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A classic tale of "Made in America" manufacturing, with a modern robotic twist
Bad Boy Mowers has hit the big time, riding a surge of American manufacturing innovation aided by robotic welding technology from ABB.
The "can-do" spirit is a deeply held defining ideal of the American tale; the country's history is strewn with stories of garage tinkerers building the next big thing.
While this legacy is something Americans are quite proud of, the realities of the modern world sometimes seem to have relegated this kind of "can-do" success to software innovators such as the Facebooks and Apple Computers of the world - with recent examples in manufacturing being hard to find. Yet a resurgence in home-grown American manufacturing is now taking root in the country, largely driven by advanced technology.
Through a combination of determination, solid management, and robotic technology from ABB, Bad Boy Mowers, based in Batesville, Arkansas, is one such example of this kind of resurgent manufacturing success.
Founded in 1998, the company has always had the goal of building the best and highest quality zero turn lawn mowers on the planet. They commenced their first mower sales in 2002, and each and every year since they've doubled their production and built a new building to meet demand.
"We have hundreds of thousands of mowers out there right now," says Jeff Mynatt, Director of Operations for Bad Boy Mowers. "From where we started to where we are now, in such a short period of time, is pretty amazing - especially given that the zero point turn mower market is very competitive."
"Made in the USA" means everything to Bad Boy
Walking through the 800,000 square feet of production space that Bad Boy currently occupies, it's clear that the company has a family atmosphere. There's a palpable pride in the fact that Bad Boy strives to keep as much of the manufacturing in-house, and in the USA, as possible.
"We try to do as much as we can do on our own machines - from getting in the metal, to fabricating it, to welding, to cutting it out and painting it - we try to limit what we have to purchase overseas," says Mynatt. "We do purchase a little bit from overseas suppliers, but very small amounts. Most of our parts on the mower are bought or made here in the US." Indeed, Bad Boy fabricates its own mower decks in house; they also build their own frames and most of the smaller associated parts. "A lot of our competitors use a stamped deck, but we do not," says Mynatt. "Bad Boy lawn mowers are welded up and are very strong. We use heavier metal than most of our competitors do, everything is hand fabricated and we weld in extra reinforcement, which results in a unique machine. Our mowers are built to last."
And that kind of quality is apparent when you get up close to a Bad Boy lawn mower. They have a certain presence - a heaviness and weight that instantly tells you this is a product that you can use for a lifetime and beyond. "Being 'Made in the USA' is everything to Bad Boy Mowers," says Landon Russell, who is part of the Bad Boy Marketing and Communications team. "We believe, and we have proven, that you can build a product right here in America that is just like they used to build them. Throughout the years we've noticed that a lot of the other manufacturers in the industry have moved their production overseas, but not us. We're proud to build a product that supports American jobs and that our customers are proud to own."
Keeping manufacturing in the US
To pull off the trick of not having to shift production overseas to meet demand and cost targets, Bad Boy realized early on that they'd have to turn to innovative advanced manufacturing techniques - namely robotic welding. But the barriers to figuring out how to integrate robots into a production line can sometimes seem overwhelming. To overcome this initial hurdle, Bad Boy turned to Randy Luster, a local robotics integrator with long experience in arc-welding applications.
"I got a call from the owners of Bad Boy around 2004," says Luster, who currently owns United Robotics. "They said they were getting into the lawn mower business and wanted a robot. We looked at their immediate needs and realized they didn't need a robot at that time, but I gave them some justification figures to help them determine when a good time to deploy robotics might be. It was only a matter of months and they called back and said they were up to 10 mowers a week and had met the justification targets." Now the company is building 300 mowers a day during peak season and has eight ABB FlexArc robotic welding cells running on two shifts.
"As we've grown and expanded, we realized very quickly that we couldn't keep up with demand on manual labor alone," says Mynatt. "The robots can weld things up better, faster and more efficiently all day long. Once you get the initial programming done, the robotic welders always weld a good bead. With manual welding there is more variation."
Mynatt points to Bad Boy's tightly controlled vertical integration as one of its keys to successfully keeping production in the USA. They control everything from receiving to production, and now they have their own trucking company that ships completely assembled mowers to their network of dealers.
"The more of the production that we can do in-house, and the faster it can be produced and the better quality that we can deliver, it does limit our need to outsource manufacturing - whether that outsourcing is here in the US or in other countries - and the robots are part of that," says Mynatt. "At the same time, we've increased our number of welding employees from the two we had in 2002, to the 90 we have today in just our fabrication facility alone - and that's a huge increase in such a short period of time."
On top of these benefits of robotic production, Mynatt points out one other important aspect. "Our employees do a great job, and are committed to the Bad Boy product," he says. "There's a feeling around town that if you work at Bad Boy that's something to be really proud of. For us, here locally, those kinds of employees are important for our success. By having the robots work on the larger things, we can keep our valuable employees from having to lift heavy parts, and when the robot is welding it's in a confined area that is separate from our workers so that prevents injuries due to sparking - together these things keep our employees safer."
Standardization on robotic welding cells keeps costs down
Over the past 10 years, Bad Boy has bought a new robotic welding cell from ABB virtually every year. In particular, they've standardized on ABB's FlexArc K cell because it gives them the capability of handling the mower decks and frames, as well as the small parts that go along with it.
"FlexArcs come in a variety of designs, but the K Cell that Bad Boy has standardized on has a ferris wheel index which minimizes the footprint on the floor," says Luster." It gives them the capability to be loading on one station while the robot's busy welding on the other. It has a very wide work envelope and it's able to rotate a very large part."
The FlexArc cells have a many options for what robots can be put in them, but Bad Boy has used robots with longer reach arms because they work on larger parts - namely the company uses the ABB IRB 2400L and IRB 2600 series robots.
"As a standard item, we can drop ship the FlexArc cells directly into Bad Boy," says Luster. "We come in and spend a couple of days to make sure everything's okay, and their guys take over from there. The platform is the same every time so it doesn't take a lot of effort at this point to get a new cell running properly. Initially we did a week of training with two of their guys at ABB training facilities in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Now they're perfectly capable of taking the robot when it hits the floor and programming their parts." The turn key solution provided by ABB has been a key part of keeping Bad Boy on track to double production every year.
"In my opinion, ABB builds the best robotic system on the market," says Luster. "We do sell other brands, but my reason for believing that is they reinvest heavily in technology every year. It gives us a time-saving advantage to offer to our customers, and ABB's technical support is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So if there is an issue, normally you can get in touch with somebody and get it resolved rather quickly. We've actually got ABB robots out there with other customers that are 20-plus years old and are still supported and still run production on a daily basis."
The longevity and ease-of-use of ABB's robotic products should come in handy for a company that has its eyes set on the future. "We are wanting to be the best zero turn manufacturer out there," says Mynatt. "That doesn't mean we'll sell the most units, but we want to be the best."