Arctic Cat Factory A Very Interesting Tour
By Scott A. Sumner
Some 620 kilometers southwest of Thunder Bay is Thief River Falls, MN home of the Arctic Cat snowmobile company. We were fortunate enough to visit this impressive facility and learn more about how the snowmobiles that we ride are built.
Arctic Cat was founded in 1961 and reborn in 1983 achieving fabulous growth and success to its current stage of 1200 employees and sales of $538 million with net income of $35 million. The employees make an average wage of $12.50 per hour. Pretty good for a company from a standing start. While the main manufacturing for snowmobiles and ATVs are in Thief River Falls there are also other parts and sales offices. The company has an extensive dealer network in Canada and the US that they serve directly as well as 42 distributors that sell the product to their own dealer network throughout the world. With the recent tremendous popularity of the ATV line the geographic sales area of Arctic Cat doesnt have to be in a snow belt.
Thief River Falls is a town of approximately 9000 and can be driven to by entering the US at Fort Frances - International Falls and taking Highway 71 south to Highway 1 west directly to Thief River Falls. We were able to make it from Thunder Bay in 6 hours leaving at 6am and gaining a time zone hour to arrive at 11 am. Distance was 620 kms.
Our first stop at Thief River Falls was RV Sports an Arctic Cat dealer of 38 years. Last year they sold 300 new sleds, 100 off year new models and 100 used. They ranked in the top 25 dealers for clothing sales. Next it was off to our hotel the Come On Inn and after lunch we met Kerry Juneau and LeRoy Flon for the tour of the manufacturing facility. Arctic Cat has their plant and executive offices located in the same facility as well as an Arctic Cat store for clothing available to the general public. On most days they offer tours to the general public beginning at 1pm.
There are many thousands of parts on a typical Arctic Cat snowmobile and roughly 60% are manufactured on site with 40% bought from suppliers near the plant and farther afield. For instance the engines are made in Japan by Suzuki . "We have a 21/2 year lead time order period on engines so you have to forecast demand well" states LeRoy Flon.
Our tour began in the paint area where parts are cleaned off and then painted using an elaborate system including an electrostatic method. The parts are loaded into a conveyer driven system that travels adjacent to the actual sled it will become a part of. The sleds are matched with a bin that travels by the unit corresponding to the parts. The parts are installed as the snowmobile travels along the assembly line to different work station areas. "Skid Row" is the nickname for the area where the frames are bent and the snowmobile begins its life. The bulk head is attached and then driven clutches etc. Arctic Cat tests the ability of the exhaust pipes which are made by them to withstand 1400 degrees temperature and normally operate at 1200. "It will withstand everything except if the engine blows up" states LeRoy Flon. The plant has special sleds on display around the plant area. They have a 1983 sled that marked the 100,000 machine made and a 1990 Prowler which represented the 1,000,000 machine for Arctic Cat. Since then there has been alot of snowmobiles built by Arctic Cat.
Arctic Cat has some computerized welding machines on site which are helpful by being very precise as well as lowering the requirement for staff which are hard to obtain in the numbers required in this part of the US. The Arctic Cat facility is 750,00 square feet in size and includes lines for ATVs and snowmobiles.
Arctic Cat produces 75,000 items in its clothing plant using state of the art cutting systems and computerized embroidery equipment. By eliminating hand cutting you get a more precise cut and result. There are 55 styles of clothing. Each year new design concepts are developed and then protype garments made up to present to a design team which will choose next years looks. "We look at s tats like labor cost per stitch" stated the Arctic Cat Clothing Production Manager. Other items used on the sled like the seats are produced here with the correct foam material inserts to obtain the right ride feel.
Arctic Cat is a licenced Gortex centre and has leased a Gortex system with trained operators. You aren't allowed to buy the machine states the Production Manager. Repairs to any clothing are made here as well and when we were at the facility the 2002 Sno Pro seats were being sewn up.
Basically an Arctic Cat snowmobile can be made in 21/2 hours once on the line and on the day we were there about 370 ZL 800s were built. The assembly lines operate a day shift, with welding and machine shop operating 3 shifts per day supplying component parts. Once the sled is completed it is started and tested using an aviation fuel that will evaporate from the carburator float bowl for shipping. The unit is crated and ready to go to the selling dealer. The dealer only has to install skis, windshield and adjust suspension.
Arctic Cat is continuing to strive for superb quality, efficiency in production and looks forward to producing fine snowmoblies and ATVs in the years ahead. Visiting their operation was fun!