Resurrecting Handy Industries

Article And Photos By: Chris Callen

Originally Published In The March 2012 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

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About a year ago, I heard the news that Handy Industries decided to close their doors. This was a huge blow for the American manufacturing effort since there are so many foreign motorcycle lift options. This was not only a good company out of the Midwest but their product is as common in a motorcycle shop today as the motorcycle itself. Almost immediately I began to hear that there were new people coming to the rescue of that company and after reaching out to them, we decided to drive to Iowa to see their operation. What we discovered in our visit was that Janco Industries, the company behind the standard grey motorcycle lift, is an example of modern American manufacturing in action. They may have the road map for how other American companies can turn this whole thing around. Janco is a company that Ron Jansen started in 1993. They started doing outsource manufacturing for other companies like Vermeer Manufacturing. In 2000, with their father retiring, Joel and his brother Mike bought Janco and took over operations. In August of 2010, when Handy Industries decided to close the door, Janco got a phone call about buying that company. Handy was already one of their customers, getting their scissor jacks and other products from them for about ten years. Handy closing would have effected Janco’s business as well so it just made sense to bring it in-house. Joel and Mike immediately moved all the fabrication to their existing production facility in Sully, Iowa. It’s a 20k sq. ft. state-of-the-art facility with most of the modern amenities that you would expect to find including a giant bed laser cutter. They buy all of their steel from domestic suppliers and the “Buy American” effort is something they take very seriously. Quality is one of the biggest factors and to them, American steel is beyond compare. Joel went on to tell us that when they put a sheet of steel into their laser cutter, they can tell right away if it’s not American from the way it cuts; domestic steel is just a higher quality product.

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Handy, in a moment of desperation, was looking into outsourcing overseas but didn’t have a chance to execute that in the end. The best part about Janco buying Handy was that they would be able to give more local people jobs. They believe that their employees’ work ethic and attitude gives them an edge in the market today. Their father had been in business for himself as a blacksmith of sorts since 1967 and was a big believer of American made products. Working with his hands every day and taking pride in his work was influential to both the brothers growing up. Ron was right in the middle age group between Word War II and the Korean War so he never served in the military but the country was a different place back then from the effects of World War II. People were way more patriotic and had a firmer sense of what supporting the American cause meant. As we toured the shop, we got a first hand look at what the process of building a lift is. A Handy lift actually starts as one sheet of steel. Every piece that is needed to build it is cut from that one sheet in an eighteen minute cycle. From the laser, all the pieces are moved to the benders where the steel is formed and prepped for welding. At the same time, the cross tubes and shafts are made in giant CNC mills in another part of the shop. Joel said that this is one thing that’s hard about the American manufacturing business: all the high tech equipment is made in other countries. There is just no way around that, but now there is a company trying to break ground in that market within our borders.

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Back in the weld shop, the cylinders are made that will operate the lift. There are two different options for lift capacity right now in the Handy product line so two different cylinders are made. At another station, the side channels that operate the scissor part of the lift are welded together. The speed and intensity of that welding is unreal to watch. The weld shop is full of individual stations each making components for the lifts that go into huge hoppers to make ready for assembly. This is one area where Joel sees room for improvement in their operation with robotic welders. Not to replace the human factor but to make it more efficient. With a robot doing the welding, a man can set up a fixture at the same time and have it ready for the next swap. This alone would almost double production. In the same shop they actually make some truck accessories and fuel tanks as well. This is where the idea of having a multi-line manufacturing facility pays off. Instead of the business model that Handy operated on before where they only made what Handy sold, Joel and Mike’s place has a product line that is diversified enough to keep the shift work going nearly around the clock. All the tumbling for the products is cut on a giant vertical band saw that has an automated feeder that also cuts on angle, automatically. All the operator needs to do is load the feeder and serve as support for the machine. Although there are a dozen or so welders going at it, we didn’t notice any tanks near their stations. Every station has gas piped in from a central area where the tanks are located. It makes the whole proposition of changing out tanks a lot smoother.

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The last step before the assembly is for the parts to be shipped up to Marshalltown, some 20 miles away, where the final build and shipping happens. Inside that facility is a complete powdercoating operation. This now gives them the ability to make some custom options available. You can custom order lifts with different color combinations for the different components. Rather than just the standard grey, Handy even offers a few different choices stock like the black and grey and ever popular orange and black. The powdercoating starts with a five stage wash method, all on a conveyor system, as it travels along on its way to the spray booth and 400 degree oven. Although the powdercoating facility is a single shift, there is no slack in the operations there. From the skids they are shipped in on, the lift components are cleaned, colored and baked on a line that doesn’t stop until final assembly. As far as a mission statement for Handy’s future they are on track to become an example of modern American manufacturing. With modernized equipment and streamlined efficiency, their sights are set on new product development. While I can’t tell you what some of these are, I can tell you they intend to go at some of the other entry level lift manufacturers in an aggressive manner. While Joel won’t take credit for inventing this new strategy in manufacturing, he is at the forefront with Janco being as diverse as they are. Being in the agricultural market, the construction market, in addition to what they do with Handy, gives them the ability to move around to what part of the operation is busy. This lets them keep people working instead of sending them home.

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While we were there, Shawn Backham, a 21 year employee of the original Handy, sat down with us and went over some of this company’s impressive history. In his time, he has held about every position there is. Over the years, he’s seen a lot of changes, the best part being that the ownership works the business. That’s how it was in the first ten years of his time at Handy. Like a lot of other companies, as the last decade of the original Handy saw stock holders who weren’t involved in the operations as the ownership, it lost some of the energy that the Jansen’s brought back into it now. “Even in the small companies today, investment groups have become a problem as far as making decisions that are good for the life of the company,” Backham said. Having the separate plants gives them a huge advantage in his eyes. With both of the operations concentrating on their own aspects of the business, with individual leaders in both facilities, it has helped organize their efforts. Handy started in Marshaltown, Iowa in 1964 with a couple of brother-inlaws, Charlie Lander and Max Landen. Originally it began in the old Western Canning Mill Company making lawn sprayers, bug killers, fuel tanks, etc. It wasn’t until the late sixties – early seventies that they started making motorcycle products. Back then the electric lifts were a screw shaft like today but the air lifts were a bellows style with a giant bladder. Through the seventies, the air products got better and they switched over to the cylinders. As bikes got heavier through the eighties and nineties, they had to keep up with the demand and that is a standard they adhere to today. When it comes to R&D at Handy, they test all products to a point beyond breakage. What this means is they take a new product and if it’s rated for 1,000 pounds, they put one and a half times that weight on it and cycle test it. They run it up and down for eight hours a shift, shift after shift, until it fails. Shawn said that they’ve had lifts go as much as 10,000 strokes and have never failed. Usually in the end it will be the bearing that fails but at that high of a number it’s an amazing lifetime for the product. Periodically they check the unit and make any adjustments from that point before they are ever sold to the public. And just so you guys know, the DO NOT OPERATE WITH IMPACT GUN sticker that comes on the scissor jack they sell is because they know how this will fail. Shawn explained that this is because any time you use an ACME thread, the faster you run the thread, the more heat that it will create. By using an impact it will tear the thread block apart, and they know it.

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In Shawn’s estimate, their work is cut out for them; they just need to be the best product on the market, the most reliable, bar none. This is a legacy product that Shawn is reminded of all the time when customers call up and tell him about the lifts they bought or got from dad or grandpap that need repair. They comment on the quality of the product and they know they will stand up to the test of time. “There is still old time bellows style lifts in shops being used today. It’s just as good a product as it was then and those are lifts from the late sixties. I guarantee the Chinese market can’t say that.” I loaded up my new Handy lift and teardown table. Oh yeah, I’m a customer of theirs, man. This is my second lift and I got this one with an extension specifically for choppers in the Source Garage. But as I loaded up and got ready to leave that day, I realized what a role these cats have in our culture. I mean, I have had my original lift for years now and it’s not even showing signs of any wear. I’ve been to shops all over the country and you just expect to walk into the service area and see that familiar grey lift table the same as you expect to see a red Snap-On, MAC or Craftsman tool box. Their product has become as synonymous with the bike shop as the motorcycles or the people or the pictures on the wall and now that Janco has them nicely fitted into a modern American manufacturing platform, it looks like they will be around for generations to come.

2 thoughts on “Resurrecting Handy Industries

  1. I just read your article and enjoyed it immensely.
    Recently, I was in the market for another motorcycle lift. I sold my previous lift, which was built by Handy Industries in Marshalltown, Iowa. I was limited on space in my shop and sold it for the same money I paid for it. Anyhow, I spent a few days researching many lifts. Most lifts I found on the internet are identical to my previous Handy lift, but they are made in China. Customer reviews complained about questionable welds, low quality hardware, and poorly painted. After wasting time looking at Chinese made lifts, which are knock offs of Handy lifts, I bought a new Handy Industries motorcycle lift, the S.A.M. 1200 lift and tire clamp. It was only a few hundred dollars more over the Chinese made lifts and made in Sully, Iowa, about 165 miles from my house. MADE IN USA! A few hundred dollars is nothing when it comes to buying top quality American made products over questionable products made in China. Besides, I will use it on my 2020 Harley Davidson Ultra Limited which cost me over $35,000. Why risk buying a cheap lift and dropping my bike. I’ll buy American made whenever possible. Save American jobs, buy American.

  2. Love to read this article. Thanks for this great post, I find it very interesting and very well thought out and put together. I look forward to reading your work in the future.e

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