Recreational tube cutting

Polaris Industries forever changed its production methods with laser tube cutters

The FABRICATOR August 2005
August 9, 2005
By: Dan Davis

In the 1990s, Polaris Industries Inc. realized it needed to rethink the way tube fabricating was done at its Osceola, Wis., facility. Laser tube cutting proved to be the answer.

The exposed chassis of Polaris' Predator ATV shows just how important tubing has become in the aesthetics of product design.

Hear the word "pioneers" and Osceola, Wis., at the same time, and you might assume the talk is about the early settlers who set their sights on the picturesque St. Croix River Valley for the first time. However, this isn't the story of the brave souls who carved out an existence in the New World. It's the story of a recreational vehicle manufacturer planning its survival in the New Economy.

Way back in the late 1990s, Polaris Industries Inc. realized it needed to rethink the way it fabricated tube at its Osceola, Wis., facility. This was no small consideration. Tubular components played a huge part in the frame, suspension, and steering assemblies of the company's snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and utility vehicles.

Meanwhile the machinery used to fabricate these components occupied a huge amount of floor space. The tube-fabricating process required several different pieces of equipment dedicated to activities such as cutting-to-length, drilling, punching, etc.

Huge equipment footprints, labor-intensive manufacturing, aging equipment—these fear factors forced Osceola managers and engineers to look for a new manufacturing miracle.

Polaris found the answer in a laser-based tube cutting system from Italy. The company was on the verge of pioneering the use of the technology in North America.

Arrivederci to Labor Cost

Polaris' manufacturing engineers Gary McTavish and Pat Sheridan discovered the laser technology at FABTECH® International in Chicago in 1999. It was a laser-based tube cutting system supplied by Italy's BLM Group, a pioneer in its own right. The technology supplier claimed to be the first to develop a laser system to cut straight, round tubes up to 21 feet long.

One employee operates the cell where these ATV handlebars are cut and bent. The tube is oriented correctly before the bend occurs. More than 120,000 of these parts are produced each year.

For the first part of 2000, Polaris' engineers closely evaluated the Lasertube system and compared it with its own equipment back in Osceola. In hindsight, the task played a very important part in the evolution of the company's fabricating operation, but in reality it was just standard operating procedure.

"One of the main things that we focus on year in and year out in all of our operations is productivity improvement," said Al Hogen, Polaris' director of operations for Osceola. "And we use technology opportunities as kind of the driving force to help us meet our objectives each year when it comes to productivity. You have to do things differently in order to make leaps in productivity. You just can't ask people to work harder.

"So the opportunity with the laser actually began with our first encounter with seeing what technology was out there," he continued. "Going, seeing it, and saying 'Wow, think of a snowmobile trailing arm [found on the front-end suspension] and what we do today to make that with the laser.'"

Polaris' engineers determined that labor savings would result from such an investment, and in December 2000 the company completed installation of its first Lasertube system. By this time BLM Group had developed a second-generation machine capable of cutting not only round, but also square, rectangular, and oval tubes.

In a story published in Industrial Laser Solutions in May 2003, Sheridan and McTavish of Polaris Industries and Jim Rutt of BLM Group USA detailed the impact the Lasertube made in its first six months. An analysis examined 14 tubular components used in snowmobile and ATV designs and how conventional manufacturing methods matched up against the laser tube cutting equipment. The study revealed that the laser cutting system helped eliminate, on average, 74 percent of direct labor required to operate the older equipment and produce 650,000 parts annually. In addition, because the laser cutting equipment was able to hold tighter tolerances, quality improved. Further down the fabricating process, welders found that cycle times were decreasing because the more intricately cut tubes fit up more frequently the first time.

Polaris' Osceola facility is home to the company's exhaust group, which supplies exhaust systems for all snowmobiles, ATVs, and even the Victory line of motorcycles. In most instances, complete exhaust systems are fabricated and delivered ready for assembly at one of Polaris' other facilities.

Osceola was on the verge of changing as much as its own market was changing.

"It's funny how the transition has been around here," Hogen said. "Polaris used to be a snowmobile company primarily, and then we go into the ATV business. Now we're a powersports organization. More than 60 percent of our work is done on ATVs. We also have other things going on with the Victory motorcycles and utility vehicles. Then if you take a look at the Osceola organization you see similarities in terms of more diversification. There used to be lots of presses in this facility. Now we've moved to welding, painting, cutting tube, and manufacturing engines and seats," he added. "We've gone from the presswork being the lion's share of the work to tube forming being the focus."

Laserlike Focus

Just because it's been more than four years since the first Lasertube was installed, it doesn't mean that Polaris' Osceola facility hasn't moved forward with more productivity improvements. If anything, the laser cutting system inspired further searches for efficiency and, as a result, more investments.

Polaris purchased two more Lasertube systems over the next two years. The company added a fourth in 2004 and is expecting another to be installed this summer. Hogen said each new generation of technology is faster than the last and, as a result, delivers a quicker return on investment.

These "miracle machines," technology developed in-house to drill holes, cut tubing, and bend the product into its final shape, represented leading-edge technology for its day. Now jobs that were once done on these manual devices are fabricated on the laser tube cutters.

"Today we can buy a new laser, and the return is still attractive. All we have to do is take the parts off the first-generation laser and put them on the new-generation laser. The ability of those new lasers to run varied product from load to load has improved as well," he said.

Hogen estimated that Polaris' fourth laser cutting system cuts tubing at least 40 percent faster than the first generation model purchased.

With such efficiencies possible, Polaris' engineers constantly review vehicle components to see if they can be fabricated more efficiently on the lasers.
The previously mentioned snowmobile trailing arm symbolizes the gigantic leap in production efficiency that's possible. At one time this tubular component required an operator to mill an end, cope an end, drill several holes, and punch out an oval hole. The laser cutting system reduced this multistep operation to a one-step process: load the machine. Now Polaris Industries annually turns out 120,000 of these trailing arms, and the job requires only one operator to oversee it.

"The results of this approach have been better quality and better cost. We have not had a laser part rejected from our customers or returned since 1999," said Hogen, who quickly amended the statement after forgetting about one part order that was simply programmed incorrectly.

"But other than that, we don't see returns. We don't get errors," he said.

Of course, the technology can do the job only with shop floor assistance. Polaris' employees have rallied around the technology over the years, even though, on the surface, it may appear to be a threat to their jobs.

Polaris' Osceola, Wis., fabrication facility has four laser tube cutters and a fifth is expected to be added this summer. The plan to redesign the shop floor calls for all of the units to align along the back wall, forming what will be known as Laser Alley.

"As far as the employee base is concerned, we've always taken the approach that productivity improvement will not be at the cost of jobs. The idea here is that productivity improvement allows us to continue to grow our business, because growth is one of our major initiatives," Hogen said.

Polaris employs more than 700 people who work three shifts over a five-day workweek. The lasers, however, run 24 hours, seven days a week, and operators working with the equipment work 12-hour shifts. Hogen described the operators as self-directed, requiring no higher level of supervisors or technicians watching them over their shoulders.

Continuing Education

That independence comes after time, according to Hogen.

That doesn't end the need for education. Hogen and his team are focusing efforts on educating product designers within the Polaris family. But these lessons aren't so much about running an automated laser cutting device. They are about a new approach to joint design—;showing engineers how parts can come together now with a simple weld without the need for mechanical fasteners or some other means of joining components.

Innovation on Polaris' shop floor is not limited to the latest in tube cutting. The company invested in a robotic welding cell to weld the seat and back frame for its Ranger utility vehicles. Before investing in the automated equipment, company management considered sending the parts to China for fabrication, but Osceola representatives convinced the decision-makers that part could be made cost-effectively in the U.S.

Polaris' new Predator ATV is a good example. The sport vehicle features a chassis of rounded tube, which is much more exposed than a traditional ATV and provides a different aesthetic than square tubing. In addition, the steel tubing is much more robust given the terrain to which the ATV likely will be exposed. The Osceola facility bends and cuts the tubes that ultimately will be welded in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and assembled to the rest of the vehicle.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world [to educate our designers]. We're 350 miles away from Roseau, Minn. [where a design center is located]," Hogen said. "But it's really up to us to act more like a supplier at times, going up, giving them samples, and saying, "These are our capabilities. This is what we can do for our products.'

"Our mission statement here in Osceola is to earn the opportunity to be the supplier of choice. We don't get the business because we're part of Polaris. We don't get it because it's a rite of passage. We've got to earn it, and we earn it by staying up on the latest technology, driving cost, driving quality, and educating our

The communication between the shop floor and product designers is imperative because the recreational vehicle market, particularly for snowmobiles and to a lesser extent ATVs, is driven by innovation. Potential vehicle owners want a reason to buy, and current vehicle owners want a reason to replace the equipment they have.

So the fabricating experts in Osceola will continue to reach out to the snowmobile and ATV product designers in Roseau and the Victory motorcycle designers soon to be headquartered in nearby Wyoming, Minn. Also, the fifth laser soon will be delivered, and it will be positioned against the facility's back wall. Laser Alley will be up and running by the end of the summer, Hogen said.

There's certainly little time for rest in keeping up with the demands of the recreational industry.

Polaris Industries Inc., 805 Seminole Ave., Osceola, WI 54020, 715-294-3370,

BLM Group USA Corp., 46950 Magellan Drive, Wixom, MI 48393, 248-560-0080, fax 248-560-0083,

Dan Davis

Dan Davis

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8281

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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