Article By: Rob Keller
Photos Courtesy Of Harley-Davidson
Originally Published In The December 2012 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
Located along the Western Banks of Lake Michigan; among the concrete and big city backdrop lays the heart and sole of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Milwaukee, Wisconsin is the headquarters for their corporate office and the home of the relatively new Harley Davidson Museum that opened its doors during their 100 year anniversary celebration in 2003. This is also the home of the powerplant facility where all of the Twin Cam, Twin Cam B and Sportster engines are assembled. I had the pleasure of taking a tour of this American factory just a few weeks ago and my visit was inspirational to say the least. In a time when American manufacturing has been taking some hard hits by a sluggish economy, and unfair foreign trade policies have been taking jobs away from American workers, it was reassuring to see a parking lot full of vehicles that were manufactured by the big three. There were some foreign cars there also, but they were parked further away from the employee entrance. There was also a motorcycle-only parking area closest to the door that was full of Harley-Davidsons. Of course there were a few bikes from other manufacturers, but they also had to park in a separate area requiring a longer walk to the time clock.
As we entered, we were given steel toe shoes and the proper eye and ear protection that is required to be worn in a working factory. There were no cameras permitted for obvious reasons. Each member of our group was given a headset with a microphone so that we could listen and talk with our tour guide. There were lines painted on the floor that allowed us to walk in a safety zone away from the heavy forklift traffic. Our tour guide explained that Harley-Davidson has several motorcycle models to choose from. Each model has a specific engine platform, so there are many different variations. Each engine begins with a build order that matches the model it will be assigned to. Some of the cases are chrome and some are black. The touring engines are different from the Dyna family, and all of the Softail engines have a builtin counter balancer. The Sportster motor also comes in many different styles, and the Screamin’ Eagle Custom Vehical Operation (C.V.O.) engines are assembled here as well. These build orders stay with the engine until they meet up with their chassis in York, PA. or Kansas City, MO. Each engine build is put into the assembly line at the time of the order, so you will see all of the powerplants on the line at the same time.
Our first stop was at the stator and rotor station. This is where we saw the first of many automated machines. These particular machines wrapped copper wire around the stator fingers with precision and accuracy. There was another machine that checked for quality control. Each stator was tested before it could continue on its journey through the facility. If a problem arises at this station, an alarm would sound and the machines would automatically shut down. There were finished stators for us to view on a display. The next few stations housed huge CNC machines that were taking case castings and cutting them to perfection. Our tour guide told us that they didn’t make the castings at this facility because of the cost and that they outsource this work to other companies that specialize in casting. This would include cam shafts, crank shafts and transmission shafts and gears. It is amazing to watch these machines work. I can’t imagine the time it would take to make these parts any other way.
The machine that pins the crank shafts together is pretty cool to watch. This machine is robotic and also works with precision accuracy by using an electronic eye that can measure and calculate within .001 of an inch. There are also several other robotic machines that do everything from torquing cylinder and head bolts, to picking out the proper parts for each engine that comes down the line. All along the assembly line these robotic machines help the work force. It’s incredible to watch every process as each engine takes on its identity one piece at a time. The most important part of the assembly line has to be the 850 union employees that work shifts at the plant. Each factory worker does all of the required assembly to each engine at their specific work station. They have the opportunity to rotate to different stations as the shift moves on. This probably helps keep the employees’ sanity! The work environment is very clean and organized for maximum productivity. You can understand the pride that the workers have in their jobs as well as the city that they live in. Most are dressed in Harley-Davidson T-shirts and I also saw a lot of Green Bay Packers’ apparel. I’m sure that they work hard for their pay, and at the end of every shift they can be proud to know that they are helping to make dreams come true all over the world. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Milwaukee, WI, Harley- Davidson is a great host. There is plenty to see and enjoy. As you would expect, the Harley Museum is unbelievable and the powerplant tour is off the hook. Plan your trip now so you can be there for the 110th year anniversary party on August 29th- September 1st, 2013!