The Harley-Davidson plant in Springettsbury Township rolled out its first Trikes this week.
The Harley-Davidson plant in Springettsbury Township rolled out its first Trikes this week.

Clayton Brunner has been a bitter Harley-Davidson worker, by his own admission, although he's also glad to still have a job.

Events over the past year or so, from staff cuts to the new contract, led to his unrest.

But the 10-year Harley union employee is now a team lead on the new Trike line, which celebrated its first motorcycles made this week with a special 2010 run of Tri Glide vehicles for Shriners of North America.

Previously, the rear part of the Trikes, or three-wheeled motorcycles, was made by a company in South Dakota.

Local Harley General Manager Ed Magee said in a statement that "being able to bring full assembly in-house is a testament to the hard work of our employees to make York more flexible, sustainable and cost-effective."

The line is a pilot for the way Harley plans to eventually make all its local motorcycles, and comes as one part of a local restructuring designed to keep the company operating here.

Brunner volunteered for his position, after jokes about pursuing the position with a fellow employee segued into serious consideration.

Leads are union employees who help other employees troubleshoot problems in certain areas of production, similar to how a traditional supervisor might.

The system is an empowerment movement of the local workforce to find better ways to make bikes called the Harley Continuous Improvement system.

And today, he and other employees on the line are getting results and praise by superiors - even though Brunner also doesn't expect to have a job at Harley by the end of the year.

Cutting the workforce roughly in half is part of restructuring.

Instead of the more traditional setup of assembly line processes snaking throughout the factory building, Trikes ride short distances from station to station on little orange carts.

Every step in the process is bar-coded during testing processes, tracked and timed for evaluation. The steps are based on a workflow plan developed by employees and advisers in a meeting room upstairs from the factory floor.

Once workers run through the steps, they see how things actually worked and make changes.

Some diagrams resemble football plays, showing who and what goes where and at what times in the process.

The best plays are compact, with little wasted energy around the bike.

The goal is to produce the best quality motorcycle with the least amount of waste of any kind, from time to scrap, said Michael DiMauro, spokesman for the local plants.

Doing so means union workers now need to tell management, including general manager Ed Magee, what they need to do the job right, DiMauro said. Then, management needs to hold up its end of the bargain.

The roughly 30 employees on the Trike line are part of two pilots currently under way at the local operations. The other is in a frame welding operation.

Joel Palmateer, titled work group advisor, has a position that is transitioning to more of a big-picture supervisor role, as team leads take over more minute-by-minute duties.

He also was admittedly hesitant about the new production program when it began. He said employees are working hard to make things happen.

What's surprised another team lead is the mountain of paperwork that comes with the job, said the bandana-clad Terry Smith, sitting in the white-walled war room with others involved in a recent day's analysis.

Smith said there are layers upon layers of details to consider, and new ideas really aren't just tried out. They have to be proved out before they can be put in practice.

Brunner agreed.

And for him, his job is also about combating negativity - his own in recent times.

Brunner was a welder before job reductions and the union seniority pecking order removed him from that job, landing him on the assembly line.

He's also associated the company with the contract negotiations, which led to concessions for workers.

Now, his work as a team lead is his way of building something positive, helping to put in place something for other union workers to build from once he's gone.

With his seniority, he probably has at most until the end of the year before he is cut from the company.

Everyone involved deserves the credit for the Trike successes, Brunner said.

For years, many employees had wanted to be a part of the solution for Harley, and now hopefully it continues, he said.

And after seeing how things have worked out, he thinks more companies should try it. It adds ownership by workers to what they are doing.

But, Brunner said, not everyone is sold on the new system yet, and the transition process could still go either way.

Paul Cover, vice president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 175, worked in previous Trike operations when he was elected to union leadership.

The success so quick in the process has surprised him, and the big turning points have been when employees actually see management taking their suggestions seriously.

In the more than 20 years he's been with the company, management told workers what to do.

Proof of the new flow is in the bottom line.

Cover said there was always a bottleneck in the old Trike process that bogged down production. But today, the production employees have figured out how to make three more Trikes a day.

Series of firsts

The special run of 2010 Trikes, or three-wheeled motorcycles, that rolled off the Harley-Davidson line in the past week or so are a series of firsts for York Vehicle Operations.

  • They are first Trikes to be made totally in York.

    Previously, the rear ends were made by a subcontractor in South Dakota.

  • They are first motorcycles made under the new work system locally.

    It's based on the system Toyota has made famous in the manufacturing world, with constant analysis of workflow and encouraging employees basically to speak up when needed for the sake of a better product.

  • And, they are also the first motorcycles made totally under the new system anywhere in Harley-Davidson's company.

    This is the new work structure that Harley said it needed during the potential relocation talk last year, and it will eventually be rolled out across the company's York County hub.

    Also of interest

    · York County chainsaw artist about Harley carving: 'I had an inspiration for the bike and America'.