TCM gets exclusive access to Torklift International’s enormous state-of-the-art Royal City factory complex. Get ready for multiple laser-cutters, welding robot row, and a special edition Fastgun surprise.
In December of 2022, we called Jack Kay, President of Torklift International, about a product announcement for the Truck Bed Side Steps only to discover we were actually talking to Jay Taylor, Torklift’s GM emeritus. “Jack, you don’t sound yourself today…” He sure didn’t.
After pulling the rug, Jay shocked us with the news that Torklift International was moving its entire production and logistics to Royal City, Washington. Out went my interview questions as we attempted to get the full story. That, as Jay ultimately explained, would have to wait.
Two months later, Candice Kay, Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Torklift International, texted me to announce they’re shipping us a robot to interview Jack ‘in person’ about their new Royal City factory. After the Jack is Jay incident, I immediately thought they were kidding and wrote back, “Yes! Send the robot.” They weren’t.
All of this explains why our radar is definitely on full power when we engage the fearlessly imaginative team at Torklift International. It also explains why we were excited to visit and tour the Torklift Royal City factory, meet the team, and see why such a huge and fundamental company shift happened.
Entering Royal City
Royal City, Washington is, despite the ‘city’ title, a relatively small town with just 1,823 residents according to the 2020 census. The area is known for being a farming and wine-growing region and hosted a Titan ICBM missile silo in the 1960s. On the way, we certainly passed a lot of corn fields and apple farms, but nothing nuclear.
The Torklift International Royal City plant is actually a sprawling 15-acre complex including production buildings, warehouses, maintenance facilities, and a residential home added by the previous owners.
Having been to Torklift International’s previous factories over the past two decades, we can confirm that their Royal City plant is nothing less than a quantum leap in space, function, and versatility. To put this another way, the complex could easily fit all of Torklift’s previous facilities; perhaps twice over.
The photo above shows our camper parked in the spot the TLI team directed us to. To get a sense of the scale of this complex, I put a red dot where we parked in the drone shot above (courtesy of Torklift International). This place is absolutely huge.
We arrived on a Sunday afternoon for our factory tour starting first thing the following morning. Little did we know what we would wake up to.
Normally when we find a group of guys behind our camper we’re (a) about to be razzed, or (b) have something of a situation with the local authorities. Both have happened during our truck camping adventures, but those stories will have to wait for another time.
Thankfully, the posse gathered behind our rig that Monday morning was friendly. From left to right were Jay Taylor, Torklift GM emeritus, Joel Crawford, Operations Manager, Kyler Morrison, National Sales Manager, and Jack Kay, President, of Torklift International.
Jay and Jack had driven two and a half hours that morning specifically to meet us and take us through their Royal City factory. I often joke about getting the royal treatment by the industry, but in this case, it was the literal truth.
After walking through a warehouse with of ready-to-ship Torklift products, we approached the main production facility and the largest building in the complex.
Outside were tall racks full of the steel and aluminum materials used for manufacturing Torklift’s SuperHitches, frame-mounted tie-downs, Fastgun turnbuckles, truck camper bumper systems, and beyond. Before entering, Joel said they were planning to fully enclose the materials with a future expansion.
Immediately inside the 30-foot aircraft hanger doors, we did a triple take.
In 2017, Torklift International announced the acquisition of a $1M, 40,000-pound Mazak Optiplex 4020 Fiber II CNC laser cutter. Not only was this room-sized laser-cutter twice as fast as the plasma cutters it took out to pasture, the Mazak also provided aircraft-grade tolerances negating the need to deburr produced parts. This capability completely revolutionized how Torklift International approached production and product design.
Fast forward to our Royal City visit in 2023 and Torklift International now has not one, not two, but three Mazak laser-cutters in their main production building. The second laser-cutter is another Mazak Optiplex 4020 Fiber series, and the third is a Mazak Optiplex Nexus 3015. The Torklift team explained that having three laser-cutters not only further pushes their production capacity, but greatly extends future product possibilities.
Above: Torklift product components fresh off a Mazak laser-cutter
The Mazak laser cutters have the capability of operating 24/7 with minimal human interaction. By having three laser cutters, Torklift International all but ensures that they always have at least two laser cutters in operation. With how vital these machines have become, that benefit can’t be under appreciated.
Mazak laser-cutters don’t exactly run on nine-volt batteries. To that point, Jack explained that one of the added benefits of moving Torklift production to Royal City is that Grant County has some of the least expensive electricity in the country. Grant County’s power comes from hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River helping to drive down Torklift International’s electric bill from $17K a month (in Sumner), to $5K a month.
Across from the three Mazak laser-cutters was a row of three Lincoln Electric welding robot cells. Each of these welding robot cells consists of a metal barrier and arc glare shield, welding machine power supply, robotic arm, welding torch, laser scanners, and a human-to-machine interface (HIM).
As you might imagine, there are many types of welding robot cells with different configurations and capabilities. For Torklift International’s welding requirements, they chose a rotating turntable system.
In the image above, the rotating turntable system is mid-way through its 180-degree rotation. Center right you can see the robotic welding arm. During the welding process, the robotic welding arm is obscured from view by a metal turntable wall. This is not only for safety, but production efficiency.
The control screen (shown top right) and the vertical button array beneath it make up the human-to-machine interface (HIM). The control screen features a graphical user interface designed to simplify the training and use of the welding robot system. The buttons below the control screen require the human operator to be at a safe distance while the turntable is in operation. It moves fast.
Take a close look at the center-right part of the image above. In front of the turntable wall, you will find a dark grey rectangular form between two white machine arms. The rectangle form is actually a custom jig holding a dozen Torklift tie-downs. There are actually two of these jigs used for each welding robot cell; one on each side of the rotating turntable wall.
For this process, the operator places the steel tie-down plate and tube into the jig. The welding robot then rotates the turntable and welds the plates and tubes together. While the robotic welding arm is welding the product on the other side of the metal turntable wall, the human operator unloads the freshly welded components from the jig and then loads the same jig with the pieces to be welded next. We observed this human-robot production ballet for several cycles, in awe.
The primary purpose of welding robot cells is to increase production, and improve weld quality and consistency. And here’s the proof; clean and accurate welds emerging from the welding robot jig rotation, after rotation, after rotation.
To be fair, welded products from Torklift International have always been first-rate, even when mere mortals were the only ones carrying the torch.
You might be surprised to learn that humans still do a large portion of the welding at Torklift International. In fact, no welders lost their jobs to robots (or any other automation machines) at Torklift International. There were plenty of other tasks at hand and opportunities to advance.
Besides, not only can humans perform some welding tasks better than their one-armed, servo-and-silicon peers, but humans are better suited to lower-volume work that requires regular jig and process changes. In contrast, robots are better suited to repeating the same motion, over, and over, and over.
This is why we found many human-powered welding teams fired up and sparking away at Torklift International Royal City.
Joel took a moment to explain how each of these production teams and their leaders are empowered with data and analytics to improve their own output and quality. Production data and analytics are openly posted on whiteboards and provided digitally to the team leaders. The whiteboards display monthly production goals in physical units and monetary value.
Joel added that he treats each Royal City production station like its own business, the station leaders like entrepreneurs, and the station members like individual teams. This approach, Joel explained, results in the most precious of things; intrinsic motivation.
Not only do these Torklift teams feel empowered, but they take ownership of the process and results and even innovate new ways to improve their products, production process, and efficiency. With a laugh, Joel said the teams are often frustrated with him because he can’t always provide what they want to innovate fast enough. This is obviously a very good problem to have.
In their never-ending quest to increase efficiency and reduce costs, Torklift didn’t stop at three laser cutters and a row of robotic welding cells.
About thirty feet from welding robot row we found a towering Accurl CNC press brake. This imposing metal machine is designed for precise bending angles, increased production, and up to 50-percent less energy use.
Steel and aluminum parts from the Mazak laser cutters are fed into jigs on the Accurl CNC press brake. The image above shows the result; laser-cut and CNC bent pieces ready for the next step in production. Note the clean laser-cut holes and notches that would have been impossible with previous metal-cutting technologies.
Deeper into the main production building, we observed Torklift Talon tie-downs earning their wings. Torklift Talon tie-downs are made from military-grade aluminum alloy and stainless steel. We’ve been using Talon tie-downs on our rig since the product launched in 2014. They have performed flawlessly.
One of the initiatives Joel was working on with his Royal City team is to integrate packaging at every production cell. For example, the Talon team would not only produce the Talons, but package them for shipping. Joel explained that this would help each team take ownership of the complete production cycle, identify bottlenecks, and come up with solutions.
Another initiative is to train new team members for product packaging, and then train them to produce the actual products. This gives team members valuable shop skills and creates opportunities for improved efficiency, quality, and quality control. At every step, Torklift International encourages its team to take ownership of the process and products.
In a smaller building parallel to the main production facility is where Torklift International performs its powder coating.
Here we found the same powder booth (shown above), cure oven, and track Torklift utilized at their previous Sumner, Washington location, with one significant change.
Where the old facility offered powder coating 7,500 square feet, the new facility only offers 4,000 square feet. This required the system to be modified. It’s a good thing Torklift International is, at its core, a fabrication company.
Despite the 46-percent decrease in space, the powder coating team is more than able to keep up with Torklift production. We observed as the team loaded and unloaded Torklift components from the overhead conveyor system. They’re dialed in.
On the opposite side of the building from the powder coat team is where we found the Fastgun turnbuckle team. Here we met Admin Operations Manager, Charles Parker. After Charles showed us the Fastgun process, we asked him if there were any opportunities to improve the Fastgun station or otherwise make the product better.
Charles told us how the Fastgun station and product had been perfected over time, and how he’s tried to convince Joel and the leadership team to introduce white-bodied Fastguns with black handles. With a glint, he picked up an example of each and showed me how that would look. In an instant, I thought, “Yes, please!”
I evidently said this out loud because suddenly Joel was looking at me funny. Then Joel smiled, nodded to Charles, and said, “Make them a set.” Charles didn’t hesitate and instructed his team.
We have observed the Fastgun tooling and process multiple times. Suffice it to say the jigs and tooling have – as Charles stated – continuously improved to create a product that is universally recognized as the industry standard. There’s a reason why you will find them on nearly every hard side truck camper on the road and a good number of pop-up campers.
One team member completes a set of Fastguns with a series of custom-made tools and machines that assemble the hook, handle, and body components together. Once this is completed, the end user assembles the Fastgun body, threaded hook rod, square nut, rubber washer, locking nut, and indicator washer to finish the product.
A few feet from the Fastgun production area is where the steel rod gets its thread (see above), and the threaded rods get their hooks (see below).
What’s amazing about the powder coat and Fastgun production building is that it’s about the same size (in my memory) as the first Torklift International factory we visited back in 2007. It may even be a bit bigger. To think this building is now just a small slice of their Royal City manufacturing complex is simply mind-boggling. I know 17 years is a long time, but it’s not that long. We’re talking about some serious growth here.
Building 3 is where Torklift camper bumpers, Power Armor, and GlowSteps are made. This is where we encountered a seven-man team feeding jigs and completing set after set of GlowSteps.
This team, perhaps more than any other, was full of questions. Laser Divisional Leader, Angel Ruiz, asked us with a big smile, “Should we smile for the pictures?” By the time he’d asked, the picture was taken. The fellas also asked about Truck Camper Magazine, what other factories we’d been to, and what we thought about Torklift GlowSteps. Usually, we’re the ones asking all the questions, so this was a lot of fun.
To answer Angel’s question, we were not big fans of scissor steps until we actually used a set of GlowSteps in the context of a Torklift Stow N’ Go system mounted to a 2018 Cirrus 920. After six months of continuous use, we were impressed with the product’s sturdy quality, convenient storage bracket, adaptable landing gear, and overall comfort we enjoyed using the system. You can see our full review of the Torklift Stow N’ Go system here.
The components of Torklift’s GlowStep system are laser-cut from a sheet of aluminum creating an enormous puzzle to assemble. In this photo, you can see the table jig that makes that assembly fast and intuitive, followed by a drill that speeds the process.
Like Torklift’s turnbuckle, tie-down, hitch, and suspension products, GlowSteps have become an industry standard. During our visit, the GlowStep team was working on an OEM order from the overland market that was a touch narrower and taller than what we typically see on a truck camper rig.
Between buildings, finished and boxed Torklift products were being gathered and prepared for shipping. While we walked the campus grounds, we watched several trucks drive in, pick up Torklift products, and drive out. This place is a bee hive of activity.
By late morning, we said goodbye to Jack, Jay, and Kyler who needed to return to Torklift’s marketing, sales, and product development center in Kent, Washington.
We are very appreciative that they took the time to meet us and take us through the Royal City plant. The whole reason why we conduct these tours is to get in tune with the people, process, materials, and culture. Having key members of the leadership team on hand was invaluable for that purpose.
When we got back to our camper, a set of four black and white Torklift Fastgun turnbuckles were on our rear bumper. With a bit of elbow grease, Angela and I assembled the Fastguns and put them on our camper.
Together with the Talons on our black, white, and red truck and camper, the new Fastguns looked absolutely stunning. Charles was right.
To the best of our knowledge, these are the only white-bodied Fastguns with black handles on the planet. However, if you would like a set of your own, we’ve been told special requests might be possible.
Reflecting On Torklift International Royal City
We now completely understand why Torklift International relocated their entire production and logistics – including finished goods, warehousing, and shipping – to Royal City, Washington. The multi-facility campus is incredible with more than enough space and versatility to grow in the future, a strong local employee base, reduced utility rates, and a quieter and more affordable small-town way of life.
If that were the whole story, it would be enough. However, there was something else going on at Torklift International Royal City. We’ve already covered the progressive cultural data sharing, empowerment, and synergies found throughout the campus. What we haven’t covered, and is honestly tough to properly convey, is the sum total of Torklift International’s remarkable culture.
Joel explained it succinctly during a short meeting at the end of our visit. He said, “Torklift is here for the people, not profit. We nurture and grow people. It’s time-consuming but, if you do it right, everything else takes care of itself.”
From countless interactions with team members at every position throughout the company, we have seen the power of Torklift International’s people-first culture. Not only do they continually train and empower their team, but it’s not at all unusual to see new hires move up quickly through the ranks and make Torklift International their career. That tradition lives on at Torklift International Royal City. You can literally feel it everywhere you go there.