In RER’s June issue, we interviewed a number of executives from lawn-and-garden manufacturers, including Dennis Von Ruden, long-time president of General Equipment Co., Owatonna, Minn. Von Ruden spoke with RER about lean manufacturing techniques, finite element analysis, operator ergonomics, how the value of the U.S. dollar will affect the sourcing of components, and why it makes sense to stock replacement parts.
RER: What are the main areas of technological advancement in your product line, in the industry in general?
Von Ruden: There are three major focus areas that our company is utilizing for the design of new products along with making enhancements on current units. They are as follows:
1) Lean Manufacturing Techniques
2) Finite Element Analysis
3) Operator Ergonomics
Lean manufacturing is a common buzz word found in today’s manufacturing environment. What it really means for our company is that we analyze every step required to manufacture a specific product and work to literally reduce those steps to a minimum. The real goal for this exercise is to reduce our costs and improve quality at the same time.
We compete in a world market. Every General product has been cloned in China. What keeps those products from competing against us in most market areas is distribution and overall quality. Still, customers will only pay so much for perceived quality. Knowing that we do not have a license to steal is a driving force to reduce/maintain our costs as low as possible. We cannot expect to keep raising prices without a constant attempt to properly control them.
The finite element analysis capabilities of our computer design software allow our designers the ability to reduce the weight and size of a component without sacrificing strength and durability. In some respects, it is also an extension of our lean manufacturing process … only doing what is absolutely necessary to produce the required results. Our computer software allows us to simulate various loads and stresses on a component and give us important information as to service life and failure rate. This ability allows our company to use a system approach to product design. The goal is to provide lighter yet stronger products that exceed the expectations of our customer demands.
We are living in a fast-changing society where people are living longer and are more concerned and involved with their personal health. Society is demanding design innovation and operating comfort with every purchase. Ergonomics is another buzz word that you keep hearing about. You can see the principles at work in new automobile design with the emphasis being placed upon enhanced comfort and safety. The same principles are also being applied to something as exciting (or dull) as portable hole digging equipment! Lighter and stronger materials are being researched. A good example is Hole Digger operator handle design and position. This is an important element in achieving the goal of reducing the amount of physical exertion required to dig a hole.
What are some of the trends you see now and in the foreseeable future in your type of equipment?
We see the demand for products that are both lighter in weight and easier to operate without sacrificing productivity rates and service life. The challenge is to provide these characteristics at acceptable costs. There is a constant struggle to balance technology versus acquisition cost. We have the ability to design and manufacture products that are so high tech in nature that the purchase cost would be prohibitive. This effort will not provide for any significant advancement in productivity rates until new processes or concepts are developed. As mentioned, product design will be influenced by continuous lean manufacturing improvements to help reduce costs and maximize value to the customer.
If general trends hold, we will continue to see a growing influence of Chinese and Indian sourced components, including engines, being utilized in the manufacture of light construction products. The value of the U.S. dollar will have a significant influence on where many components are sourced in an effort to provide products that are competitively price in a world market. We no longer can limit our field of thought to the North American marketplace. Approximately 1/3 of our current sales are export related. It is our goal to continue to increase that percentage as the U.S. and Canadian market search for meaningful direction. It’s a big world out there. We just need to go out and find some new homes for this stuff.
Is fuel efficiency a big concern in today’s market and if so what are you doing to address that concern?
There was a time that stopping at a station to a fill a 5-gallon storage can for your lawnmower was no big deal. At $4.00 per gallon, it is no longer a pocket-change exercise. With that said, the current technology of small horsepower (13 hp and less used) engines utilized on our products will probably not experience any real increase in fuel efficiencies. As emission regulations continue to tighten, my assumption is greater emphasis will be placed upon increasing fuel efficiencies with future generations of engines. Fuel is an escalating cost factor that will have a profound impact upon the cost of doing business.
What EPA, CARB regulations or other environmental concerns are affecting your R&D, the manufacturing and marketing of your equipment?
After the initial EPA and CARB regulations were released several years ago, the most noticeable impact was the discontinuation of old technology 2- and 4-stroke engines. Then came the advent of small displacement, all-position 4-stroke engines designed to replace the old 2-stroke technology. We are currently using that technology. We are also beginning to see the availability of new 2-stroke engines that meet current EPA 2010 standards. As to be expected, the majority of this technology is originating in China. The purchase cost difference along with their inherent simplicity is forcing our company to once again evaluate their potential usage on applicable products.
What are some of the trends you see in the rental industry in terms of lawn & garden equipment and how do those trends affect your business?
The industry will continue to see intense market pressure from both Chinese and Indian manufactured products. This will, in turn, continue to fuel the never ending debate over purchase cost versus quality. There are rare occasions today where the rental dealer can realize both. That will change in the future as foreign sources incorporate increased quality into their manufacturing process. The long term effects upon the established North American and European manufacturing complex are only speculative at this time.
Any particular advice to rental companies in terms of how to be successful renting your kinds of equipment?
I am continuously amazed over the number of people that rent our products, but have never actually operated them. My advice is to gain the operational perspectives that will make you a source of added value to your customers. Understand proper maintenance procedures. Little things such as regularly inspecting high-wear parts for replacement will provide end users with machines that deliver high productivity rates and higher satisfaction levels, not to mention longer service life and higher ROI values.
Last, but not least, don’t be afraid to make a reasonable investment in those high demand replacement parts. Cutting costs by reducing or not stocking the necessary replacement parts has been proven to be detrimental to product service/ROI and end user satisfaction. Maintain reasonable stocking levels of parts. Here is where past experience and insight play an important factor in determining appropriate stocking levels. It never ceases to amaze me how much money people are willing to spend to ship a low-cost replacement part by overnight service. In most instances, the shipping cost far exceeds that of the part cost.