The Birthplace of the Rocky Mountain King
Just minutes south of the Canadian border lies the town of Roseau, Minnesota.
From the outskirts, Roseau looks just like many of the small communities dotting the Upper Midwest United States. The first clue that something is different is the welcome sign at the edge of town, on which the word “POLARIS” is printed in a font larger than the name of the city itself. Yes, we have come to the right place—the home of Polaris Industries.
It doesn’t take long to notice how deeply Roseau is tied to the powersports manufacturer. Polaris posters adorn the walls of the local gas station. The water supply tower has a giant blue Polaris logo scrawled across it. Company decals adorn vehicles. And it seems like everyone you talk to either works for Polaris or is related to someone who does—which is not a surprise when you consider that the manufacturer employs close to 1000 people in a town with a population of just 2700.
Polaris is the reason I’m here in Roseau too, but I’m not looking for a job. I’m here to experience the Polaris Factory Tour and visit the birthplace of the Rocky Mountain King.
Polaris Factory Tour
As the tour begins and we enter the factory floor, my first impression is of a clean and bright space where the employees are working and chatting away happily at their stations. I can see rows of shiny new vehicles taking form.
But it’s not just assembly that takes place at the Polaris factory in Roseau; it is also a manufacturing plant, and that’s where the build of a Polaris snowmobile starts.
The manufacturing side is a technological wonderland of plasma cutters, breaks, benders and welding stations. There are six plasma cutting stations alone, taking raw material and transforming it into the brackets, braces, super-structures and virtually any other part you can imagine on a new Polaris snowmobile or ORV.
Once the raw material is cut into shape, it is sent to have any bending or forming required done before it moves on to the welding bays. Depending on the complexity of the part, the quantities required and the materials used, some of these pieces move on to robotic welders. These large welding arms precisely zap each piece to perfection, with constant computer monitoring of weld temperatures and depths to ensure each piece is produced exactly as designed.
Some of the pieces are welded by hand. This process is no less accurate, however, as each item is automatically clamped in a precise form to ensure an exact fit. The clamping system has been developed with employee safety in mind, virtually eliminating the chance of pinched fingers or limbs.
Manual welding is also monitored by computer, with the amount of welding material carefully measured and recorded to be sure that each part conforms precisely to specification. A separate quality control bay oversees the finished products, and there is more testing and sampling to ensure they are exactly correct.
Polaris also manufactures and forms their own plastic parts and panels in-house with a state-of-the-art plastic injection molding plant.
When you look at all of the different parts required to build each and every model and variation of those models for the entire Polaris lineup of ORVs and snowmobiles, you begin to get the idea of the complexity of the supply planning.
Polaris has an entire team managing its supply chain, including components from their own manufacturing side. In fact, very few of the components come from outside the plant. The engines are among these, which come completely assembled from the Polaris plant in Osceola, Wisconsin.
Before a sled can be assembled, every little piece required to do so has to be on hand and ready to go. When production is underway, three parallel assembly lines can churn out hundreds of units per day. That’s an unbelievable number of widgets for the supply team to organize and have ready!
The sales division has its requirements for units, the production team keeps the assembly line on track, and it all hinges on the supply team having every single part ready to go—the amount of teamwork between these divisions is impressive.
Once all of the parts and pieces are all in place it is time for actual assembly. Each assembly line is approximately 150 m long. There are three lines next to one another—one for snow and one each for the two different chassis of four-wheeler. These products are being assembled at the same time.
Of course, I mostly want to see the PRO-RMK 850 come together! At the first station on the snowmobile line, the tunnel descends from the rafters where it has travelled high above the plant floor, all the way from the paint booth.
I watch as a row of gorgeous, freshly painted Lime Squeeze-coloured tunnels march their way down to kick off the assembly process.
Once the upper structure is attached, the entire assembly moves on to the next station. At this point the frame is held by a rotisserie-style clamp that allows the chassis to roll upside down for easier installation of the track and rear suspension.
From there, the snowmobile continues to slowly take form as it progresses down the line. The engine is set in. Electronics are plugged in and wiring strapped. And the brakes, clutches, exhaust, front suspension, fuel tank, bars, bumpers and more are installed. Each station’s highly-trained employees expertly place and double-check their piece of the puzzle before it moves on.
Meanwhile, parts bins are constantly restocked by automated wagons that follow sensors embedded in the concrete. These little robot-wagons ferry parts around the plant to help ensure there is no stoppage in assembly due to a lack of parts inventory.
The End of the Line
After the sleds are set onto a base that will become the bottom of their shipping crate, the machine is transferred into the startup bay. Here, a robotic arm gives the recoil a pull, and the machine is started.
In the old days, startup was done manually. But I can imagine spending an entire shift pull-starting brand-new sleds would have been a physically challenging job. The robotic arm has zero complaints after an entire day of work.
Once it has been run up, the sled is ready for its final inspection. Upon completion, it is wrapped and crated before being sent off to the shipping department for distribution to the dealer network, per the order sheets.
Birthplace of the Rocky Mountain King
The Polaris plant in Roseau is just one step in the production of a snowmobile. But it is the step in which the efforts of the engineering, design, product testing and marketing teams culminate into a physical product.
A lot goes into the manufacturing and assembly stages. Planners spend weeks and months ordering supplies and ensuring parts availability. The manufacturing teams produce pieces that fit to exacting standards. Shift planners and trainers ensure the staff is on hand and well-prepared for their tasks. Maintenance crews keep the facility running like clockwork, including everything from robotic arms to automated, self-driving parts trolleys. And the production staff show up cheerful and driven by an immense pride in the finished product.
Thousands of hours of planning and preparation finally come together when a 20-minute trek down a 150-meter-long assembly line transforms a bare tunnel into a brand-new Rocky Mountain King.
It’s an amazing sight.