They say that once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you never forget, but re-capturing the bicycle manufacturing process, while updating it with robotics and automation, is a new challenge for U.S. bicycle manufacturer Kent International, Inc.
Kent’s Manning, S.C., plant started out assembling in-sourced parts, but the facility, led by Kent Chairman and CEO Arnold Kamler, is beginning to produce more of its components, including rims, handlebars, frames and forks—the most expensive components.
“Production of the frame and fork will require precise forming, welding and finish work," Kamler says. "There are eleven separate pieces being welded into the frame, and they have to be cut and machined perfectly to allow for robotic welding, with eleven welds required to connect the frame.
He adds, as well: “Steel is very temperamental; it’s like snowflakes—there is no one steel the same, so every bike frame has to be checked for alignment. After the frames are welded, they may need to be straightened out with a rubber mallet and precise alignment dies."
"Early in my career, while visiting a factory with my father, I saw workers use a rubber mallet at the end of the process," Kamler recalls. "I winced, but Dad said, ‘If you ever go into a factory, and you don’t see a rubber mallet hammer, run away as fast as you can…’"
After the robot has completed frame welding and alignment, the frame moves to painting. “That means that welding, cutting, bending and painting are the biggest challenges we will have," Kamler says. But he's confident the company will succeed: "Remember, Kent is a joint venture, majority-owned by me, but our partners own a huge factory in China that is already doing robotic welding," he says. "We are getting training and equipment from them. They’re doing it now in China, and for them the first time was the tough part. So the way I see our challenge is that this is like the partners expanding their own factory."
When you are rebirthing the bicycle business in the U.S., it makes us all very proud."
— Arnold Kamler, Chairman & CEO, Kent International, Inc.
He adds that the struggle is worth it. "When you are rebirthing the bicycle business in the U.S., it makes us all very proud.
Other considerations Kamler must take into consideration as he directs his company to build more of its own bicycle components include the following:
Wheels: One of the bigger challenges is wheel building. To build one wheel, an assembler first inserts the 36 spokes into the front and rear hubs and then inserts the spokes thru the rim. Next, the nipples are attached and tightened to the spoke. The wheel then needs to be aligned within Kent’s strict standards.
“We have spent a lot of money to purchase state-of-the-art wheel-building equipment, but there also is a learning curve for our workers,” says Kamler. “They are improving every week, and we are on schedule."
"Right now we are able to process 2,000 wheels a day, enough for our current production of 800 bikes," he adds. "We are ramping up to 1,000 bikes a day by June of this year, and the ultimate target for 2016 is 2,000 bikes a day—so the wheel-building department will be under pressure at that time."
With the equipment Kent has purchased, it needs only 14 workers, compared to 30 to 32 under the manual method still used in many factories.
Rims: Fabrication of aluminum rims is relatively easy, because several companies produce relatively inexpensive, but highly automated machinery to make them, according to Kamler. One challenge is to find the right machinery. With the machinery costing $250,000, he plans to investigate the options thoroughly. Another challenge is to find the best supplier of anodized aluminum, with which the rims are built.
"Our goal in the beginning is to make 2,000 wheels per day in one shift," he says. "If we were to use the manual systems traditionally used in China, we would need thirty workers; with automation, we’ll need only 13 workers." He adds: "China is moving toward more machinery, and some are making wheels with automation—we feel like we just skipped an entire jump."
- Steel: Steel will be sourced domestically. Kamler says Kent receives calls daily from steel suppliers assuring him a steady supply of carbon steel and steel tubing, all at the same price as China’s.
Tires: Kent would prefer to source tires domestically, but all the U.S. tire manufacturers are focused on serving the automobile market. Kamler explains that, lthough most tire companies started out in the bicycle business, they moved on to motorcycles, and then to the automotive business—and never looked back, because automobile tire manufacturing is much more lucrative.
Kamler has considered stocking a U.S.-based just-in-time warehouse with imported tires headed to Kent, but hasn't done so yet. He points out: “[A JIT warehouse of imported tires wouldn't] change the [made-in-America] content percentage, but it would make our lives easier.”
- Wheels/Rims: Kent bought and installed machines to build wheels in July 2014, which reduced the time to build each wheel by 60%.
As far as production process improvement is concerned, continuous improvement is an approach that's working at Kent. Kamler proudly points out that the factory workforce is is finding and implementing good tips.
“You always have to listen," Kamler asserts. "We’re looking at every single process. We have a team of six people here, two of whom are engineers who have been in manufacturing for many years. The factory general manager is an engineer with great experience in robotic welding and power coating and painting."
While Kamler takes on the challenge of reshoring the manufacture of bicycle componenets, Kent’s three main competitors are taking a wait-and-see approach. None of the three produce in the US, and all remain in China and Taiwan.
Kamler notes that one, a competitor with whom he is very friendly, wishes Kent the best of luck. “They will watch and learn," he says, adding: "A second competitor thinks I’m crazy.”
And the third? “Silence," Kamler says.