Inside Arctic Cat's Engine Assembly Plant
Made in Minnesota engines power Arctic Cat vehicles worldwide
Story by Jerry Bassett, Photography by Jerry Bassett & Arctic Cat, Oct. 12, 2012
About an hour north of Minneapolis, Minn. sits a boxy structure that could be mistaken for a huge redesigned Best Buy or other topical warehouse store of this modern age of marketing. The giveaway that this location, which sits off busy Interstate 94 heading north and west, isn’t a shelter for low priced electronic goods or IKEA-like furniture lies within the green Arctic Cat logo and even larger Arctic Cat lettering emblazoned across the top of the stone grey building.
This building houses Arctic Cat’s engine assembly. From this central Minnesota building flow all Arctic Cat ATV engines over 500cc. The powerful 951cc hemi-headed V-twin comes from here. The smooth 550cc fuel-injected single comes from here. Just off Interstate 94 in central Minnesota.
When we ventured out to see what goes on at the St. Cloud facility, Arctic Cat’s plant manager, Steve Schwartz, and assistant plant manager, Scott Doyel, generously showed us around. We were given ample question and answer time in the main conference room and the pair walked us workstation by workstation through assembly of a single cylinder 550 and then showing us how production differs on constructing the larger displacement twin cylinder engine.
Opened in 2007
The St. Cloud building began producing Arctic Cat designed and engineered ATV motors in 2007. While Arctic Cat markets a variety of ATVs and side-by-sides, the main engine packages of a 1000cc V-twin, and 700cc and 550 singles cover the power needs of most Cat consumers. Engines of less than 500cc displacement are outsourced, but it is the Minnesota-built motors that power the bulk of ATV and UTV sales, including the hot-selling new Wildcat.
Sitting on 15 acres, the current plant utilizes 56,000 square feet for two assembly lines, product storage and warehousing, plus space for quality assurance engineers and requisite office space for staff. When initially built by Winkelman Building Corporation, the plant was designed so it could be expanded to 152,400 square feet by simply removing the end wall and extending the sidewalls straight out. There is a plan in the works for possible expansion as Arctic Cat management indicated in June 2010 that the company would build its own line of snowmobile engines in fiscal 2015. According to the local St. Cloud Times newspaper, Arctic Cat expects to move snowmobile engine production to St. Cloud by 2014.
Currently Arctic Cat employs 40-plus people at the plant, depending on sales volume. The ATV engine production can be scheduled on a nearly year-round basis as ATVs are not season-dependent like snowmobiles, which may see spikes in the product cycle and sales can ebb and flow with snow from season to season.
When we visited the engine facility in mid September, both engine production lines were up and running. Schwartz confirmed that production for the single cylinder engine takes less time to assemble per unit than the twin, as you’d suspect. Simply, there are fewer pieces to put together.
When we visited, we were struck by the quality of the procedures. Maybe not a ballet of worker motion, but certainly smooth flow made more complicated by the fact that most every workstation requires more than one operation is completed before the product moves down the line. We were impressed by how somewhat complicated processes had been simplified and codified to minimize any human error. In fact, production errors in assembly remain extremely low for the volume and complexity of the pieces being assembled. Each engine has more than 400 parts that need be placed properly in a controlled and quick sequence.
Computers and computerized tools assist in keeping nuts and bolts at the correct torque setting. Very expensive tools may look like the small air-powered torque wrenches many of us have in our garage shops, but they are unique and programmed to read from pre-scripted computer codes to set head bolts and the myriad of other fasteners used to fit induction and exhaust systems. Shims and washers get a push from computer-guided mini-presses. Pickers gather parts and deliver them so that some subassembly can be done at the workstations and then fit to the engine product at various stages as the line continues moving.
Slowly, well not so slowly actually, the engine becomes a reality ready for CVT sheaves and final checks. Schwartz points to a “cold test” station that provides final data about each individual engine. Since the assembly process makes extensive use of bar coding, each engine ends up with its own unique history. Should there be a failure, plant personnel can trace the problem back to the exact process or part that failed. The cold test acts to ferret out problems as it checks minute details like where the piston reaches top dead center, projected fuel intake data and such. Prior to this test, each engine must pass a pressure-test that checks for leaks in the motor that might occur around various engine seals, exhaust leakage and so on. Once the engine reaches the end of the assembly line, it passes through a “hot” test room where it is started up, run through a special performance cycle and then if it passes it’s given final approval to be shipped off to Arctic Cat’s ATV manufacturing line in Thief River Falls.
When we arrived at the plant for our tour, we didn’t know what to expect. Would there be huge multi-ton presses stamping out cylinders and crankcases? Would there be rows of articulating robots? None to little of that resides in this structure. Instead the plant managers pointed to a map of the world penetrated by colored pins, each representing a country or vendor that supplies parts to the St. Cloud plant, which is most properly referred to as an assembly plant and not a manufacturing plant – depending on your interpretation of those words.
Each day the plant receives product, most of it finished, such as cylinders from the best cylinder makers in Europe. Look east to fuel injection systems. The CVT drives come from the same folks who supply the snowmobile side. Arctic Cat engines are truly a gathering of global product that comes together in St. Cloud to fit in a vehicle assembled in Thief River Falls for use around the world. It all comes full circle.
During our tour we saw pallets of “short block” engines destined for warehousing at Arctic Cat’s Bucyrus, Ohio parts distribution center. These short blocks came off the same assembly line, but were gathered up before becoming final ready-to-install units. We saw the “gold standard” engine, which is a certified unit used to check current engines if an error should arise.
Off the main floor in a small out of the way lab, we watched a technician fiddle with incoming pieces to double check that quality standards are met and vendors haven’t chosen to take a production shortcut that might impugn Arctic Cat standards. The lab maintains a source of cataloged materials as reference points that can be measured on all kinds of engineering paraphernalia. It is another resource for maintaining the integrity of Arctic Cat’s ATV powerplants.
While gadgets, gizmos and computers may be handy for consistent quality, Arctic Cat’s main resource is the people at the St. Cloud plant. There is a quiet pride felt as you walk the line, watch the pickers gather parts, see the engines started up, run and accepted for final sign-off. When you sit in that Wildcat or throw a leg over the seat of a 550 XT, you’ll know that there’s made-in-America pride in every cubic centimeter of displacement powering your Arctic Cat.
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