Late last year, Winnebago Industries Inc. came to a crossroad.
The company was developing more than 40 new or redesigned motor homes for the 1998 model year. The RV maker was revving up for its biggest new-model launch in more than a decade, and a lot was riding on it. Although its Class C motor homes were selling well, its Class A vehicles were losing market share fast.
If Winnebago's ambitious vehicle launch was to succeed, the company would need to consolidate and better manage its vehicle design, development and manufacturing, said Ronald Buckmeier, vice president of product development.
'The only way we could accomplish that was to have an autonomous department,' he said. 'We really tried to put our arms around all of the elements of product development.'
Buckmeier, 50, was director of product development at Winnebago when he was promoted to vice president June 30. A number of responsibilities have been consolidated through his office, including product research and analysis, planning, design, engineering and distribution of product information.
FOCUS WAS TOO NARROW
In the past, as new Winnebagos were designed, departments tended to focus narrowly on their responsibilities. A stylist, for example, may have paid little heed to how a feature would have to be assembled.
Taking a cue from the auto industry, the new Winnebago system adopts a more cross-functional approach. Manufacturing people are more involved at the design stage, for example. That can yield parts and components designs that are easier to put together on an assembly line. Parts designers who once simply handed off their work to the manufacturing department are being asked to stay with a vehicle program as it works its way into production. Design engineers now have a larger stake in the product, Buckmeier said.
Winnebago plans to introduce its 1998 models at a dealer's show next month in Las Vegas and at the National RV Trade Show in Louisville, Ky., in December.
22.6% MARKET SHARE
Sales of Winnebago's Class C motor homes, vehicles based on a van chassis, have been strong. Through the first four months of 1997, the company has increased sales, and holds a 22.6 percent market share, according to Statistical Surveys Inc. of Grand Rapids, Mich.
That puts Winnebago even in Class C with rival Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. of Riverside, Calif., and behind only Coachmen Industries Inc. of Elkhart, Ind., which leads the Class C market with a 23.2 percent share.
But sales of Class A vehicles, motor homes built on a truck chassis, are declining this year at Winnebago. The company holds a market share of 13.2 percent, far behind market leader Fleetwood, which has a 32 percent share.
As head of product development, Buckmeier is managing new-vehicle programs at one of the most vertically integrated RV manufacturers in the industry. Winnebago, which built 9,600 motor homes last year, employs more than 2,800 people at three plants in Iowa.
The company produces a wide variety of aluminum extrusions, steel stampings, plastic molded parts and interior components. Its final assembly plant has three lines that build motor homes under the Winnebago, Itasca, Vectra, Luxor and Rialta model lines.
The new 1998 models will be a product of Winnebago's old development system and the new process as consolidated under Buckmeier. He said he is confident of pushing for even greater integration of product planning, styling and engineering.
Said Buckmeier: 'We've made significant strides in pulling all three functions together.'