The Ski Doo Manufacturing Plant In Valcourt is Impressive
By Scott A Sumner
It was a real treat to visit the Ski Doo manufacturing facilities on October 28th this year. My first snowmobile happened to be a 1969 Ski Doo Qlympic 12.3 that my father bought in the fall of 1968. As a youngster of 11 I began snowmobiling and getting to see the manufacturing of a Ski Doo from scratch was very fun. It was also interesting to see how the plant operated having toured both the Polaris and Arctic Cat plants in the recent past.
Ski Doo is one of a few manufacturing facilities that encourages people to see their plant. In fact they have almost 35,000 people go through their facility as well as the museum on an annual basis. The cost is $12.00 to see both. After a 9am start and flights to Toronto and Montreal I rented a car at the Pierre Trudeau Airport and began the 1 hour 40 minute drive east to Valcourt. Your route is Hwy 20 over the Champlagne Bridge, east on Hwy 10 to Route 253 and then Road 222 to the 3000 population town. They call themselves the Centre du Moto Neige or Snowmobile World Capital at Valcourt and I think it is aptly named. The Eastern Townships, as this area is called, is very pretty with rolling terrain and several picture perfect small towns or villages you drive through on your route. The leafs were still in colour full bloom which made for a beautiful setting. We really do have an attractive country in Canada. Reaching Valcourt at 4pm, it was easy to find the sprawling plants in the middle of the town. There are ten buildings in total at Ski Doo and they cover 12% of the total surface area of Valcourt for a total building area of about 87,000 square meters.
It was time to begin my tour of Factory Number 1, where the second shift for the day had just begun their day at 3:30 pm. They would work til 11:00pm. My tour guide for this day would be Sherrie Malisch, Tour Guide for the foundation and the factory. Sherrie was a former flight attendentant who had chosen Quebec to live to learn the french language. She liked the area so much she has stayed 14 years and is married to a Ski Doo plant worker expecting their third child soon.
"We have two to three tours times per day, but have done up to six and seven a day. It's very popular and we are trying to keep it going. Some factories like to keep their secrets, smiles Sherrie Malisch. We start Ski Doo production in March and finish just before Christmas time. ATV's are produced 12 months of the year. Sea Doo is starting up shortly."
The tours will only have up to 10 people per guide. It is best to book ahead especially in the winter. In the summer time you can justcome for your tour. The tour takes about 70 minutes, with that amount of time allotted. My visit to the plant was the last production day before Halloween and many of the staff had dressed in full costume and were in a very happy mood while working on the line.
The number of people employed in the plant can go up to 3300, when all factories are in function. For Ski Doo there are three lines, Sea Doo has four lines and ATV's three lines. There is a time where all lines run during March. Over 70% of there employees live outside the city limits with many in nearby Sherbrooke. There is a lot of history here and many of the workers have had some kind of direct involvement with the Bombardier family. They all have a story of their time with the Bombardier. For the Ski Doo area there are 500 employees on the line for snowmobiles in building number 1.
"We are making the MXZ Renegade REV600 SDI High Output today. Since we have been making the REV platform, we need a separate sub assembly line due to the complexity for the front end suspension. This works at the same rythymn as your main assembly line 1 - every 2 minutes and there is always a reserve of components." says Malisch. There is about 38% women on the line and the average age of the workers varies between 36 and 39. In the next 10 years about 100 to 150 people will be retiring per year.
"We are going down to the second part of the factory and that is where the chassis is being made. There are 1200 components to make a sled. There are three lines to complete the Ski Doo and a sub assembly of one two or three, depending on the model being built." states Malisch. Over 50% of Ski Doos suppliers are from from Quebec. In addition there is Mexico for the shocks, Camoplast -Quebec and New York for the track, Balogne, Italy for the brakes, Austria for the motor, Wisconsin for the cables and other far reaching places.
"The real sliding suspension is a sub assembly as well. The second part of the factory makes the chassis and is made two days ahead of assembly as a prep function. We are starting the assembly of the components of the front suspension with the new pyramid style which is a little more complex," notes Malisch. "There are about 375 components of which it will be built around. There is a little bit of assembly involved by the robot. The small robots cost over $38,000 each and we have over 60 of them. All of our metal and aluminum components are made in house, thats our speciality and 95% of our components are welded together by robot. The robots have been in the factory since 1970. When that happened a lot of people worried that they would replace humans. That's not the case, we've actually hired more people since the robots. A robot works 2 1/2 times faster than a man but 1 1/2 times slower than a women."
The heat exchanger, which goes under the tunnel has been cut by a 600 ton press and then tested twice once in water and another time using a high pressure method for leaks. "This is the press area of between 100 to 150 tons in capacity. All of our metal is made here," says Malisch. "Next is the work shop area for the new style REV. It requires a team of 10 -15 persons. There are five components in total. You have your left and right hand side riveted together, heat exchanger, the tail and the grips on the foot rest. It's between 20 to 40 minutes to completely rivet these five components together by the riveting robots cells. They are going to put in between 20 to 25 rivets, each one at a time requiring 10,000 pounds of pressure to put in one rivet. We make one chassis every minute. These robots are well over $100,000 each and there is a configuration of 6 and 4 in place here. They are the best robots in the world and come from Japan. The robots pass the chassis from robot to robot and the last robot hang it up on a hook. For quality control it will pass through two neon lites. If there is one error it is in to the recycling bin. This part of the factory works two days ahead of the schedule to make approximately 2 hours of components to feed the line at 7:30 in the morning. The aluminum comes from Alcan Quebec."
"There is no labour union here at Bombardier. There has never been one. We are considered a model factory - people come here to study us," smiles Malisch. "Everyone speaks french and over 90 % just french. The CRT is a committee for the workers to make sure that we respect salaries and seniority. Safety shoes and glasses are provided and the salary is very agreeable for the first year. Also there are medicare plans available. You can start a Sun Life insurance policy and then there is a pension. The town of Valcourt is not equipped to take in 3000 people so the employees don't leave the plant for lunch etc. The Ski Doo lines work two shifts from 7:30am to 11:30 pm. Thats for factory number 1. In another part of the factory they work 24 hours a day, 9 months of the year making the exhaust and muffler components for all of the recreational vehicles and the skeleton for the ATV's."
"The homes in the area of Valcourt are beautiful. We have a lot of architects in the area who create their own plans. As well we have a prefab company here so there are a lot of prefabs. To put one up you are looking at $40,000 plus the land so for about $65,000 you have a house." states Malisch. "There is nobody hired directly. We have employment agencies that will hire for us and you are on call for the first year. It can go on for the second and third if you dont accumulate 24 weeks minimum in order to be eligible for permanence the following year. That is how you get into the company."
"Here they are putting on the baggage compartment, the chaincase and the engraving of the serial number which is a V for Valcourt. There are 55 working zones on the line. The main component on line 1 which is on a constant movement is your track, belly pan, the front suspension, rear suspension and the handlebars as well as the motor," states Malisch. "Line 2 is everything on top of the vehicle, so we're looking at the seat, gas and oil tank. Line 2 and 3 are on a rythymn. That means at each working zone there is a minute and 58 seconds to complete assembly. That time is divided up to 60/40 as health and security is our priority at the factory. The workers must be comfortable and not stressed. Depending on your seniority you have more power to stay where you are. With the new generation REV sleds coming in we like the person to be mobile. This methodology has been integrated into the factory, in the last few years so it doesn't become mundane. It keeps the brain exercised. The employee will walk with the vehicle. The workers on line 1 are equipped with special work shoes to eliminate stress on their legs. There are three breaks during a shift for the staff - 15 minutes in the first segment, a 1/2 hour lunch and 10 minutes in the second half. The small breaks are paid for, the 1/2 hour is not paid for. The lines stop during those times. The whole factory doesn't take a break at the same time.
Throughout the plant areas I saw supervisors, chief of the line, inspector and trainers are walking around the lines. They will also relieve people on the line and inspect the air tools to ensure the proper pressure. The plant workers work 60% on assembling the vehicle and 40% is for rest and relaxation and waiting for the assembly line to move ahead. Health and security is our top priority. We want people to be comfortable on the line. They are allowed to drink, to eat, but not smoke," says Malisch. "50% of our employees have 30 years seniority which is very high."
Exhaust muffler finishing is at the end of the assembly process. Then there is vehicle packaging and a start up function. All vehicles must pass the starter test. There definately appeared to be a sense of pride or accomplishment at this end stage of the plant as a brand new Ski Doo Renegade 600 HP SDI comes off the line.
There are between 800 and 1000 Ski Doo dealers through out North America. "In the European zone we make three utility models - the Skandic, Lynx and Tundra. All of our sleds are presold to the dealers in March 2004 for the 2005 model season, says Malisch. The Ski Doos are trucked across North America by two Valcourt based trucking companies."
If you work for Ski Doo you can get a great deal on a new sled. They must buy from the dealer and keep it in their name for two years to get 15% off. The new executive headquarters of BRP, the new company that has bought the recreational products division from Bombardier, has just moved to Valcourt in a very historical building about 5 miles from the plant. It was a pleasure to see this assembly process for Ski Doo snowmobiles. The amount of sophisticated technology there was very impressive. Seeing the happy spirit of the employees was also something special for me. I have no doubt that this town of Valcourt, Quebec has earned its reputation as the Snowmobile Capital of the World.