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Winnebago pulls out of the woods with new production twists

They stand idle, looking like bakery ovens awaiting the day's first loaves. But almost anyone in this town of fewer than 5,000, 15 miles south of the Minnesota line, could tell the visitor that these huge machines are called punch presses, and these particular ones have fabricated many of the components that fit together to become a Winnebago motor home. They're fast becoming obsolete.

``They've got more than 50 percent downtime, because it takes a long time to set one up with a die which fabricates a specific part, and then we don't have the volume to justify making enough parts from a specific die,'' explains Pete Jensen, director of production planning at Winnebago Industries Inc.

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But this company, no longer the darling of Wall Street as in 1974 and before, cannot afford the luxury of idle presses. That's why Winnebago spent more than $250,000 on a computerized apparatus called a turret press.

``With this, you don't have to worry about changing a die every time you want a piece to be a different shape. The computer tells this rotating head what shape the piece should be, and the machine cuts it to the pattern,'' Mr. Jensen says. ``No die is necessary, and we can change the pattern anytime we want.''

The turret press signals Winnebago's gradual shift to a CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) system that gets a little help from robots. The CAD/CAM system, in turn, is helping Winnebago become more ``automotive,'' as company officers like to put it. And Wall Street is noticing.

``What I like about Winnebago is that they have a single factory, which gives them economies of scale and production their competitors don't have,'' says Skip Stern, recreational-vehicle industry analyst for Paine Webber Mitchell Hutchins. ``That means it pays them to bring in automation more quickly, so labor isn't that significant a cost.''

Allen Bachrach, senior industry analyst for Value Line Investment Survey, says Winnebago is the ``best positioned'' in its industry. (Winnebago is second to Fleetwood Enterprises of Riverside, Calif., in gross sales, with about a 20 percent market share, compared with Fleetwood's 27 percent. Its other main competitor is Coachman Industries of Middlebury, Ind., with a market share of 11 percent.)

``Winnebago has shown itself ready for the upsurge in consumer demand by coming up with new products, big motor homes like their Elandans and Windcruisers, and their smaller, front-wheel-drive LeSharos and Phasars,'' Mr. Bachrach says.

He predicts the company's earnings per share for fiscal 1985, ending Aug. 31, will total $1.30, compared with a $1.73 estimate from Paine Webber's Mr. Stern. Winnebago announced first-quarter earnings of 22 cents, compared with 16 cents for the first 13 weeks of fiscal 1984. The company's third and fourth quarters are normally its most profitable.

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Increased profitability is the result of increased productivity, according to John K. Hanson, the company's founder and patriarch, who retired in 1973 and came back in 1979 to rescue Winnebago from the ravages of two Mideast oil crises. For the first time, he says, the manufacturer is registering more than $200,000 in productivity per employee, of which there are now nearly 3,000.

``My goal is $300,000, which is more than what Lee Iacocca is producing at Chrysler,'' Mr. Hanson says. ``And we can't hope to realize the volume cost savings of a Detroit operation, either.''

Winnebago also boasts a ratio of blue-collar to white-collar employees of 3.7 to 1, compared with a 1.3-to-1 ratio that existed under the truncated reign of his son, John V. Hanson, who ran the company during the mid-1970s. His father's goal now is a 4-to-1 ratio.

``We're doing exactly what we did before, automating and integrating,'' says John K. Hanson. ``The only difference is that now we've had to deal with inflation and the tremendous sophistication that came into the industry since the time I left. To build new products, we have to be highly automated, computerized, robotized -- the works. As we get closer and closer to the automotive industry we can build a better-quality product at less expense, less labor, and so forth.''

The company is on schedule with its plans to spend $24 million in capital improvements, according to Ronald E. Haugen, the elder Hanson's prot'eg'e, who is now Winnebago's president and chief executive officer. Major new equipment includes a more comprehensive CAD/CAM system, a new telecommunications system, and a computer-based reporting system on the shop floor.

These additions come shortly after the company installed such aids as a Detroit-size set of primer coating tanks, into which an entire shell and chassis is dipped 12 to 15 times; a computerized spot-welder with 110 welding heads that shoot out 360 welds every four minutes; a six-armed robot that builds seat frames; and a computerized sheer punch for interior fabrics.

One reason Winnebago now has the capital to invest in such esoteric equipment is the success of the 20-foot LeSharo/Phasar diesel motor homes. The basic vehicle is a utility van built onto a front end and chassis imported from Renault in France.

When Winnebago announced the new line in mid-1983, it took its share of criticism from analysts and competitors alike. The vehicle simply did not fit any industry category.

Now, along with the high-end Elandans and Windcruisers -- motor homes that go up to 34 feet, yet have a sleeker automotive look -- the smaller vans are expected to recoup some of the market share Winnebago lost in 1982 to Fleetwood, after that company introduced the industry's first major streamlining of the conventional motor home.

Fleetwood's innovation also forced Winnebago to add some aerodynamic styling to its venerable Chieftain and Sunflyer lines.

The LeSharo and Phasar models, in fact, found a market niche all to themselves. It is occupied by consumers who wanted to graduate from the auto custom van but who were hesitant to buy a full-size motor home. Mr. Haugen and Mr. Hanson aren't talking, but they hint that their near-term marketing and production moves will derive from the same sort of thinking. Future plans are to include preparation for any new energy crisis, plus some modest diversification.

One new product scheduled soon will be a gasoline version of the LeSharo/Phasar, featuring a Renault-designed trans-axle (as opposed to transmission) that will make the vans able to carry heavier loads than any other front-wheel-drive gasoline vehicle (see story above.)

``I think we're ready for a new energy crisis or most anything else,'' Hanson says. ``These new units we've been building have so many commercial aspects. . .. There's a hole in the market that size that nobody's building for at this point or in the foreseeable future.''

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