Snowmobiles Big with Yamaha, Even in Japan

Nobuaki Shiraishi, senior general manager for Yamaha's recreational vehicle business operations, has worked with snowmobiles since the early 1970s.
“I want our employees to understand snowmobiling and snowmobile culture through lots of business opportunity and testing abroad and in Japan,” Shiraishi said during a recent tour of Yamaha's snowmobile manufacturing facility in Hamamatsu.
Yamaha Motor Corp. leases property for winter testing on Japan's northernmost island, Hokkaido. And, while the home office in Hamamatsu takes care of the final product and its associated costs, as well as research and product planning, the snowmobile group also has a large North American presence, with certain business operations and research and development in the U.S. and Canada.
Still, snowmobiles don't even rank high in Yamaha's overall product line. Motorcycles account for 57.4% of worldwide Yamaha sales; marine products account for 17.6%; and power products, of which snowmobiles are a part, along with ATVs, make up 16.1% of sales.
Nearly all machines are made for export, with only 2.3% of units staying in Japan. The remainder end up in other worldwide locations, but mostly in North America, which demands 85% of total production. For fiscal 2005, the company anticipates it will produce 26,800 snowmobiles, with a sales estimate of $139 million.
Nearly everyone at Yamaha Motor Corp. headquarters has spent time spinning wrenches on the assembly line. That includes the executives.
“Yamaha is a manufacturing company. It means one of the most important things is to make products,” Mutsuhito Kojima, marketing manager in the snowmobile division. “Without any experience of working in the factory, we can not do anything.”
Employees are encouraged to find ways to make their jobs more efficient, and are rewarded for it. There's a special program called Yamaha Motor's Improvement of Personal Capacity (IPC), which began in 1969. Employees are required to work in small groups to come up with creative solutions to common problems and for a better-quality product, Kojima said.
“From these group activities come many practical ideas that lead to improvements of the work processes and a wide range of creative works,” Kojima said. “They also function to build consciousness of the importance of one's job and foster positive human relationships that brighten the workplace.”
There's an annual ceremony where groups can present their finding, and the most creative achievements are rewarded, Kojima said.
During the mid-November tour, two snowmobiles were making their way down the line: the VK Professional and the four-stroke Apex Mountain. Sounds of pneumatic tools fill the air. Stacks of blue RS Venture hoods rest on bright green racks. Apex frames, stamped at the nearby SOQI factory, are piled three high before a robotic arm lifts them onto a cart and then to the first stop on the final assembly line.
The motorized cart follows magnetic strips built into the concrete floor. When the cart crosses the main walkway, there's no jarring alarm to warn of the crossing. Instead, we hear a tune sounding like something from a carousel.
The factory, flooded with natural light from ceiling windows, is strangely absent of any harsh, loud noises. When workers on the line need assistance, he or she pulls an overhead chain. Each plays a different tune - some classical music, but we also heard Itsy Bitsy Spider and a rendition of Greensleeves.
The assembly line works with the expected precision: the tracks are mounted, the rear suspensions are set in. Next come the engines - already assembled at another Yamaha-owned facility. The frame slowly becomes a snowmobile until it hit its final stop, a running test in a vented room. The machines are then pulled off the line and packaged for shipment.
At each station, workers have a menu of tasks to complete before the item moves on to the next person. Each assembly line worker stays in the same general area: the engine mounters will typically work in the engine area, though specific task may vary per day or per model.
The whole line is 120 meters, and a machine moves off the line every 1.7 minutes. Up to 50 machines can be on the line at once and it takes about an hour from start to finish for each sled.
A digital readout above the line states two numbers: the target number of sleds completed and the actual. Today, they're a bit behind, as the target is 149; actual is 125. If, at the end of the day, they're not up to target, the line will remain going until target is met.
There aren't many women working on the line. Of the 55 assemblers, only six are women. A look across the plant and to the lines where motorcycles are assembled reveals significantly more females. “The parts on the snowmobile line are generally big and heavy, and need high torque,” said Kazunori Matsura, quality control manager of the final assembly plant. That is why more women are placed on the motorcycle lines with the lighter parts, he said.
There's a small, roped-off area within the line with a motorcycle in the middle. It's the practice area where workers practice assembling their parts. Large schematic blueprints outline the details of assembly.
The company has considered manufacturing snowmobiles in North America, but has not found the arrangement practical.
“There was not big advantage in total cost, exchange rate,” Shiraishi said. “Building in Japan has big advantages. We can develop and manufacture nimbly.”
It takes about seven days for the finished products to get from Japan to North America, and then three or four days to pass through customs. Machines ship between April and November.

- Lynn Keillor

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