The rumors of Polaris building its own snowmobile engines had been hot and heavy for a couple years. Engineers were being added, new design equipment was being brought on line and the factory in Osceola, Wisconsin, was expanding. Clearly the stage was set for the move.
Despite the prolonged buildup, however, there still was great anticipation. Nobody had built a snowmobile motor on this continent since the Mercury, Scorpion and OMC efforts of the early- to mid-1970s. The snowmobile industry had grown to its modem era with powerplants wholly built in Japan and Austria. Could home-cookin’ compete?
Even the most optimistic visionaries, though, could not have predicted the success of Polaris’ line of U.S.-built, liquid-cooled twins. The 700cc mill came first and it immediately became the rage in the mountain states. It offered so much brute force power, such snappy, low-end torque that everybody who tried it immediately fell in love with its broad power-band and responsiveness.
Next came the 440cc twin found in the race special, the XCR 440. Although the variable exhaust valve system proved to be somewhat high maintenance, the strength of the motor was beyond question. Polaris drivers used the mill and the XCR’s new front end to recapture cross-country snowmobile racing’s biggest crown, the ISOC GMC Ten Star 500, and to win points titles in the ultra-popular MRP World Series of Snocross.
With merely one year on the snow, Polaris’ engine project has already proven to be wildly successful. For 1998, the 700 twin was expanded to more models and a sleeved brother for the 600 class was introduced. The move has proved very profitable, as dealers across the country report that the XC and RMK models with the American motors were the most asked for, talked about and purchased sleds in the Polaris line this past spring and summer.
We’re still waiting to see what Polaris does with 440 race engine for the coming race season, but reports out of the Roseau, Minnesota, headquarters are promising. Polaris officials tell us the motor has many of the same features but it has been refined with new parts throughout.
With all of this excitement about the new U.S. twins, we decided to pay Polaris’ OsceoIa plant a visit. We have been to Roseau many times and were expecting a bit more of the same. Well we did find the same work ethic and dedication, but it was combined with more high-tech equipment, more quality check points and more exacting procedures.
Osceola: Not Just For Stamping Anymore!
Polaris expanded into Wisconsin in 1991, when the company purchased an existing facility from Western Industries. Previously, Western had been doing metal stamping and some fabricating for Polaris, so it was a vertical acquisition for the sled, watercraft and ATV manufacturer.
Western Polk County is a wonderful setting for this large facility. The plant is located within a mile of the twisting, scenic St. Croix River that separates Wisconsin from Minnesota. The landscape was carved by this once vast river, leaving rolling hills and lush farmland in its wake. Osceola is a quaint city of just more than 2,000 people and serves as a distant bedroom community for Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The purchase came at a perfect time for Polaris, which was in line for a monstrous growth spurt that would lead the company toward its current $1 billion in annual sales. Starting with stamping and tube fabricating, the plant soon became Polaris’ factory of choice for exhaust systems, seats, clutches ‘and now engines for all of its product lines.
The vast growth of materials created at Osceola is reflected in many ways, including employment. When Polaris took over in 1991, 147 people worked at the plant. That nearly tripled within two years, growing to a total employment of 414 in 1993. In 1996, about 800 people were employed at Polaris in Osceola, creating an annual payroll of more than $16.5 million.
The growth is also reflected in physical growth and total investment. Polaris has invested $3 million to $4 million annually in infrastructure, not including tooling, and Polaris now controls a 43-acre site. Total floor space is about 270,000 square feet, with Polaris currently utilizing about 230,000 square feet and leasing the rest to another business.
“I would match the work ethic here with any plant I’ve ever been associated with,” said Dick Strenge, plant manager, “These are just damn good people.”
Take A Peek Inside
Moving past the numbers and statistics, Polaris’ Osceola plant was expansive and impressive. The floors were spotless, the workers seemed very intent on their work and everybody we met spoke with great pride about their chosen vocation and employer.
Walking through the plant, it seemed like we should turn a corner and see complete snowmobile production somewhere. Everywhere we looked another key part was being produced— clutches were being balanced in one corner while seat foam was being molded elsewhere. There was a lot to take in.
After walking through a tubing area where racks were being created for ATVs, we passed a stamping area where tunnels, bulkheads, heat shields and other products were being created. Huge rolls of shiny aluminum weighing 6,900 pounds each fed the stamping machines. Each roll contained as much as 3,500 linear feet of aluminum, and we watched momentarily as the stamping press hammered out the shapes of a couple of more tunnels.
Next we visited the area where pipes are created. One person controlled two robotic machines. He or she would feed in the necessary pieces, then the welding robot would go to work, moving around the metal contraption and providing expert welds where needed. While one machine was welding, the other was ready to be loaded with expansion chamber halves.
During our spring visit, triple pipes for Fuji- built XCR 700 engines were on most robotic welders, while others were changing over to pipes for Polaris’ own 700 XC mill.
Polaris also is using an extensive audit station system, and we saw it in action here with the pipes. Each pipe was set in a pre-designed metal structure with perfectly placed brackets to make sure everything is exactly to specifications.
The clutching area came next. Polaris revolutionized the sport with its clutching system as the 1960s gave way to the l970s, and the same dedication required to produce that design is shown everyday here on the line. Workers were assembling both drive and driven clutches. Each clutch is also computer spin- balanced to ensure that everything is proper.
We’ve seen seat production elsewhere, but it always amazes us. In Osceola, a man in a space-suit like outfit could be found in a sealed room. Peering through a window, we watched the astronaut look-alike use a big overhead nozzle to shoot the proper chemicals into an enclosed mold. The chemicals he uses to create the foam are hazardous as raw material, head seat man Kevin McCormick explained, but are safe when they are mixed. That’s why the man in the space-suit must protect himself, yet the foam pops out of the mold shortly after it leaves this enclosed world and then rotates openly above the shop floor while the seat interiors cure.
Elsewhere, a group of mostly women operated a long row of sewing machines, sewing together seat covers. During seat assembly, the foam seat cushion is slowly compressed while it is installed inside the vinyl cover.
This is just a taste of all the activity we witnessed. But the creme de la creme was still coming — the engine assembly line.
So Complex, It Looks Simple!
OK, we had seen plenty of snowmobile assembly plants before, but engine production was always done elsewhere. I mean, it seems like the powerplants always merely showed up in crates from Fuji, Rotax or Suzuki. (We visited Osceola before we went to Yamaha’s factory in Japan, which was featured in December Snow Goer.) So, obviously, we were excited.
In the end, we were very impressed yet surprised at how seemingly easy the engines came together. This, of course, was merely the assembly process — we didn’t watch the years of development work, followed by testing, retesting and more testing.
Yet here was a line not much longer than a football field, staffed by merely 20 workers, putting together these marvelous pieces of cast iron and metal. The processes were very exacting, but the engines seemed to come together rather simply.
It all started with the crankcases, which showed up in cases from Kurt Manufacturing, a Twin Cities-based Polaris vendor. Each case was bar-coded and each step along the line was recorded on each engine.
Next the crankshafts were tested before being dropped into the split cases. The specs each crankshaft had to meet were to .03 mm — that’s microscopic!
Once the crankshaft was in place, the case was sealed and the NiCaSil-lined cylinders were bolted on top, followed by the cylinder heads. Next came the cooling systems, the intake, the exhaust manifold and the electronics, including the stator valve and flywheel. All bolts along the way were torqued to exact specs by overhead air wrenches set to those standards.
As the engines moved up the straight assembly line, they entered an enclosed area where each and every motor was started. The same set of carbs was bolted to each mill, then the engine was fired and checked out by a computer. If everything checked out, the universal carbs were unbolted and the motor continued up the line.
Out of that running room, the drive clutch was installed on the end of the crank and then some new, clean carbs were added. Then the engines were boxed up, sealed and set for delivery to Polaris’ main plant in Roseau.
About 12 engines per day are pulled from the assembly line and taken to a dyno room for more extensive testing to ensure that nothing is getting lost during the production process.
The process went surprisingly quickly. Polaris has the ability to build about 300 engines per day on this line when running at full speed. During our visit, the rate was about 200 snowmobile engines per day.
All totaled, Polaris employees will build more than 25,000 motors for snowmobiles on this line, and that’s just a part of the big picture. That’s because 85 percent of all of Polaris’ personal watercraft motors are also built in Osceola, and soon engines for Polaris’ Victory motorcycle line will be produced in Osceola as well.
Building On A Good Thing
Polaris officials haven’t played up the “U.S. built” angle as much as we thought they would. They’ve long had “Made In USA” stickers on their sleds, so we expected them to really wave the Stars and Stripes with this deal.
But they haven’t, and there are many reasons. First, Polaris has a very good relationship with its main engine supplier, Fuji, and doesn’t want to burn any bridges. Secondly, playing up the U.S.-built angle on a couple of motors would denigrate the rest of Polaris’ motors.
Moreover, many of the parts on the Polaris U.S. twins come from vendors throughout the world. Cylinders, pistons, crankshafts and ignition parts all come from European vendors, while the Keihin carbs come from Japan. The cases and heads, meanwhile, are made in Minnesota. Such use of international vendors is not uncommon in any form of manufacturing these days, as the worldwide marketplace has caused the builders of everything from toasters to school buses to consider vendors everywhere based on price, quality and availability.
Still, design work is done in North America and assembly is completed in Osceola and that’s worth talking about. It would be moot, however, if the engines didn’t perform. For Polaris, that’s not an issue.
“Thank God we had it,” Polaris Snowmobile Product Manager Bow Crosby said. “I guess it goes without saying that the 700 was a tremendous success, both at high altitude and low altitude. Really, it has become the benchmark that the competition is shooting for.”