By: DIANE SEARS & ELYSSA COULTAS
Paulo Camasmie remembers when he had to assemble each wheel by hand and “true” it to be sure there was no wobble. That was in 2000, when he first moved to the United States from Brazil and started a company to manufacture recumbent tricycles. He made 67 trikes in his first two years in a 1,000-square-foot warehouse.
Today his company, Big Cat Human Powered Vehicles LLC, cranks out as many as 3,500 cycles a year under the brand Catrike. Recumbent cycles allow the rider to pedal from a reclining position. The trike’s three-wheel tadpole design, with two wheels in front and one in the rear, alleviates damaging pressure on joints and allows the rider to rest comfortably without sacrificing speed or precision.
Catrike’s 30,000-square-foot factory in the College Park section of Orlando is a study in “lean manufacturing” processes that eliminate wasted time and actions to boost productivity. Each step in building a trike is mapped out, measured and posted in writing at the stations where the work takes place.
“We are focused on product design, engineering and manufacturing,” Camasmie says. “We’re a small ‘big company.’ We think big, we act big. … We spend hours talking about engineering, product design, stress analysis and manufacturing efficiencies.”
The wheel building and trueing procedure, like some other steps in the trike’s production, is handled mostly by robotic machinery, with wheel builder Christopher Miller feeding the hub, spokes and rim into a machine that assembles and aligns the wheel. A process that used to take Camasmie 45 minutes per wheel now takes Miller about three minutes.
“A lot of big companies come here to study and benchmark our company,” Camasmie says. “We are so efficient, because we’re small and so streamlined. We’ve done this for 18 years, and we’re always improving and always perfecting things.”
Camasmie’s business partner of 11 years and the operation’s general manager, Mark Egeland, is charged with overseeing the company’s 21 employees, from product design to manufacturing to marketing, sales and accounting.
That leaves Camasmie time to continue streamlining the operations and studying the craft. He earned a certificate in artificial intelligence this year by studying remotely with Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. This fall, he and his wife are headed to Pittsburgh, where he has been accepted into Carnegie Mellon University for a two-year master’s program in robotics.
Meanwhile, Egeland has his own pet projects. One is working with an organization called Friedrich’s Ataxia Research Alliance, which advocates for people with the neuromuscular degenerative disease ataxia.
In 2007, a cycling enthusiast named Kyle Bryant from Sacramento contacted the company to say he was going to be competing in the Race Across America, which takes riders from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Bryant rode a Catrike, which is more comfortable for him because of the effects of the disease, and he completed the race in under nine days. He was looking for the company to donate spare parts like wheels, tires and tubes. Egeland and Bryant became instant friends and have worked together ever since.
“We started a relationship because he rode a Catrike,” Egeland said. “He’s in a wheelchair and he can’t walk, but he can ride a Catrike like the wind.”
Lean, Mean Machines
The company is constantly studying the way riders use Catrikes so it can tweak the design, Camasmie says. His first model, which hangs in a makeshift museum in one of the facility’s lobbies, looks far less complicated than the trikes that come out of the factory today and retail for anywhere from about $2,100 to $4,100.
In an office just off the factory floor, company engineer Justin Calla produces CAD designs of each of the company’s Catrike models. A 3-D rendering on his computer screen rotates the frame so he can see it from all angles.
Thanks to modern technology, every tweak is aligned with the manufacturing equipment through the use of the 3-D CAD software and a coordinate-measuring machine. They no longer have to align the equipment with a tape measure.
Each piece of equipment on the factory floor was built by the company. “We’re not only designing trikes, but we’re designing the fixtures and machines to make the trikes,” Calla says.
Camasmie nods. “We transform pieces of aluminum into finished products. The whole building is a trike-making machine.”
Autonomy in Production
The factory is organized on the premise of “autonomous manufacturing,” Camasmie says. That means there is no foreman position. Instead, each employee is responsible for his or her own area.
Each frame is built one at a time all the way through, traveling from station to station for cutting, bending, welding, washing, painting and assembly. Instead of a line where parts are batched in large quantities, the company implements a “just-in-time” process. Raw materials such as aluminum tubing for the frames arrive at the receiving dock in just enough quantities to meet that week’s production schedule and a small amount of safety stock.
Wheels, handlebars and other parts are assembled only as they are needed in the process. All parts are loaded in racks in a “FIFO” order — first in, first out — so the oldest ones get used first. That way, components don’t have a chance to sit around and become outdated.
Each production team member uses a tablet with a program that outlines steps of that person’s production process and measures “takt time,” the time allowed for work on a particular model. This keeps the line moving. The company also measures how many inches and feet each operator walks to complete the work and eliminates wasted movement that does not add value to the product.
“Quality control is built into the process at each step. There is very little handling,” Camasmie says. “I think we’ve been successful because I didn’t come into it as a cyclist. I came as an engineer.”