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Sept. 22, 2008 – Inside one of Harley’s engine-building plants

September 22, 2008
Filed under Features

WAUWATOSA, Wis. — Decades ago, this suburb of Milwaukee housed a facility that assembled propellers for the B29, one of the largest bombers that flew during World War II.
Today, that very same facility is home to assembly of a dramatically different type of power plant, a Harley-Davidson engine.
The facility, all 459,000 square feet of it, is a curious mixture of old and new. The plant, along with the manufacturer’s other powertrain operations site, was on display during Harley-Davidson’s recent 105th anniversary.
The Wauwatosa facility features not only a massive collection of state-of-the-art machinery — robotic arms seemed as numerous as human ones at times — but machines that are older than their operators. That’s because the more than 600 employees at this site not only develop Buell, Sportster and Blast powertrains here, but also parts for Harley-Davidson motorcycles that date back to the 1930s.
Steve Johnson, a Harley-Davidson employee who led the tour, noted the manufacturer is not required to produce parts for motorcycles that old but sees the advantages in continuing to provide such a customer service.
“Most auto companies are only supporting up to 10 years” of parts for noncurrent models, Johnson said.
The mix of old and new is not just seen on the manufacturing floor and the machining centers that are each worth millions of dollars but also in the design of the powertrains. Such is the case with the charging systems that are made at the facility. The 45 amp, three-phase charging systems, delivered in all Harley models except the V-Rod, feature an older technology design not common to other motorcycle manufacturers. The older design, however, allows the company to maintain the overall appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle without sacrificing product quality, Johnson says.
“Styling is a core competency of Harley,” he said.
That’s certainly shown in the company’s transmission design, and more specifically, the transmission gears.
“Our package that we have to fit that transmission in, because of styling constraints, requires that we finish these gear keys to a tighter tolerance than what other people would do,” Johnson said. “That way we can take that noise out (of the transmission) and still maintain that envelop that we put the transmission in.
“Other manufacturers who make outstanding motorcycles have bigger envelopes to work with. So they will not grind these gear teeth because it’s not necessary. It doesn’t impact the performance of the product. But they control the noise by insulation because they have more space to work with. We can’t do that.”
So Harley has invested in multi-million machines that can produce these gears that must be shaped to precise measurements. Johnson noted it’s “the price we pay for the styling that we have. It is a core competency.
“It is Harley-Davidson and it’s well worth it.”

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