Winnebago Industries is in a big battle with other recreational vehicle companies for market share that is in at least a near-term decline as the industry adjusts to a recent slump in sales after a more than decade-long boom. During this unprecedented sales growth, manufacturers consolidated and expanded their customer base and took advantage of consumer behavior that changed during Covid.
The new circumstances make it even more important for Winnebago Industries, based in Forrest City, Iowa, to continuously work on quality in manufacturing at its Iowa and Indiana plants. I recently discussed Winnebago’s approach with Huw Bower, president of the company’s Winnebago brand.
We have invested around specific molding and cutting machines that cut with speed and volume, but also with precision, and this makes the whole assembly process much easier. On the line and in the assembly of cabinets, it is an artisanal environment where they are highly skilled and difficult to automate. But because this automation can control tolerances to a much greater degree, fit and finish become infinitely easier and quality is higher.
What does increasing automation mean to your efforts to improve the production of Winnebagos?
We are constantly looking at automation opportunities. There are routers, cutters and lasers that make our work more efficient and accurate. We are smoothing production to be more closely aligned with retail demand. Our brands are really strong brands and important parts of a dealer’s portfolio. They are not always the largest volume, but they attract attention and have a strong power [profit] margin profile and differentiating message. We are getting an ever-increasing share of dealer ‘shelf space’.
How is your supply chain these days post-Covid?
In the manufacturing environment, we saw a normalization of production rates looking at some new products that we introduced. We are still limited by the chassis and our pipeline inventory is not at the levels we would like. There is an opportunity, as some of the chassis OEMs gain additional capacity, for us to continue to produce high-demand vehicles that have not yet reached ideal levels in the processes.
Are you bringing AI into your factories?
We use advanced technology to upgrade machines such as lasers, routers and cutters that are vertically integrated at our Northern Iowa campus. We have invested in technology around specific molding and cutting machines that cut with speed and volume, but also with precision, and this makes the whole assembly process much easier.
Cabinet assembly is a craft environment and a highly skilled environment, and it is difficult to automate. But because we can now control tolerances to a much greater degree, fit and finish are infinitely easier and quality is higher.
Where we can increasingly use AI is in digital work instructions and training efficiency. We do not use robot assistance in the conventional sense; there is no volume and scale and repeatability in the product line. But we are digitally transforming the operating environment and implementing a new ERP. This will be the digital foundation for future manufacturing improvements in our core Winnebago business in Iowa.
The advantage of being part of Winnebago Industries is that we have a centralized structure and can use volumes for all brands. We have an Advanced Technology Group and a Center of Excellence that are looking for just those [AI] types of opportunities. One of the first areas that could benefit is some of the volume work in our plastics thermoforming area and repeatability in seam fabrication – vertical operations where we can use these insights.
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