YORK, Pa. (AP) — A fleet of automated guided carriers — robotic smart carts — perform a mechanical ballet along the concrete floor of a building once solely reserved for making Harley-Davidson Softail motorcycles.
By August, more than 100 of the orange go-cart-sized bots will snake through on five rows of thin magnetic tape, carrying in-process Trike, Touring and Softail motorcycles through a futuristic assembly line that can be reconfigured within days to meet production demand.
There's change happening at Harley.
By fall, the Milwaukee, Wis.-based motorcycle manufacturer hopes its Springettsbury Township operations, once sprawled across 1.5 million square feet, will fit inside this 600,000-square-foot building.
Passersby along Route 30 notice chain-link fences and mounds of dirt around the building of a new visitors center, set to open in early August next to the renovated production facility.
The constant construction and shiny gadgets, line items in a $90 million local investment, make it easy to forget the people like Rich Reinberg who pour countless hours into a project knowing they may not be around to see the end result.
But the threat of getting laid off doesn't paralyze Reinberg, 48, of New Oxford.
"I couldn't be a leader and lead people with that kind of attitude," said Reinberg, who represents the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 175 on Harley's Restructuring Committee. "I'll cross that bridge when I get to it."
In 2009, his union accepted a concession-laden contract, including workforce reduction, to keep the assemblyplant in York County.
Today, about 1,200 people work at the plant, down from more than 2,000 in 2009. Two hundred more people will lose their jobs by the first three months of 2012.
If Reinberg, a 14-year employee, makes the cut, he'll be "very, very low in seniority, maybe the bottom 20 or something," he said.
Still, he clocks in. There's more work to be done.
And along with the physical, the company must topple cultural walls held together by a more than 30-year tradition of individualism. Since 2009, the factory's 62 ultra-specific job classifications have dwindled to five.
All eyes are on York County, as Harley facilities in Wisconsin and Kansas City, Mo., prepare to follow suit in the 108-year-old iconic American motorcycle company's race to ride ahead of the pack in the global economy.
"It's a very emotional journey," said Steve Nelson, the plant's continuous improvement manager. "It's not about whether we like what we're doing here. It's about what we're competing against."
It starts at the front door.
As employees clock in, they pass a board with graphs and outlines of six symbols — a cross, the letter "Q," a motorcycle, the company's logo and the recycling symbol — each gridded like a calendar into 31 squares.
Each day, management colors in a square representing performance in six key metrics: health and safety, quality, delivery, cost, people and sustainability.
A few weeks ago, the graphics were mostly green, signifying daily goals were met. Some red squares —unachieved goals — mean: Do better next time.
"Ten years ago, if your boss said you were doing a good job, you did a good job," said local Harley spokesman Michael DiMauro. "You had no sense of how the company was doing and where you fit in."
Nelson, a 12-year employee, heads this system, called the "continuous improvement" model, which allows workers in six different production areas to track their area's progress and the progress of the entire factory.
"Before, even just the flow of the product didn't make a whole lot of sense," he said. "This is a purposeful design. It's something our employees have been asking for for quite some time."
Pull-cords dangle at 60 stations along a 1,000-foot long assembly line.
Workers spotting problems should pull that "andon cord." It alerts managers, who are required to ask, "What's the problem and how can I help?"
If the problem isn't quickly solved, the assembly line stops.
Initially, the cord met hesitation from employees, trained under the motto, "don't stop the line," said Jason Franklin, assembly area manager for Harley's York County operations.
The "andon," Japanese for "lantern," addresses issues on-spot in many larger manufacturing facilities, including Toyota. The days of Harley's "fix it later" attitude are long gone, DiMauro said.
The assembly line itself seems out of place in a section of the factory where bikes once traveled on conveyer belts entrenched in concrete and overhead hooks that hadn't moved for decades.
The new system, based on overhead modular structures and robotic carts that follow magnetic tape, can be uprooted, unbolted, and re-configured within days to handle increased demand — or, for example, a newly introduced bike model, Franklin said.
In the first quarter earnings conference call, Harley CEO Keith Wandell said an additional $1 million expense beyond what the company expected was related to the start-up of this system.
"We've spent a ton of time developing the first process," Franklin said. "It is by no means the best process. We're going to be continually improving over the life of what we're going to do here."
In the West Campus, which must be vacated by Oct. 1, workers plow ahead as though nothing has changed.
An invisible for-sale sign shadows that 58-acre property, where a building, home to Harley production since the 1970s, faces demolition.
"Don't ever discount the fact that we're cutting this factory in half," Nelson said. "And that sucks ... This workforce gets beat up a lot for being greedy and lazy, but people just don't know."
Amid the layoffs and chaos, people like Reinberg keep their heads up. He's noticing more senior employees, previously bitter about the contract, volunteering for leadership positions.
"A lot of the people who are leaving voted for the contract to stay in York knowing they would lose their job," he said.
"Where they lost," he added, "they still won."
Companywide, the restructuring is expected to cost between $510 million and $525 million. The price tag includes Harley's "Culture Transformation Rollout," which has included more than 73,000 hours of workforce re-training as of this year.
After the restructuring is complete in 2012, the company expects it will save between $305 million to $325 million annually.
Until that day comes, people like Nelson, Reinberg and Franklin work overtime to address inefficiencies, jetting past the plant's posted orange logos reading, "New Factory York."