What better way to begin a year+ RV road trip to study innovation than by visiting an RV manufacturer. This was not just any manufacturer but Tiffin Motorhomes, one of the oldest and most respected motorhome builders in the industry, producing their first RV in 1972 and creating extremely loyal customers ever since.
Many RV manufacturers did not survive the 2008 recession, with the industry retracting 80%. Those few that survived should know something about innovation – they surely know how to weather an economic storm. Further, they are proud of their work and eager to tell their story during daily factory tours. I wanted to go!
Tiffin Motorhomes is in Red Bay, Alabama, far away from Elkhart, Indiana where the majority of RV brands are manufactured. It is also a family business, ran by the Tiffin family with Bob Tiffin, founder, still at the helm. Granted, it is not a small family business with about 750 employees.
Not ever touring an RV manufacturer before, I was surprised how much work is performed by hand. This is far from the automation used in automobile manufacturing. The benefit is the flexibility this approach provides. What does this mean to innovation? They can spin on a dime to incorporate an improvement to the manufacturing process or an entire new capability. For example, during the tour our guide pointed out recent changes (in the last two weeks) that made incremental improvements to the process. When it comes to new capabilities, when Bob Tiffin saw the first slide-out on an RV, he knew customers would want slide-outs and that he could make them better. A classic fast-follower approach, Tiffin’s flexibility had motorhomes with slide-outs launched in four months.
They have separate lines for wood preparation, cabinetry, chassis prep, assembly, etc. Also, they constructed a state-of-the art paint facility. The pictures below provide a quick glimpse at some the production lines.
After the tour I had the great pleasure of talking with Bob Tiffin for an hour. This was huge – Bob spends much of his day talking with customers and I am grateful and honored he took an hour break to discuss innovation with me. This will be the topic of the next post.