Is California ero
Factory tour of Zero in the USA
from motorcycle sheet 1/16
Text and photos: Mathias Thomaschek
Factory tour of the electric motorcycle manufacturer Zero in the USA
Before I even see a single new ZERO e-bike, I first have to sign several tightly printed forms. Because in Scott Valley between San Francisco and Santa Cruz on the west coast of California, the models of the 2016 vintage are already rolling off the assembly line in a rather inconspicuous industrial hall. A press embargo for worldwide presentation must be adhered to. So I promise in word and in writing, under threat of terrible punishment, not to publish the photos that I am about to take right now. Yes, they are just as picky at ZERO as in other companies. Otherwise, the e-bike production site is typically American and relaxed.
Founded in 2006 by Neal Saiki, the production of the vehicles, which at that time was not exactly visually appealing, was extremely meager for the first two years. ZERO, as the company has called itself since 2008, is one of the pioneers in series production. With the technical progress came the upswing, which not only brought the medium-sized company with 140 employees the corresponding worldwide attention of the trade press, but also ensures "over 1000 vehicles sold" annually. Sean McLaughlin, the marketing manager who looks after me, does not provide exact figures. However, he reveals that the cycle speed on the assembly line is normally 25 minutes. The calculator takes care of the rest: that equates to two vehicles per hour, 16 units for an eight-hour day and 4000 vehicles produced per year for 250 working days. Theoretically. Because, says Sean, "when things get tight, we work in two shifts."
Fortunately, my glasses are almost bulletproof, so I don't have to put on the huge work glasses that every worker here wears. Red lines on the floor - this is immediately made clear to you - non-employed people should try not to cross. And certainly not if you are not wearing safety shoes with steel toecaps. At ZERO - as in all other manufacturing companies - great importance is attached to safety. In addition, one knows the dizzying amounts of compensation in the USA in the event of an accident.
It goes through the development department at a rapid pace - I don't have to be able to see everything on the monitors there. Then we are in production and Ron Brandon, the product manager, is now in charge.
The heart of the production is the battery assembly. Delivered cells are assembled into battery blocks. Of course, a lot of electronics also come into play, which are integrated into the energy dispenser in the form of small black boxes, cables, plugs and sensors. Then it is fully charged for the first time, then discharged - and then fully charged a second time. Check the test programs to ensure that the time is not exceeded and the voltage is not undershot. Defective cells or defective electronics are immediately thrown out here.
The following test is mechanical: in a plexiglass box, the entire battery block is intensively sprayed with water for 20 minutes. At this point at the latest, leaks that can subsequently lead to short circuits or failures come to light.
A high level of vertical integration is not worth it. If all is well, the energy storage is moved to the next department. Of course, the vertical range of manufacture at ZERO is very low. It makes no economic sense to set up your own frame production or an aluminum foundry, for example, with the quantities currently being produced. So the American manufacturer buys the relevant components - like many other motorcycle manufacturers - from external suppliers around the world.
The actual vehicle assembly comprises ten stations, which begins with the insertion of the drive motor in the frame and ends with a final visual check.
At the latest at the assembly stations, it becomes clear that an electric motorcycle can get by with relatively few components. No carburetor, no air filter, no exhaust, and the gearbox is also omitted because the electric motor develops full torque from the first rotation.
It is noticeable throughout the production line what a high level of professionalism there is here. Nothing looks like being put together quickly, everything is designed for efficiency and sustainability. Ron proudly points to a recently purchased machine with which the entire brake system on the vehicle can be filled with hydraulic fluid in a flash.
However, this liquid, together with the fork oil, is the only one that is filled into the vehicle. There is no gear or engine oil, and the engine doesn't need any cooling water.
The penultimate station is the roller dynamometer, on which every ZERO is driven extensively and up to top speed.
At first glance, the auditor's hearing protection is astonishing because there is no engine or exhaust noise. On the other hand, it is astonishing how much "residual noise" the rolling of the tires, the toothed belt and the electric motor together can cause - although this is of course still a long way from the noise of an internal combustion engine. Before the vehicles are ready for dispatch, an employee swings the polishing grinder and gives the vehicle a perfect shine. A final final inspection takes place here. Then the new machine goes into the box for worldwide shipping.
When it comes to documenting vehicle manufacturing, ZERO goes two ways: on the one hand, the traditional route card on which every employee has to document and sign his or her work step is not dispensed with. At the same time, every work step is recorded in a computer and managed centrally.
Both the computer and the route card reveal which model is currently being built with the corresponding battery equipment (fixed installation or two quick-change battery blocks). Technically, the vehicles on the world market only differ in small details, such as the different connection of main and flashing lights.
The 2016 models have been visually revised, technically they now have a larger battery, which can now be fully charged in less than three hours with the optionally available charger and should guarantee more range.
Whereby it still depends heavily on the driving style. If you constantly pull the rope as far as it will go, you will have used up the supply much faster than with a moderate driving style.
Of course, in the course of the visit, the language also comes across competitors. Basically, says Sean, every supplier who builds e-motorcycles is important for the idea. That's why Harley-Davidson's first e-vehicle did the industry good, even if it's just a concept bike so far. After all, the manufacturer from Milwaukee is one of the world's largest motorcycle suppliers and probably no one had him on the radar before when it came to e-mobility.
However, slight wrinkles on the marketing manager's face appear briefly when I talk about Brammo, the other American e-bike provider. Although it differs fundamentally from the drive of the ZERO vehicles in that it has a six-speed gearbox flanged to the engine, it has recently slipped under the umbrella of Polaris.
And this group, based in Medina, Minnesota, grew up through the manufacture of snowmobiles and ATVs / quads, and it was only in 2011 that it incorporated the brands Victory and Indian, which had been limping around until then. And as you know, things are going up steeply with the group in the Kreuz. It is uncertain whether Brammo will suffer the same “fate”.
The biggest obstacle in the implementation of the electric drive is - and we all agree - the non-uniform regulation of battery replacement and recharging. Although I keep discovering charging stations from the electric car manufacturer Tesla in large supermarket parking lots in California, they are primarily only located in this state. And logically do not fit any other vehicle brand.
We are still light years away from a battery provider that is so powerful that all manufacturers of electric vehicles (have to) use their products. The last example when something like this worked was on the VHS tape.
Two very interesting hours later we rush through the development department again (see above). The rooms are designed for growth, some areas are still empty.
However, the company has already moved four times because the premises were too small. And for production, the company management is currently in the process of renting another hall in addition to the one currently in use.
As Sean said with a smile on his face that not only marketing managers put on when it comes to success: and the trend is rising!
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