The Kawasaki flag flies proudly over Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing facility in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Kawasaki designed and built this 3000-ton press to mold fiberglass bodies and component parts for Jet Skis.
What do the 1975 Kawasaki KZ400, 2001 KZ1000 police bike, Kawasaki Prairie 250 three-wheeler and the Jet Ski 900A STX all have in common? They were all produced at Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing (KMM) in Lincoln, Nebraska, as Kawasaki became the first foreign motorcycle manufacturer to operate a plant in the United States.
Since its construction in April 1974 as a motorcycle assembly plant for Kawasaki Motors Corp., the Kawasaki plant in Lincoln has cranked out over three million vehicles. The first motorcycle produced there, a 1975 KZ400, rolled off the line in January of 1975. That summer, the plant also began producing Jet Ski Watercraft, starting a continuous expansion of models to roll of its assembly lines.
Over the course of 36 years, KMM has produced 36 different models of motorcycles, seven different snowmobiles, 44 models of Jet Ski, 46 different ATVs, 44 models of Utility and Recreation Utility Vehicles, 27 different models of industrial robots and nine rail car types. In all, over 213 different models have come out of the factory. It has also made over 25 million wheels for Kawasaki and other manufacturers including Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha and Bombardier. Though KMM doesn’t produce motorcycles, snowmobiles or robots any more, they are still an integral part to the plant’s storied history.
The Lincoln Plant currently produces Jet Ski Watercraft, All-Terrain Vehicles, Utility Vehicles, ATV & UV rims, Recreation Utility Vehicles and rail cars. Its Consumer Products division is responsible for manufacturing ATVs, UVs, RUVs and Jet Skis, models that have never been produced at Kawasaki Heavy Industries Akashi Factory in Japan. The plant has been so productive that in December of 1981, it split away from Kawasaki Motors Corp. to form its own entity, Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing, and in January of 1989 the Maryville Engine Plant, in nearby Maryville, Missouri, was established as a division of KMM.
The two million-plus square-foot production facility now employs over 1200 people. Motorcycle USA recently traveled to Lincoln to celebrate the 3,000,000th vehicle to roll of its assembly line, a 2011 Teryx 750 FI 4×4 Sport. Inspired by speeches from KMM President Matsuhiro Asano and Vice-President/Plant Manager Mike Boyle, a raucous round of applause filled the plant’s ATV 4 crating area as production stopped in honor of the momentous occasion.
“Today let’s celebrate our achievement,” President Asano said.
The Production Display Room houses a vast array of different vehicles that have been produced at KMM. Over 213 models have rolled out of the factory over the course of 36 years, including the first motorcycle produced there, a 1975 KZ400.
KMM employees operate within the Kawasaki Production System (KPS), a “flexible technique that uses efficient workflow and worker involvement to produce a better quality product.” It utilizes strict methods of inventory control and eliminates wasted motion. Often parts are made in-house on special presses located right on the assembly line. This equates to no shortages or excess inventory on these items, which helps keep costs down. The “just in time” supply method eliminates expensive warehousing and over-ordering of parts. KMM’s work force is also very flexible, as workers often shuffle between different assembly lines and stations. The KPS combines the best of Japanese and American techniques and is modeled after the Toyota Production and Manufacturing System, which was developed first.
A new employee will undergo eight hours of total training before they step on the line. They first must learn about
inventory control, a process that includes four hours in the classroom where the importance of safety is emphasized and the intricacies of KMM’s production systems are relayed. Next it’s off to a practice assembly line where workers learn how to use torque wrenches and guns. One torque wrench can have multiple settings based on model and country it is being shipped to, so a lot is thrown new employees way in a short amount of time. A mixed-model assembly line requires assembly line workers to perform multiple tasks from any given station. The line does have safeguards that will halt production if the wrong torque wrench settings are accidently used, but overall it is an almost fail-safe process. An Andon system allows workers to control conveyor operation and help maintain quality standards by signaling supervisors as soon as they encounter a problem they need assistance with. KMM also offers a two-week welder training course as it does a lot of internal promotion.
Walking into the cavernous warehouse-style building, the sounds of mass production fill the air as horns blow intermittently, bells beep, lights flash and sparks fly. The smell of machine oil permeates the building. ATV frames suspended on hooks slowly make their way down the assembly line, stopping at each station for an average of four to five minutes before moving to the next. Three days after assorted parts arrive, they are assembled into a finished vehicle. Production time is approximately 25 labor hours per-unit from start to finish and a fully assembled vehicle comes off the line every four to five minutes.
The plant operates with Orwellian efficiency. Arms of welding robots bend and rotate with surgical precision, a CNC machine makes perfect bends on thick pipes, lasers cut through sheet metal while more robots weld, paint, and bond. An automated guided cart affectionately called “Mad Max” rolls from one end of the production line to the other while it follows a painted line on the floor. A monolithic 3000-ton press molds fiberglass bodies and component parts for Jet Skis while a coil-fed press and shear stamps out rectangular and round blanks for wheels. A sophisticated robotic ink transcription process allows KMM to apply intricate graphic designs to ATVs. It’s mass production at its finest.
Sure, robots and machines make jobs efficient, but it’s the people at KMM’s plant in Lincoln, Nebraska that make the difference.
But it’s the people behind the machines that make the difference. Welders still form beads by hand, torque wrenches are still operated manually and wiring is woven around frames by steady hands and eagle eyes. Diagnostic checks, from lights to horns to brakes, are all done by individuals as humans are ultimately responsible for the operation of machinery. A position at KMM is highly touted, a point emphasized by the shuttle driver taking me to the airport who had tried in vain to get on there numerous times. Technology expedites and streamlines processes, but it’s the people that work at KMM that make all the difference. A machine doesn’t take pride in the job it does. But the workers at Kawasaki’s Lincoln plant do.