TCM visits Roadmaster in Vancouver, Washington and watches steel and aluminum become tow bars, sway bars, hitches, and supplemental braking systems. Is that a 20,000 watt laser cutter?
After visiting Roadmaster for a couple days, we drove a half-hour to visit our friends, Alice and Gary. We had met Alice and Gary at the 2007 NATCOA rally in British Columbia at Fintry Provincial Park and were looking forward to hearing about their latest adventures with their 2004 Arctic Fox 990.
When we pulled into their driveway and got out of our truck, we stopped in our tracks at the sight of a Roadmaster StowMaster 5000 in their garage. Just an hour earlier we had seen this exact product at Roadmaster and wondered how many truck camper owners were using them. That’s when Gary pointed out his latest toy, a red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. With the StowMaster 5000 towing their new Jeep, Alice and Gary are taking, “Go Anywhere” that much further.
During our travels this spring and summer, we’ve seen more and more truck camper owners towing Jeeps and other vehicles down the road. Naturally truck camper owners enjoy the ability to tow just about anything and why not tow a Jeep or a car? This is a free country. Tow what you like.
Roadmaster is one company who certainly understands our passion for towing. They build an extensive line of tow bars, hitches, and supplemental braking systems to make sure we can tow a vehicle safely and with confidence. Roadmaster also manufactures a line of sway bars to improve a rig’s stability and cornering control.
LEFT AND CENTER: Roadmaster operates from two main buildings in Vancouver, Washington. The building in the right photograph holds their main offices, supplemental brake system production line, electronics testing lab, and a large warehouse. The building in the center photograph holds Roadmaster’s main fabrication areas and production lines.
RIGHT: Inside the main production building is a well laid out production floor with more machines and manufacturing processes than we’ve ever seen, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
We met Mike Cannon, Roadmaster’s Product Development Manager, and the inventor of the Even Brake and 9700, in Roadmaster’s electronics testing lab. There Mike showed us some of the extreme measures Roadmaster takes to ensure a safe and high quality product. For example, every circuit board, circuit board component, and connecting wire for the Even Brake and 9700 portable proportional braking systems is tested in their lab. They don’t just test one out of every batch, they test every single piece.
Roadmaster’s thermal imaging system can reveal the heat and exact temperature of a circuit board under load. If one component of the circuit board raises to a temperature outside of Roadmaster’s specifications, the board is rejected. When you’re dealing with a product as critical as a supplemental braking system, there’s no room for failure.
LEFT: Once the electronic components for the Even Brake and 9700 systems have been tested, they are brought to a U-shaped production line. There the Roadmaster assembly team assembles and tests the brake systems at every step of production.
CENTER AND RIGHT: We observed the production line as they assembled a run of Even Brake systems. In these photos you see Leonid Gloub at one of the early stages of production and Tatyana Buze operating one of many tests Roadmaster supplemental brake systems go through during assembly.
At the end of the production line, Mike showed us an articulating test table that simulates real-world operating conditions for the brake systems. We watched as three Even Brakes on the test table were jolted back and forth and run through an extreme situation scenario. During the test, three Even Brake units engaged and disengaged their brake systems in unison. No Even Brake or 9700 brake system leaves the Roadmaster factory until it’s passed through Mike’s articulating table test.
LEFT: There’s a very tall flight of steps next to the supplemental brake system production line that gives you a great view of the production line and the large warehouse behind it. Jerry Edwards, Roadmaster’s Founder and President, explained to us that it’s more efficient to build a warehouse up rather than out and he had designed this building accordingly. Looking at the massive storage shelving, it’s amazing that a specialized forklift can safely reach the top shelves.
CENTER: At the top of the stairs are some offices, Mike’s electronics testing lab, and another production area. This production area is where Roadmaster assembles its Hy-Power diodes that allow a towed vehicle’s brake lights and turn signals to work properly while towing. In this photograph, Nadia Lomanova packages products for Wheelmaster products (background) and Katia Domalevskaya labels Hy-Power diodes (foreground).
RIGHT: Also in this assembly area is where Roadmaster marine grade vinyl covers are sewn and given their weatherproof labels. Here you see Nadezhda Izotova and Aliona Bolgar sewing covers for the Roadmaster Tow Defender, a towing rock deflection screen.
Jerry Edwards has a strong belief system that he uses to steer Roadmaster forward. One facet of this belief system is doing as much as possible in-house. This allows Roadmaster to completely control the quality of their products and find opportunities to further improve efficiency. It also means Roadmaster keeps their manufacturing in the United States.
The results of Jerry’s in-house focus are everywhere at Roadmaster. One of the more important examples is Roadmaster’s in-house team of full-time die makers. Just off the main production floor, the die maker team maintains existing dies to keep them within Roadmaster’s quality control tolerances and manufactures new dies for new products. In these photographs you can see the die maker shop and team members Chad Malecha, David Kuczinski (center), and John Woolen (right).
LEFT: Raw materials are stored at the very rear of Roadmaster’s main production floor. There the steel and aluminum bars and plates are stacked and shelved floor to ceiling.
CENTER AND RIGHT: In front of the raw material inventory area is a battery of CNC aluminum and steel cutting saws. The CNC saw team precisely measures and cuts the solid and tubular steel bars for production. In these photographs, long time Roadmaster team member Andrei Tigu cuts a solid steel bar on a CNC saw. The saw uses fluid to cool and lubricate the blade and material as it cuts.
Some of Roadmaster’s products are quite intricate and require a variety of small and highly detailed metal pieces. To manufacture these small metal pieces in house, Roadmaster has a team of CNC fabricators working on Mazak and Traub CNC machines.
Each CNC machine is set up for specific operations and is programmed by Roadmaster’s engineers to manufacture specific pieces. As the pieces are completed by the CNC machines, the CNC fabrication team inspects each piece to ensure that it’s within tolerance.
In the above photographs you see Tony Thippraxay (left) and John Case (center) using digital calipers to measure freshly CNC machined pieces before allowing the pieces to move to the next step in production. The right photograph shows Suk Thilavanh programming a CNC machine for the next batch of small parts.
In these photographs you can see the range of shapes and sizes these incredible machines can manufacture. The disc in the left photograph is actually a magnet used in the Even Brake and 9700 brake systems. The center photograph shows the raw metal that goes into the CNC machine (right) and the finished product (left). And finally, one CNC machine was manufacturing small brass pieces. It’s amazing to see the precision of the pieces coming out of these machines.
There are many different machines and processes at Roadmaster that take raw materials and cut and shape them into a piece for production. None of these machines or processes is as massive and visceral as the Aida punch presses. For a few minutes we experienced Dan Smith (center) and Ben Delong (right) working these several hundred ton punch presses. The thunderous earth shaking cah-chunk from the presses was simply awesome.
Jerry explained that other machines are more practical for small runs, but nothing beats the efficiency of a punch press for high volume production. Like so many things, it’s about finding the right tool for the job.
Speaking of finding the right tool for the job, Roadmaster uses cold bend CNC machines to manufacture their line of sway bars. During our visit, the cold bend CNC machines were waiting for the next sway bar run.
When they are in production, these machines are neat to watch as they automatically bend and turn a steel bar into the precise shape programmed into it’s computer. You can see the resulting Roadmaster sway bars in the right photograph. Next time we visit, we’ll be sure to check out this station in action.
LEFT AND CENTER: Sometimes metal needs to be heated to be properly shaped. Not too far from the cold bend CNC machines is one of the most impressive machines we’ve ever seen. Looking like a thermos turned on it’s side, the machine almost instantly heats steel to 1,600 degrees. While he was operating the machine, Pat Malone allowed us to get relatively close to take a photograph of the metal heating inside the thermos-like shape.
RIGHT: Roadmaster uses this machine to heat the ends of it’s sway bars and shape them for the appropriate vehicle fitting. With the end of the steel sway bar glowing yellow-orange, Pat quickly placed the bar into a punch press die to form the desired flat and squared off shape. Once the end was through the punch press, he places the other end of the sway bar into the heating machine so he could complete the sway bar.
LEFT: Most RV and RV accessory manufacturing companies don’t even use laser pointers, much less have a 20,000 volt CNC laser cutter at their disposal. We were already impressed with Roadmaster’s laser cutter when Kenny Tatum, Research and Development, took us to see the actual laser inside the machine. There we saw what could only be compared to a hollywood special effect from Star Trek, Back to the Future, or even Real Genius. With that white and purple laser buzzing away, we were ready to engage the warp drive, check out 1955, or at least burn a hole through a few buildings.
CENTER AND RIGHT: Of course the real world use of Roadmaster’s laser is a bit less hollywood. The Bystronic laser cutter is used for cutting precise shapes in steel plate. Notice how little metal is wasted by the CNC controlled cutting program. If the steel is thicker than what the laser can handle, it’s taken to the HD plasma cutter. Fire when ready commander!
LEFT: Right next to the CNC laser cutter is a CNC plasma cutter. Kenny explained that plasma cutters are capable of cutting through thicker steel than laser cutters but don’t quite offer the same level of intricate cutting capability. Here Trevor Wiebold programs the CNC laser cutter to begin the plasma cutting process.
CENTER AND RIGHT: A few seconds later, the dual gun plasma cutter got to work. Like the laser cutter, the program for the plasma cutter maximizes the cuts to minimize metal waste. Any metal that is left over from the laser or plasma cutter is recycled.
LEFT: Once pieces are completed by the punch presses, laser cutter, and plasma cutter, they are brought to a large white tumbler located in the center area of the factory floor. The tumbler is top loaded and literally opens up wide like a giant Pac-Man. We didn’t measure it, but based on how tall the tumbler is next to operator Richard Hauck, it’s at least fifteen feet tall when open. Just don’t put a quarter in this machine, it might eat the whole factory.
CENTER: Inside the tumbler are hundreds, if not thousands of pieces that look like grey Hershey Kisses. These pieces are called medium and they’re what vibrate inside the tumbler and smooth the rough edges from the metal pieces inside. This photograph is is a blurry because the tumbler was running.
RIGHT: When the tumbler had completed it’s cycle, Richard opens the lid and allows the parts to exit the machine. These pieces are now smooth to the touch and ready for the welding team.
LEFT: Roadmaster’s welding team works inside a buzzing hive of orange red curtains. Intensely bright blue and white welding light pops on and off throughout the area like a lightening storm. It’s a bit surreal and fun to watch in person.
The welding operation at Roadmaster is by far the largest we’ve ever seen, and the cleanest. Another strong belief Jerry shared with us is that he wants his workers to breathe clean air and work in a clean environment. You can see the ventilation tubes descending form the ceiling to remove smoke and other fumes away from the welding area. Based on how clean and smoke free the welding area was, we have to say Jerry has achieved his goal.
CENTER AND RIGHT: Behind the orange red curtains, team members are sanding and welding a variety of Roadmaster products. We observed Dave Johnson (center) dressing welds until they’re smooth on a Falcon All Terrain tow bar. Behind another welding curtain, Emiliano Campana Lizzaro (right) was welding a mounting bracket for a car.
LEFT: Just when we thought we had seen it all, Jerry took us to see the media blast cabinet. After the welding team has finished their welding, the resulting products are placed on wire hangers and brought inside the media blast cabinet.
CENTER: Then the doors close and the media blast cabinet literally blasts the products with shot media. This photograph shows the shot media in Richard Hauck’s hand. He explained that the products are cleaned, deburred, and given a uniform finish during the media blasting process.
RIGHT: Here’s David Robinson, Roadmaster’s Director of Marketing, holding a part before the media blast cabinet (left side of photograph) and a part that has already been through the media blast cabinet (right side of photograph). David took us through the entire Roadmaster factory after Jerry’s tour and put up with us as we photographed the team and asked question after question about their manufacturing. Thank you David.
Now that the welded components have made it through the media blast cabinet, they’re ready to be powder coated. Here again Roadmaster has taken things to a level we’ve never seen before.
LEFT: This photograph shows most, but not all of Roadmaster’s powder coat conveyor system. Components are loaded onto wire hangers on the conveyor and automatically washed with phosphate, rinsed with fresh water, dried in an oven, powder coated, and cured.
CENTER: This structure is where the powder coat is applied. If you look closely, you can see the automatic powder coating guns and the human being behind them that makes sure nothing was missed by the automatic system.
RIGHT: Once through the powder coat system, the components have a tough weather and rust resistant finish that looks great. It was interesting to look at these components and see the individual pieces we saw punch pressed, laser cut, plasma cut, welded, tumbled, and media blasted just a few hundred feet away.
All of the powder coated components finally come together and become completed Roadmaster products on various production lines including the Even Brake and 9700 production line at the beginning of the article.
LEFT: The tow bar assembly production line is adjacent to the powder coat conveyor system. Adam Thompson is the Supervisor of Tow Bar Assembly line and took us through the process of assembling an All Terrain tow bar. The process took about ten minutes including a battery of quality control tests and inspections.
CENTER AND RIGHT: The last steps in the assembly included placing the Roadmaster brand and product name on the tow bar. With this final step completed, the Roadmaster All Terrain tow bar was ready to packaged and shipped. After he placed the tow bar, hardware, and manual into the box, he closed it up. From raw metal to boxed product, we had now seen the entire Roadmaster production line.
We were very impressed with Roadmaster’s conservative approach to safety and near obsessive levels of quality control. David even showed us a Roadmaster brochure that helped consumers find the right suspension solution including products Roadmaster does not manufacture or sell. We appreciated Roadmaster’s objective and honest approach to a subject that many consumers find challenging. You can see the chart we’re describing here: http://www.roadmasterinc.com/products/rss/suspension_benefits.html
We also really enjoyed our time at the Roadmaster factory. It was fun to meet their team and fascinating to learn about their manufacturing equipment and processes. And lest we forget, David also took us to observe their top secret tow bar testing bench. We were not permitted to take photographs of the testing bench, but we can tell you that Roadmaster puts their tow bars through a long and rigorous torture test. By the time David showed us this test, we were already convinced that Roadmaster does everything you can think of to test their products. Jerry wouldn’t have it any other way.
For more information about Roadmaster, visit their website at www.roadmasterinc.com.