German manufacturing adapts to changing needs in booming RV market
By Martin Kohnle, Lignum Consulting
December 28, 2020 | 6:00 pm UTC
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As the RV industry grows in Germany and across Europe, manufacturers must adapt to the demand for customization, material innovations, and supply chain challenges.
Over the last several years, RV-ing in Germany is more popular than ever. This is supported by the strong growing demand for new and used recreational vehicles (motorhomes, camper vans, and caravans) as well as the strong increase in RV rentals.  Since many German RV enthusiasts are vacationing in their own country, the local tourist industry is also benefiting from this boom.
 
The demographic profile of German RV customers has changed. In the past, the majority of families with children and retirees comprised most of this cost-effective way of vacationing. There are now a growing number of younger generations, with higher income levels, interested in RV vacations.  Customers want freedom, independence, and flexibility, combined with comfort, convenience, individuality and all the way to luxury. Refer to the study by the Caravaning Industry.
 
This demand must be met by RV manufacturers, RV dealers and camping spot providers.
 
Simultaneously, campgrounds in Europe are rapidly evolving.   Campgrounds have been upgraded and provide a line up of additional services and enhancements. Services provided range from upgraded laundry facilities, Wi-Fi connections, and supermarkets, wellness centres, pools and spas, to access to water parks, go-cart tracks and other sport facilities. Vacations at a campground now resemble a full-service, activity-filled vacation for the entire family, competing with resort style accommodations. Camping has morphed into a luxury vacation, and the image of the cheap family vacation is fading away. The importance of money has moved to the background and personal well-being is taking center stage. A visible sign is the shift from the traditional tent to expensive campers and RVs.
 
Individualism drives the RV producer to small batch manufacturing, all the way to batch size one.
 
The trend towards more individuality, with increased variety and customization, as we see in most industries, does not stop at the caravan and RV industry. Nowadays, almost no two RVs are identical. The variance and options are increasing in all price segments. This is, of course, combined with increased quality and functionality expectations.  Camping trailer, motor home, or camper van, that is the question!
 
In the past, factories and assembly lines were designed for large batch sizes. Nowadays, the focus is on how to manage small batches and frequent model changeovers.  The processes in these factories need to be designed, aligned and optimized to enable constant changes in model configuration to be run in random sequence.  In the past, there were separate manufacturing and assembly lines for product groups such as camping trailers, motorhomes, and camper vans. Whereas now, these vastly differing product groups are increasingly manufactured/assembled on multi-functional, flexible, assembly lines. This flexibility allows random mix so that, for example, a camper trailer is followed by a motorhome. Some manufacturers have already installed flexible assembly lines for camping trailers, motorhomes and camper vans. In order to operate these assembly lines productively, other than the technical requirements, organizational and logistical requirements need to be understood and met.
 
 
The different production times of the different products require extensive line balancing. The workforce at these lines must be extensively trained and qualified to consistently produce this constant changing product mix at the required quality and in time.  Managing this complexity must start in the design process. This is based on similar and repeating processes common to all vehicle types. Standardization of the engineering detail principals all the way to standardizing sub-assemblies is a critical success factor.  Flexibility in the context of Lean manufacturing principles is required. This flexibility is required for all processes and material streams in the entire value-added chain. It includes the manufacturing of furniture and cabinet parts, upholstery components and all other manufactured items.
 
Data and data structures need to be built in parallel to production and material flow processes to achieve this flexibility. We are guided by ‘process before software’. Modern and sophisticated process and logistic processes cannot be managed without integrated and well-structured data and data quality. To master the data is a fundamental prerequisite for technology and automation. The customer’s demand for increased quality coincides with the increased wish for individualization.  Quality assurance needs to be implemented sustainably for the entire value stream. Robust shop floor management systems are here to ensure quality, productivity, and facilitate a Continuous Improvement Process.
 
“Over-engineering” to the detriment of the speed market
The increasing individualization or customization influences the product development process. The drive for perfection of the European RV-manufacturer delivers, on one hand, a high-quality standard and ability to customize, but suffers on the other hand on creativity and speed in the product development. There are numerous improvement potentials at the manufacturers and their suppliers. The long timeline of the product development process in the R & D and Engineering departments requires fast staffing resources.
Frequent engineering changes along the product development process require multiple product releases, correction and adjustments with all involved processes. A clearly defined time and development plan provides orientation and schedule reliability. It is, of course, clear that all stakeholders must have discipline and must stick to the schedule, otherwise the best formulated development plan is not worth the paper it is written on.
 
The results of not following development plans are multiple. Engineering and prototype releases combined with cost overruns, scheduling delays, hectic and general discontent. In addition to the company internal development time, there is code compliance at national and European levels negatively impacting the timeline. This is where it is necessary to harmonize national and European standards even further.  Despite the long development time from R & D to market-readiness, European manufacturers are leading in innovation. Examples are electric vehicles which are starting to be seen on the road. Additionally, there is the use of lightweight materials, frame technology, solar technology and composite materials.
 
Factories adjusted to increased demand
Factories are being, or already have been, upgraded and modernized for the increased volume. The focus is to improve and optimize all internal production and logistics processes and align them with the increased demand. With Lean Manufacturing as the underlying philosophy, the factory hru-put time of components and sub-assemblies is becoming shorter. The transport of the required material to the pre-assembly and assembly lines is more and more just-in-time and in the right sequence.  The assembly line worker or the material handler supplying the components are the key factor to the successful assembly. To achieve the technical and organizational challenges of this high variance and complex assembly, the staff requires ongoing training and skills development.
 
Unlike the traditional automobile industry, robotic cells and complex automation are used less in the RV industry. Many processes are manual. To manage and coordinate the workforce Key Performance Measurements are being used on the shop floor.
 
 
Flexible multi-purpose assembly lines with frequent changing of vehicle type, model, configuration and footprint will become the standard.
Shop floor management, combined with Lean Manufacturing methods, are the foundation for the overall production system. The drive to more flexibility will continue. Also, the trend to an individually configured vehicle will continue further. If the demand for RVs becomes stagnant or declines, the batches will become even smaller and more complex. Flexible multi-purpose assembly lines with frequent changing of vehicle type, model, configuration and footprint will become the standard.
 
Innovation in technology, materials, production processes and automation will also come to the RV industry. Beginning with the pre-manufacturing departments to the final assembly lines, as well as the entire supply chain manufacturers, new business challenges and service improvements will need to be solved.
 
 
Conclusion
Overall, European factories operate at a remarkably high level of quality and technical performance. High productivity in small batch sizes and high variety distinguish the industry. The application of leading-edge manufacturing methods in combination with automation, and competent product and manufacturing engineering, are major contributors to the success of European producers of RVs.  This know-how must be applied to advance the product development processes. Speed to market, and the courage to market new product, are a necessity. If these attributes are fulfilled, RV manufacturing will succeed!
 
Martin Kohnle is Partner with Lignum Consulting, Germany.  He has extensive experience in the Recreational Vehicles manufacturing industry. For feedback or comments he can be reached at [email protected].
 

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