Get your `mobile’ runnin’
The communications infrastructure for coordinating the assembly of America’s most notorious motorcycle was `born to be wireless.’
The small, to-the-point sign that stands guard over the brooding, steel beasts in the employee parking lot at Harley-Davidson’s newest regional plant in Kansas City, MO, implies not so much a request as a threat:
Employee motorcycles – Do not touch or sit on.
Respect for others’ property and common courtesy are the virtues that usually encourage us to obey such signs. In this case, however, it’s the fear of receiving a violent throttling at the hands of a snarling pack of bearded cyclists that causes me to give the bikes a wide berth as I approach the plant. These motorcycles are neither possessions nor toys to their owners. Instead they are gas-powered prosthetics. It’s no surprise, then, that the same men and women who build these rumbling steeds take the utmost care in constructing each “hog” by hand. One integral component of this process is communications.
The rise of the Hell’s Angels biker gang (and the subsequent legends they spawned) in the ’60s and ’70s applied an infamous stereotype to anyone associated with Harleys. So, based on the outdated reputation of this not-so-motley crew, an uneducated observer might guess that the employees on the line at Harley-Davidson communicate by an archaic language of grunts and chest thumps. A tour inside the doors of the three-year-old facility, however, gives an insight into the modern but sometimes-troubled portable radio communications system that nonetheless helps to keep the beautiful, powerful machines flawlessly rolling off the line.
It became apparent that the topic of communications problems might arise at some point in the day after I waited 15 minutes at the security station for my ambassador to Harley, Phil Swope. Swope is the head of security and was my impromptu tour guide for the day. As Darryl, the security guard manning the station, tried repeatedly to raise Swope on channel 5 of the 15-channel system with no success, he shrugged his shoulders in confusion and offered “He’ll be here in a minute” more than once. When he did arrive, Swope apologized with a self-effacing laugh and explained the delay. His radio had been tuned to the wrong channel.
Communications at the Kansas City arm of Harley-Davidson is not so much vital as it is the grease in the plant’s operations. According to Terry Harrison, a maintenance electrician who helped set up the UHF system contract with vendor TFM Communications (Topeka, KS), about 125 of the 450+ employees carry 4W, Motorola Visar radios for reasons ranging from maintenance support to production-line supervision.
“It’s a general-purpose communications system,” Harrison said. “Plus, if there is downed equipment, it’s used for that.”
Certain departments have dedicated channels on the system, such as materials and security/safety. Others, such as paint and assembly, have several channels from which to choose. Maintenance, the watchdog for the entire plant, is plugged into the entire system.
In a plant encompassing 330,000 square feet, legwork is half the battle in solving maintenance problems. Maintenance personnel can not be everywhere at once, and trekking from one end of the facility to the other for a maintenance call can be a time-consuming process. Ted Harris, president of Pace Union, Local 670, said the radios are the most important tool at the disposal of the maintenance team.
“They just save a lot of legwork,” he said. “The availability to get an immediate response with the radio on is well worth the money that you’re spending on them.”
Harris said many maintenance calls can be handled over the air. Those employees that do have radios have them because they are familiar with the area and the equipment, so they are able to give an accurate, detailed account of what is wrong. Therefore several small problems are solved with a little “back-and-forth.”
Maintenance employees don’t spend all of their time on the radio troubleshooting from a distance, however. When they need to take a more hands-on approach to the job, Harris said they expect the radios to handle the bumps and bruises that are part-and-parcel of physical labor.
“Maintenance is an environment where things have to be pretty heavy-duty,” he said. “Now, if you’re in dress pants or slacks, and you’re just moving around a little bit, then that’s OK. But when you’re going from the floor up to the rafters and crawling all around, you’re really getting into the harsher environments. You want that radio to hold up.”
Harris is happy with the durability of the Visars. For him, the most important requirement of the radios, however, is intrinsic safety. With an entire department of the plant devoted to painting the bikes’ gas tanks, non-intrinsically safe radios could spark paint fumes and blow the building like a Roman candle – and fried beard hair is not a pleasant smell.
“There are a lot of fumes in [the paint department], and people can walk in and out with their radios, so we have to make sure that they’re all intrinsically safe,” Harris said. “That’s probably the biggest thing we’re worried about.”
Though not Motorola’s most expensive radio, the compact, rugged radios are ideal for Harris’ and Harley’s needs.
“The main thing is, it cuts down on lead and lag time. You just have to have people disciplined enough to wear them,” Harris said.
As my first encounter with Swope demonstrated, however, just getting employees to wear the radios is not enough. Having them on the right channel in a conventional environment is equally important. Lapses, such as Swope’s channel mix-up, however, will happen.
“We all do it,” Swope explained. “It’s not the ideal situation, but it happens. You get busy, you talk to someone on channel 4, and then you don’t move it back up to channel 5. That happens.”
A ride around the production floor on Swope’s golf cart reveals an immaculate plant where the only disharmony comes from the thundering machinery. Making oneself heard over the surplus ambient noise is a job in itself. In the absence of radios, two employees would be forced to yell in each other’s ear at close range to be heard. The safety goggles required to be worn while on the floor are as necessary for protecting the eyes from the errant spittle of a close-talking coworker as from flying shrapnel.
In the considerably less-noisy cafeteria, Swope shrugged his shoulders and turned his eyes to the ceiling while discussing the havoc the industrial clamor wreaks on plant communications. Everything from the engines of the numerous forklifts to the spotwelders on the assembly line contribute to the racket. What exacerbates the communications problem, however, is what Swope calls “the human element.”
“It’s the guy that’s riding the forklift and has his radio sitting somewhere beside him, possibly turned down too low to hear” that impedes communications, Swope said. There is no written policy or procedure for plant communications, but he encourages employees to be smart while carrying radios.
Amplifying the noise problem and human element further is the employee use of personal stereos with earphones. Assembly line workers are allowed to listen to Walkman-style radios (although headset use is restricted to only one earphone), but Swope pointed out that deciphering the difference between Metallica in one ear and radio transmissions in the other can cause lapses in communications. An attempt at switching to full headsets for plant radio only caused more problems.
“We tried to use two-ear headsets, but when [the employees] saw someone with a full headset, they complained about it – `Well, I can’t have it for my CD, how come he can have it for his company radio?'”
The answer to such a question seems painfully obvious, but Swope only rolls his eyes and chuckles when asked how he responds to such complaints.
Not only have headsets caused squabbles over personal privileges, they’ve been the subject of employee mockery. Harris said one employee who tried to use a full headset turned more than a few heads during his short-lived communications experiment.
“We had a guy that walked around here for awhile with a headset that looked like a CIA double agent,” Harris laughed. “People kind of made fun of him, and it didn’t last very long.”
As a compromise to the headset problem, lapel microphones were issued to all of the radio users. Harris said they are powerful enough to overcome the ambient noise, but their use is not mandatory.
The communications system has had its share of growing pains as well, and it appears to be approaching its limits. The system’s initial configuration suited the facility well at first, but as bike production increased, it began to show signs of weakness. As more interior walls were constructed and as more machinery flooded the plant, Harris said the original radios were almost useless.
“It got to the point where it was almost impossible to hear unless you were out in the open and looking at each other,” he said.
To ameliorate the problem, two 25W repeaters were installed for the maintenance and materials departments. Harrison said the system is working fine now, but he thought better initial planning could have saved headaches down the line.
“I like the system itself, but it would have been nice if we could have foreseen the future and gotten a couple more channels,” Harrison said. “Everybody’s covered, but it just would have been nice to have about five more channels.”
Human error and size constraints aside, the radio system serves the plant well. At present, the plant’s workers build more than 180 Sportsters per day, and each bike that rolls off the line has already been sold. Yet at that rate, the plant is still 214 bikes behind for the quarter. Swope didn’t bat an eye when quoting the number. He said the difference can be made up in one Saturday and a couple hours of overtime.
On my way out of the building, the employee bikes catch my eye yet again. They’re beckoning me and promising fast rides on dusty back roads. I’ve become privy to the fact that Harley communications can be suspect at times. Maybe their security isn’t very tight either. My finger slides across the black gas tank of an XL 1200C Sportster, and I can feel the beast’s steel heart lightly thumping from within.
My impulsive act of indiscretion has left me with only one option: As I look over my shoulder, I jog the rest of the way to my car.
Motorcycles, especially Harleys, are traditionally associated with rebels, outlaws and tough guys – the people who live on the other side of the law. How ironic, then, that Harley-Davidson is the largest supplier of police motorcycles in the world. Boasting an 80% market share, Harley-Davidson Police Motorcycles sells bikes to more than 2,000 law enforcement agencies in North America and agencies in 44 countries.
Motorcycle duty may be a one-man job, but just because mounted officers ride alone, that doesn’t mean they don’t need to stay in contact with other officers. In fact, riding solo makes communications that much more important.
In the arena of public-safety communications, one company stands out from the rest, according to Jon Syverson, Harley’s manager of worldwide Police and Fleet sales.
“From our standpoint, I would say that probably 70% to 80% of the business is still focused on one manufacturer, and that is Motorola,” Syverson said. They have the lion’s share of the business of mobile radios, and they certainly are the most aggressive.”
Throughout the design and construction of Harley-Davidson’s FXDP Dyna Defender model for 2001, the company took every step necessary to make the bike compatible with today’s public-safety radio systems, he said.
“Our engineers have worked very closely with Motorola engineers as we developed the new model,” he said. “We worked very much `hand-in-glove’ with Motorola in the design and launch of our new models.”
Harley police motorcycles are not built specifically for Motorola radios, however. The bikes are built with police wiring harnesses that support a “plug-and-play” architecture. Those departments wishing to build their own systems can take training courses from Harley technicians on how to equip the bikes.
Just the facts… – Harley-Davidson has been making police motorcycles since 1908 – just five years after the company began producing bikes.
– Harley police bikes are built in the York, PA, facility.
– The company offers three police motorcycle models: FXDP Dyna Defender FLHPI Road King FLHTPI Electra Glide
– The largest police customer Harley-Davidson has is Mexico City, which has more than 700 bikes in service.