My Obsession with Bikers (Engines, not Pedals) at the Harley Davidson Factory

Harley-Davidson Factory Tour

I’m rather obsessed with bikers–engines, not pedals.

  1. They go to the best places. Well, maybe I say that because they’re at all the places I am. But what I’m trying to say is, they find out about nooks and crannies of America and I want to know what resources they use, because as much as I love to plan a trip, I’ll take some help!
  2. They have a love for the open road and open spaces. And how can you not respect that.
  3. In fact, they’re not all in bike gangs as movies would lead us to believe. Lawyers, accountants, loving parents ride. And why not?
  4. They travel light and that impresses me.
  5. As a (former?) marketer their brand loyalty is palpable and coveted.

So when I found out that Harley Davidson has a factory smack in the middle of Pennsylvania Amish country, well, there was no holding me back from this free tour.

Safety First

We donned glasses–for the record, they are much cooler than the enormous ones my Dad has in the basement; with the elastic so stretched it may as well not exist. That won’t do at HD; these were slick. Yeah, we were cool…with our protective eyewear.

This tour actually takes you on the factory floor, not through the looking glass as so many others do. Translation: NOISE. Solution: ear phones to hear the tour guide speak through a portable PA.

A second tour guide was on duty with the sole purpose of making sure we didn’t get run over by forklifts or carts. See, some of them are driven by humans, but many of them are guided by computer to their destination and just follow magnetic stripes in the floor. If you’re in the way, well, you’re outta luck.

No photos allowed: Whether a safety factor so we wouldn’t loiter or an industry secret matter, I can’t say. But no pics there = no pics here. Only the postcard and brochure.

What a Clean Factory You Have

650,000 sq ft of immaculate production space. And an obsession with recycling (yay!). Throughout the factory were bins for trash, paper, and cans. Plus they recycle everything not used in making a bike. Cut a mold for a fender and there’s scrap steel remaining–HD recycled 4,000 tons last year.

Man vs Robot

Robots do a lot of the work: they’re twice as fast. But a human still inspects everything the robot does. Because robots are fallible, and lives are at stake. So after a robot welds, a master welder inspects every contact and touches up as needed. If there were adjustments, he notes it in the computer so that robot #45 can get a talking-t0 after class (AKA adjusted).

Some work remains 100% manual, typically for the custom orders.

The crew works in teams of 6-8 and those teams meet daily to confer about how things are going. Robot #45 isn’t welding well, we could do [xxx] process faster or it needs more time. This is worked out on the floor and shared with management for constant evolution of the production line. Power from the people.

Production

Harley and Davidson were actual people (several Davidson brothers, FYI) and in 1903 they produced three bikes.

By 1913 there were 12,966 bikes. Nicely done! In 16 years they became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world; and production doubled every year during WWII. Yet by 1985 they were near bankruptcy. They’re back on track now with over 200,000 bikes produced in 2011.

There are four factories in the US: seats, engines, and two who build bikes. Plus a year-round test track in Arizona.

The factory is divided into these departments: fenders, fuel tanks, frames, paint, assembly.

Harley Davidson Factory

photo courtesy of the tour brochure

 A Masterpiece in Paint

HD is known for their paint quality–it won’t scratch, get dinged by rocks or mottled by ice. Oh how I wish nail polish could say the same….

Powder vs liquid paint is the key. Along with very specific and intensive processes.

The paint room is a sealed area, so that no debris from the factory mucks things up. The crew wears a new pair of overalls every day so their clothes don’t collect particles or an old paint color. Before going to work, they go through an air shower to eliminate dust particles that inevitably cling to us all; walk on sticky paper to clean their shoes; aren’t allowed to bring in newspapers or Kleenex for the lint that they create; and have a list of lotions, shampoos, deodorant and such that they can and cannot use for how they interact with the paint. I’m totally serious.

Some context to illustrate how seriously they take the paint job:

  • It takes two hours to assemble a bike
  • A one-color bike takes seven hours to paint
  • A two-color bike takes 12 hours.

Safety Last

Once built, every single bike goes through a rigorous roll test and inspection. All bikes are road-worthy.

Additionally, auditors will follow the construction of a bike at random and then deconstruct it, checking for anything that needs to be fixed in the process. They also ride the bike for 25 miles. This takes five hours (the whole process, not the ride).

Customer Relations

Upon leaving we got a postcard of the tour, which we could mail from the site and they would pay for the postage. Plus a button saying we went on a tour. Brilliant.

Who thinks about a parking lot? Harley Davidson does, with dedicated spots for bikes. I thought it was beautiful.

Motorcyle Parking at the Harley Davidson Tour

It’s a fantasy/goal of mine to ride a bike. And let’s be honest, it won’t be by myself. I can’t even ride a pedal bike! (That adage “it’s just like riding a bike” doesn’t apply to me.) So at some point I’ll befriend a biker and ask for a hosted ride. I just didn’t have the guts to ask at the tour. Dammit.

***

What’s your adventure goal?

6 Responses

07.18.12

Great … something else for your mother to worry about.

That’s EXACTLY what she said!

07.18.12

I’m sure lots of folks would love to give you a ride! I got to be a bit of an expert rider (not driver) in Africa and love it.

ok, missy – you need to tell more about becoming an expert rider in Africa!

07.18.12

Your Comments
Paula, I sent this to a Harley Biker couple that I know, and now they want to go here as part of his 70th birthday celebration in October.
So, thanks much.
Diane

How awesome! What a fun gift you gave them, and to me bu knowing they were inspired!

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