18 September 2023
18 September 2023, Comments Comments Off on Focus on winnebago
Focus on winnebago

The Winnebago way: in house, in control

Through the years I have visited many European motorhome factories. From those building entry level vehicles to premium. But I never saw anything like the Winnebago plant in Forest City, Iowa. They really have a different take on things

Words and photo Stefan Janeld

In Europe most factories work in a similar way. They are basically assembly plants that rely heavily on suppliers. Most manufacturers fish in the same sea of suppliers. The difference between brands within the same price range (entry level, mid-level, premium) is more or less about design and some differences in material choices and assembly techniques.
There are advantages to this approach. If suppliers can get large volumes by selling to many manufacturers the cost per unit is kept low. And each manufacturer doesn’t have to carry development costs for similar products. The downside is that you need to keep to the suppliers’ timetable. If you need a new product, you have to wait until the supplier has developed it. This can take months for a simple piece and years for a technically advanced one. In short RV manufacturers are not in full control of their production.

Finding a competitive advantage
When all manufacturers source their products from the same suppliers the drawbacks of the equipment are the same for everyone, so there is little incentive for manufacturers to make their own – because there is no competitive disadvantage! This is the reasoning of most motorhome manufacturers. At least it seems to be, but I doubt any of them would admit to it.
Winnebago has taken another route. In their Forest City facility, they make things no other motorhome manufacturer would ever dream of making themselves. This gives Winnebago a competitive advantage! Not only because they can save on production cost, many times they don’t, but because they can react faster when there is something that needs adjustment.
This saves time and we all know time is money. It also gives the possibility to make custom solutions that fit better into the vehicle. This can save space and is very helpful in smaller vehicles, like vans. It is not by chance that Winnebago makes the best-selling vans in North America. Another advantage is that they can support the customers with spare parts in a way others can only dream about since they have patterns, moulds and schematics going back decades.

Being a large factory in a small town
Forest City has a population of about 4,500 people. Winnebago is by far the largest employer here. This makes some things easier and others more difficult – like finding employees. Having a skilled workforce is crucial and, for a factory of this size, it is a challenge. Because of this they have also some plants spread out in the area, in other small towns, such as van production in Lake Mills, 20 minutes away. Winnebago also has facilities in Minnesota, Indiana and Florida.
Forest City is the main facility, where it all started, and it is huge! As I said before, I have been to many European motorhome factories. But this is the first factory where I have been driven between the different factory buildings. It is more like a small town than a factory. And as all small towns, it has its own water tower.
One thing that I came to understand during my visit is that people enjoy working at Winnebago. Many I spoke with have worked there for decades. As did their parents. In many cases their children also work there. You could think this is of necessity, that they have no other options, but no. Actually, Winnebago needs them just as much as they need Winnebago, so the company treats them well.

Extruding of aluminium profiles
I know, I should have written aluminum, since I am writing about an American company, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Winnebago use an aluminium framework for the walls in their A- and C-class motorhomes, so they need a lot of aluminium studs. They also use different profiles in the interior, and the design teams come up with new profiles for new solutions on a regular basis. Sometimes these profiles need to be adjusted, for one reason or another. Since Winnebago can extrude their own profiles, adjusting is a faster process than if they order from a supplier. And cheaper, because suppliers charge a lot for tooling. I am told tooling is not a big expense for Winnebago.

They make their own plastic mouldings
There are many parts on and in a motorhome made of plastic in different shapes. Everything from larger pieces like shower cabins and dashboards to small details, some that you don’t even pay attention to. Winnebago makes most of these parts themselves. They have machines in different sizes that heats the plastic sheet and then use vacuum to shape it on a mould.
The machines are large, but more impressive than the machines are the sheer number of moulds. Thousands of moulds rest on shelves in the storage area of the building. Some are very old and are not used anymore. If you have a 30-year-old Winnebago and the dashboard is cracked, you can be sure that Winnebago will make you a new one. With the original mould!

Cutting and folding metal
In one building they cut out intricate shapes from metal sheets using lasers. These then go to folding and become brackets and such.
The metal parts that will be used where they are not seen get an E-coat to protect them from corrosion. Since the E-coat is not UV resistant the pieces that are used on the outside of the vehicle get powder coated. All in house!

Winnebago don’t make their own fabrics or tan their own leather. But they do pretty much all else. In a building they call Stitchcraft there is an army of thirty seamstresses using industrial sewing machines of different types. Others quilt fabric or leather into patterns, stitch logos, cut cloth on huge machines, and make cushions. Mattresses are put into their covers by using vacuum, whilst chairs and seats are dressed.

Two story workflow
In most factories I have been to all production is done at ground level. But Winnebago has a way of making the flow in the factory more efficient by using a two-story layout in some of the buildings. The cabinets are made on the second floor of the assembly hall. When the prepared chassis passes under an opening in the floor, the cabinets and furniture is lowered and put on the chassis.
It’s the same with the front masks, dashboards and double floor storage compartments. All are prepared on the upper level and lowered onto the chassis. In the textile facility the seamstresses get their material through a chute from the second floor.

The Forest City facility is a batch one production facility. This means they mix different models of vehicles on the assembly line, unlike some factories that make 10, 20 or even 50 of the same model. Batch one production is more demanding. Not only when it comes to delivery of material to the assembly line. Also, the workers need to be more alert – nothing they do is repetitive routine.

Lithionics now a part of Winnebago Industries
One supplier that has been very important for Winnebago lately is Lithionics, a high-tech company specialised in lithium battery technology. It’s a technique Winnebago has implemented in their vehicles with great success for some years now. In order to secure the know-how Winnebago has recently acquired Lithionics. So now you can say that also battery technology is in house, or at least in company. Lithionics is not based in Forest City, they are situated in Florida.