard echoing throughout the production floor. To Kawasaki’s way of thinking, the occasional work stoppage is a good thing. No stoppages would indicate the plant had too much labor. Meanwhile, those large overhead displays track where production is in relation to the day’s stated goal. Shortages are tallied, along with their explanation, on a nearby white board hour by hour.
The Andon system can be triggered due to a missing part, but like most high-level production facilities, Kawasaki does its best to avoid that scenario. Workers use another Japanese system called Kanban (literal translation — a sign or card) to signal when stock is getting low. A color-coded card is pulled and sent to inventory when a supply of parts is getting low. An inventory specialist then replenishes the product before it runs out. Outside components are delivered in accordance with the Just In Time, or JIT, inventory strategy. The idea is to lessen cost by having outsourced items arrive as they’re needed, rather than stockpiled, saving on both warehouse space and costs.
A Star Is Born
The advantages of assembling parts into the open hull and deck are obvious. Workers have plenty of space in which to install engine, pump and components. About halfway through the process, the two halves of the boat are joined. A robot lays down a precise bead of adhesive along the circumference of the hull along the bond line, the lip-like ridge halfway up the hull where the two parts meet. The deck fits atop the hull like a shoebox lid. The robots are precisely timed to lay down the adhesive, then put the assembled hull into a heated press, which activates the adhesive and permanently attaches the two pieces without the need for screws or rivets.
Finished Jet Skis are crated for shipment to dealers. Unlike ATVs, which can be secured to reusable metal crates, Jet Skis are packed in traditional wood enclosures, which can’t be reused. Currently the company is looking into a reusable metal crate, but as of now the packaging just ends up as scrap at the dealer. Packaged skis are moved off the production floor, and ultimately on to trucks that will deliver them to dealers across the country. Or shipped elsewhere, including Japan. psb

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