Memories from the Kawasaki Plant in Lincoln Nebraska
By Paul Maseman
I started working in the Kawasaki Motors Corp. US plant in Lincoln, Nebraska, in November 1974, on the first day that it was opened to hourly workers.
In the five years I worked there, my job progression was Frame Welder, Production Rework Technician, Process Engineering Technician, and Police Motorcycle Technical Representative.
During my employment there from ’74 to ’79, they manufactured several variants of KZ400, KZ650, KZ900, KZ1000, and KDX-series motorcycles. In addition, Jet Skis and Snowmobiles were fabricated and assembled there.
Initially, an existing KZ400 production line at Akashi, Japan, was “cloned” in Lincoln. This involved replicating every part, process, and tool used on the Akashi line. The idea was to start KZ400 production in Lincoln using proven concepts. From the beginning, frames and fuel tanks were completely fabricated and welded in-house. Finished and pre-tested engine assemblies were imported from Japan.
Wheels, exhaust systems, forks, electrical parts, instruments and other parts were initially imported but later switched to US suppliers. It was an educational experience for some of the suppliers, many of whom supplied the Detroit auto industry, to adjust to the “just-in time” inventory requirements mandated by KMC.
Initially, a couple of the Japanese managers were very negative about the future success of the U.S. manufacturing endeavour and were not shy about expressing their opinions. Their reasoning was that American workers were obviously lazy and slow compared to Japanese workers and therefore the enterprise would surely fail. Within one year, we were producing KZ400s with 30% fewer man-hours per motorcycle than they were in Akashi! I can still remember one of the above-mentioned Managers saying; “Cannot be! Cannot be!”
We felt that the reason for our productivity lay in the fact that laborers in Japan had traditionally been cheap. When a problem was discovered, their answer was to throw more manpower at it. In the US, labor had always been relatively expensive and our Engineers’ answers to problems were to refine or automate the process. As an example, the Japanese initially expected us to assemble motorcycle crates using hammers and nails because that was how they were currently doing it in Kasha. It took only a couple of days for our Engineers to get several air-powered nail guns on the job and reduce the crating department labor requirements drastically! There were many other examples of “Yankee Ingenuity” that improved the manufacturing process and reduced labor costs. Most of these innovations were immediately exported to the Akashi plant by the Japanese.
Several of the Engineers sent over from Japan were great guys! (Maybe our shared passion for motorcycles had something to do with my perception.) I was lucky enough to meet and share ”refreshments” on a regular basis with a couple of the Engineers who were involved in designing the KZ400 engine. They were extremely proud of it! This was a big step for Kawasaki because, except for the British-inspired “W” models, their experience was all in two-stroke engines up to that time. With the H1 and H2 triples, they had taken two-strokes about as far as they could be taken! It had become very clear that it would be impossible to compete successfully with Honda with a line of two-stroke motorcycles.
The Z1 and KZ400 were totally new designs and the Designers were completely aware of the pressure to have them excel! These Engineers told me that the original KZ400 engine was designed to be reliable for 60,000+ km in normal use with normal maintenance. During development, they did extensive dynamometer testing on a large number of engines. Their goal was that 95% of the engines should be able to endure 40 hours at redline RPM and maximum torque. Also, they required that the engine survive for 45 minutes at redline plus 10% (9900 RPM!) at maximum torque. They reported that these standards were exceeded and that they had recorded very few failures.
In addition, the prototype motorcycles were subjected to Acceleration/Deceleration (“AC/DC”) testing. The procedure was to accelerate the motorcycle to max rpm in each gear up to top speed. At that point, it was decelerated through the gears using only engine braking. All shifts were made without the clutch and this was repeated 500 times! I remember one of the Test Riders from the Kawasaki Tech Centre in Santa Ana, California, telling me that doing AC/DC tests on a hot day was a really hard way to make a living! During prototype AC/DC tests of the U.S. designed KZ900 LTD in late ’75, they repeatedly managed to pull the rear sprocket bolts out of the aluminium hub. The rear wheel assembly was redesigned as a result and this delayed production of that model.
I should finish by saying that, as a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, this was a “Dream Job”. I still feel I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to work there and collect the experiences and spend time with some of the legendary people in the motorcycle industry!
Thirty-one years after opening, the US plant has been expanded several times and is currently producing motorcycles and several types of ATVs and other leisure products. Recently, they expanded again and began production of light-rail cars for urban transit systems. They are one of the biggest employers in the region. An engine plant has been opened nearby in Missouri. Tours of the Lincoln plant are available. Check out their website!
Paul is also an owner of a 1978 KZ400 B1.