Dometic Builds Refrigerators From Scratch in America

14 Jul 2014 11:14 AM | KOA Owners Association (Administrator)

Dometic builds refrigerators from scratch in America

If there is one thing John Hunter wants the RV industry to know about Dometic refrigerators, it’s that they are built from scratch by skilled workers who are not simply assembling parts.

The operations manager for the company’s manufacturing facility in Elkhart, Hunter oversees a staff of 300 to 400 associates in a 245,000-square-foot plant the builds and tests 700 refrigerators per day, 80 percent of which are shipped to RV makers in the Elkhart area.

The company achieved ISO 14001 certification in 1998 for its environmental management system. In fact, every production plant owned by the company that employs at least 20 people is certified to ISO 14001 standards.

What’s that mean for Dometic’s customers? ISO certification is a big deal because the company must pass rigorous inspections of its policies and procedures to ensure that it minimizes any potentially harmful effects on the environment caused by its manufacturing process. The company must also develop a plan for continuous improvement when it comes to its environmental performance.

To meet increasing demand for refrigerator products by RV manufacturers, Dometic runs its production line in two shifts from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day.  Five production lines are employed to get the job done, and there are 340 refrigerators on the production line at any time. Three assembly lines are involved in producing high-quality refrigerators while the other two are involved in making a variety of mixed models. In addition to refrigerators, the company also produces a line of medical boxes used by hospitals to transport and store blood, but that’s a small, specialty niche compared to the huge numbers of RV refrigerators manufactured each year.

“The RV market is up 13 percent this year,” Hunter explained. “Manufacturers are expecting us to be able to deliver working refrigerators to their production lines on time every day. We’re going to step up our production to support our OEM partners.”

Starts from a sheet of plastic

Each RV refrigerator actually starts as a sheet of plastic. It is heated and thermoformed into the compartment and inside liner that people see whenever they open the refrigerator doors. From there, the freezer and fresh food doors are added along with a steel frame. Manufacturers have the ability to add their own custom inserts to the outside of the doors to better match the RV’s interior decor.

A total of five machine towers do nothing but produce the insulated RV doors. The refrigerator process begins with aluminum lined cardboard to control weight. The refrigerator body then moves onto a cabinet foaming station where a robot pumps in an expanded polypropylene foam that hardens in 10 to 12 minutes. It is 19 percent lighter than other foam products, but improves cooling capacity by 15 percent, Hunter said.

As the refrigerator bodies are removed from the line, they are inspected to make sure all the seal points held as expected. If, for some reason, a blowout should occur, the product is removed from the line and some of the parts salvaged. One production line is focused on transforming raw tubes into the cooling units. A robotic system picks up each tube and systematically bends it into shape, then automatically moves it to another robot station that welds other parts together. Once the robots complete their jobs, a human worker takes each assembled part and verifies it was assembled correctly by ensuring it fits into a specific mold. Those that don’t are sent back to special stations where other workers manipulate the tubes into proper position. From there the cooling unit goes to a station that blows high-pressure air into the system before it is held underwater while an employee scans each unit looking for the smallest of leaks. Any detected leaks are repaired and retested.

“Occasionally, we will pull one of the cooling units off the line and blast it with so much pressure that the tube eventually bursts,” said Hunter. “This confirms the welds are as tight as they can be because the tubes will give way before one of the welded joints.” Racks that pass inspection are sent off to be washed and painted. Once complete, the unit is sent to a charging station where refrigerant is added and the system tested to make sure it retains the charge undefined a process that takes several hours to complete.

Building a refrigerator is quite a feat since Dometic receives 5 million individual parts per month that are bent, cut, welded and shaped into finished products. “The only parts that are not made in house are the, electrical, racking, crispers and shelves,” said Hunter. “Every other component in our refrigerators and freezers is made right here in Elkhart.” The final step on the production line has workers thoroughly cleaning the refrigerators inside and out. The serial numbers are added and a supervisor ensures that all required tests were performed and passing results recorded.

The finished refrigerators are then maneuvered to a special elevator that moves it upstairs for final testing. That department has 450 RVs being tested at any time. Over a four- to six-hour period, each refrigerator is powered up and temperatures recorded by computer at various intervals to ensure the units cool down as expected.

RV industry standards require the main compartments to cool to 43 degrees and the freezers to go as low as 16 degrees. However, Dometic raises that bar, said Hunter. “We test each refrigerator to ensure the temperature in the main compartment cools to 38 to 41 degrees, and the freezer gets down to 2 to 6 degrees,” he explained.  “Thanks to all our internal testing, less than 10 cooling units fail per year after leaving the plant.”

Internal testing is one thing, Dometic takes it one step further by installing a refrigerator into a motorhome, then driving the RV to a testing facility in LaGrange, Ind. There, the RV is subjected to high heat, cold temperatures and just about any environment it is likely to experience on the road. During the testing process, computers continually monitor the temperatures to ensure the cool to Dometic standards, said Hunter.

Dealer direct delivery

Dometic is different from other RV industry suppliers in that they ship RVs directly to dealers, rather than through wholesale distributors. So, the company also staffs a customer service center with telephone operators and technicians to take orders, answer consumer questions and help RV technicians troubleshoot issues. “We have 5,500 different customers,” said Dave Schutz, vice president of RV OEM sales and marketing. “Our customer service team logged more than 500,000 calls last year. In the summer season we have more than 45 sales and tech support agents on the phones for dealer and OEM calls.” Because of the unique arrangement in shipping units directly to RV dealers, Dometic invests heavily in training and supporting its dealers. In fact, if customers call with questions about their RVs, they are referred to a local dealer to get a problem resolved.

The company sees calls for service triple during the summer, which is why the firm brings on many part-time seasonal workers to handle the crunch, including many college students doing internships. Fortunately, Schutz said, about 40 percent of the summer workers return each year. Whether they work the production line or in customer service, staff members are often cross-trained in different stations so that if one worker calls in sick, or there is another staff shortage on the line, other employees can quickly cover any station. “We are proud of our team,” said Schutz. “They work hard to make quality products. They know that RV owners rely on having working refrigerators wherever they go. Nothing would take the enjoyment out of a family vacation faster than having a refrigerator stop working. That’s why we work diligently to build ours to tough specifications, then test and retest each unit multiple times to ensure it meets that standard.”

As big as the manufacturing plant in Elkhart is, the factory represents just a slice of the company’s overall business. An international manufacturer, the Dometic Group is involved not only in the RV industry, but in the marine industry as well as commercial and passenger vehicles, lodging, consumer products and medical equipment.

The products are marketed under the following brands:

·         Cruisair – Air conditioners, air purifiers, portable refrigerators and ice makers, as well as Eskimo ice systems

·         Condaria – Marine refrigerators, water heaters, chillers, heat pumps, air conditioners and boilers

·         MarineAir – Air conditioners, air purifiers and ice makers

·         Sealand – Marine toilet systems

·         Dometic – Trucking and agricultural products; commercial marine cooling units; hotel safes and mini-bars, and air purifiers; and RV and marine toilets; RV stoves, microwaves, heat pumps, awnings, air purifiers and cleaning products

“We have 20 production facilities around the world, but only two in China,” said Schutz. “Each one is often capable of making multiple products. That way if one plant experiences a fire or a natural disaster, another plant is ready to immediately pick up the slack.” With international headquarters in Sweden, Dometic’s worldwide business generated more than $1.1 billion in sales in 2013, and early reports show the company posting a 10 percent sales increase in the first quarter of 2014.

For more information about Dometic refrigerators, visit www.dometic.com.


© KOA Owners Association
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software