BY MIKE BREZONICK
While it’s often misunderstood by the general public, a bedrock principle of modern global business is that it’s nearly always better to make products as close as possible to where they’re sold. The advantages are legion, with proximity to customers and the ability to react to their changing needs perhaps the most critical.
Yet as with any principle, there are always exceptions. A case in point is Briggs & Stratton Commercial Power. Since the official founding of the Commercial Power business in 2003, the company had sourced its flagship Vanguard V-twin engines from Japan through Daihatsu Briggs & Stratton (DBS), a joint venture with the Toyota subsidiary. And the combination of Briggs & Stratton engine designs coupled with Japanese manufacturing capabilities helped the company grow its commercial engine business.
As a result of Briggs & Stratton’s renewed focus on its growing Commercial Power business, an evaluation on the best way to serve customers led to the opportunity to bring that production home. Thus by the end of 2018, production of all of the company’s small and large block commercial Vanguard V-twins will be shifted from the Shiga, Japan, to existing plants in Alabama and Georgia.
The official announcement was made in a ceremony at Auburn, Ala., one of the two sites that will build Vanguard commercial V-twin engines.
“I think this is the right thing to do for our customers,” said Dave Rodgers, president of the Engines & Power Group at Briggs & Stratton. “We are doing hundreds of different unique engines in the small block and the big block for our commercial customers and when you think about manufacturing overseas and bringing the bulk of that volume here, you can do that effectively if you only need to warehouse inventories of a few different SKUs. But if you have hundreds of those, from a supply chain standpoint, it makes it very difficult. So this is really the right thing to do from a customer standpoint.
“But honestly, the bigger story here is how this shows our commitment to commercial. We’ve had a relationship with Daihatsu for over 30 years, it has served us well and they’ve been a great partner. But in the last few years we’ve been talking about where do we have our future growth opportunities? We’re not leaving our consumer engine business behind – that’s a business we like very much and we still have very good market share.
“But when you look beyond that, where we have an opportunity to grow is in the commercial engine space. And we believe this is going to help us meet increasing customer demands in that space.”
Engine production for the small block Vanguard V-twins — air-cooled engines with displacements of 479, 570 and 627 cc — will be built at the company’s plant in Statesboro, Ga., while the 810cc and 896 and 993 cc Big Block Vanguard engines will be built in Auburn.
The Big Block engines are scheduled to be in production in Auburn by May of 2018, while small block engine manufacturing in Statesboro will commence six months later.
“This was really precipitated by a couple of things,” said Jim Cross, marketing manager for Commercial Engines at Briggs & Stratton. “Vanguard V-twins have continued to grow share and grow in volume. That gave us the opportunity to take a look at how we produce these engines and we looked at a couple of different things in terms of what might make it easier for us to do business, what could make it easier for people to do business with us, what could make us more efficient and what could make us more competitive.
“The other thing that played into this was the fact that DBS has been in business a long time and we’ve reached capacity there, as well as we were at that point in the lifecycle of the engines that the tooling there was something that we had to take a look at.
“So we took the opportunity to look at things holistically and ask what makes the most sense for our customers and our growing commercial business? And that’s what drove it.”
Other factors that led to the move is that fact that roughly 80% of the V-twin engine market is in the U.S. and as Cross noted, “common sense dictates you build where you sell.”
What also played a major role was Briggs & Stratton’s decision four years ago to manufacture its new Vanguard 810 commercial engine in Auburn, making it the first commercial V-twin to be built outside of Japan. The successful launch of that engine — and a year later an electronic fuel injected version — and the ability of the Auburn facility to produce commercial engines in the same facility as its consumer V-twins, made moving more commercial manufacturing stateside a real consideration.
“We’ve been making our Vanguard 810 cc engines in Auburn since 2013 and as I’ve traveled around the world and talked to customers and non-customers alike, they’ve all said that it’s a great engine for their applications,” Rodgers said. “Before that, customers would tell me, we love your V-twins that are coming out of Japan, you’re going to continue to bring those out of Japan, right?
“But once we started making the 810 in Auburn and people got down there to see what we were doing down there, the question changed. It went from ‘You’re going to continue making those in Japan, right?’ to ‘How come you’re not making them in Auburn?’
“The Vanguard in Auburn was really our first entry into making Vanguard engines in the U.S. and we’ve proven that we can make a quality engine that meets the specs of what commercial users want.”
The new engine lines being set up in Statesboro and Auburn will utilize the same Vanguard manufacturing processes that proved themselves with the 810, Briggs & Stratton said. These include dc electric assembly tools, wireless data collection and , all under the direction of teams of certified Briggs & Stratton Master Service Technicians (MSTs).
In addition, the company is investing significantly in enhancing its existing aluminum casting capability at the Statesboro plant, allowing it to cast more of the critical components of its commercial V-twins in-house.
And while the engines themselves are not changing — they will incorporate the same designs with the same components from the same suppliers — the proximity of Statesboro and Auburn will make customer- or market-driven modifications much simpler, Briggs & Stratton said.
“We can get things through Statesboro and Auburn in half the time,” said Steve Hoch, senior global product management director, Large Vertical and Horizontal Engine Platforms. “We’re always challenged do things quicker and be more innovative so this just fits right into that wheelhouse.
“It can be a little bit of a struggle to do something in half way around the world. It’s not easy to do with coordinating the different times everyone works at, the amount of communication that goes back and forth and just getting samples for a customer to test.
“A John Deere doesn’t just take our word for it when we say we’ve got some good stuff – they want to test it. We have to get them samples, but to choreograph that from overseas can be really hard to do. When we’ve got the engines built here, we can have engineers there in a day and just get things done a lot quicker.”
“Commercial is different than the consumer engines we do, where we’re making tens of thousands of the exact same engine,” Rodgers added. “The commercial business is not like that. With the new flexible manufacturing equipment that’s being installed, if we need to add a feature for a specific customer, we can do that in a few days, whereas on the high-volume line, it’s all hard tooled and everything moves in one direction pretty much all the time.”
The flexibility of the new engine lines will also provide benefits beyond engineering and manufacturing, Rodgers said.
“While the commercial business is very well planned out, we’ve had instances where we physically couldn’t deliver engines when somebody asked for more,” Rodgers said. “Let’s just say were having a blowout spring and in April or May, a commercial ZTR customer calls and says they’re a little short on Vanguard Big Blocks, we need another thousand. We couldn’t deliver those because we’ve got lead times to get those produced at DBS and get them back over here, so we would literally have to pass on that order — it was impossible to get them in a timely manner.
“Now we will have the ability to dial up Auburn and get going on those and deliver them in a short period of time.”
Yet while the engines will not change in any way — other than updated part numbers — Briggs & Stratton is putting the U.S.-built engines through a complete engine validation program..
“One important point, is that we’re not just ordering parts from the same vendors and suppliers, flipping a switch to start production and hoping for the best,” said Bob Pomeroy, Engines Group senior product manager. “To set any fears aside as to whether or not they’re going to be as good coming out of our plants here as they have been over the last 30 years from Japan, we decided in the beginning that we would fully requalify the engines. An enormous amount of engineering investment is going into our qualification program.”
To ensure that there are no hiccups in terms of availability, there will be a period of time when Vanguard engines will be made in both Japan and the U.S., followed by a planned ramp-down in Japan as the U.S. plants assume more of the load.
“There will be overlap,” Rodgers said. “We will put our manufacturing assets in place and ramp up production and be able to do our testing, OEMs will be able to do their testing of it – again were not changing the design and were not changing the suppliers so everything should be the same other than the equipment, which will have enhanced capabilities since it is new.
“The beauty of it is we’ll be able to ramp up production while they’ll still have production running in Japan to make sure we’ve got an ample supply for our customers.”
The move of Vanguard production to the U.S. is one of a series of moves Briggs & Stratton is making to expand its commercial engine business. In 2018, the company will unveil a new range of single-cylinder commercial engines that Rodgers said “will only enhance the Vanguard brand name and meet the expectations that our commercial users have.
“The hundreds of different commercial applications out there have hundreds of different demands and criteria for performance. Our Vanguards have met the performance criteria and as we move forward we think the Vanguard V-twins and the single-cylinders that we are developing will give us a lineup that will be very formidable.”