Reviewboard visits Husqvarna R&D Center
Note: This is an informative narrative written by Reviewboard’s Rory Ferreira about Husqvarna’s latest media event, the opening of their North American Research and Development Center. While some products are written about they are in no way exhaustibly covered and future reviews will come of Husqvarna products. If you have ever wondered how the inner cogs of the global leader of outdoor power equipment work this may be an interesting read.
When Husqvarna invited Reviewboard to send an operative beyond the relatively imaginary comforts of the Mason-Dixon Line, to mark the unveiling of their fairly new Research and Development building as well as an opportunity to test their full line of products, we jumped. These events are fairly standard within marketing circles, there’s new product spilled like so much fruit punch at a picnic and an army of writing drones is deployed by their editors to cover the goods. But this was not the average picnic of a media event, when a company that is the global market leader in the production of almost every piece of outdoor power equipment imaginable invites you to their stronghold the stakes are much higher.
Husqvarna has a rich and diverse history spanning passed the independence of the United States of America. When a company older than your home country, a company that has reinvented itself with more success than Howie Mandel, opens the floodgates for an inquisitive eye to capture the mind-boggling depths of its engineering department you have to take pause. Some startling statistics wiz by without so much as a trail of light, it’s enough to get a strong head buzz when all the credentials and numbers of Husqvarna’s impressive resume are thrown out. In Charlotte, North Carolina they have built the world’s 2nd largest Research and Development Center in the world, and the 1st largest outside of Europe operating at near capacity with 180 R&D engineers. A company that annually moves $5.06 billion with 40% of that business being the US took note of the importance of American yard-care trends. While Husqvarna is clearly a global company belonging, truly, to no one particular nation I was impressed by their efforts to maintain symbiosis wherever their plants maybe. 90% of Husqvarna products sold in the US are created in US plants with 5,500 American and Canadian employees. These are numbers that, as of 2011, one cannot help but grin toothily at. If you have ever handled a device manufactured by McCulloch, PoulanPRO, Weed Eater, Dixon, Bluebird, or Redmax (for our American readers) or Gardena, Diamant Boart, Jonsered, Zenoah, KLIPPO, or Flymo then you have been impacted by Husqvarna’s ever-stretching reach.
The R&D Center is a massive slab of concrete designed to look like an unassuming mass in a parking lot, it could easily be mistaken for a place where people bring their Chihuahuas to sleep comfortably while they vacation in Norway. Upon entering, one has to immediately wonder if the entirety of Husqvarna’s staff owned a small lawn-mowing/weed-trimming business in the twilight of their pre-teen years, no one has soft hands and they’re extremely proud of that. The center is outfitted by product specialists armed with the patience of saintly Grandmothers. To teach an army of writers how to properly wield a chainsaw may seem, in the abstract, an easy task but in reality the scene resembled a challenge from Fear Factor.
When we step outside in groups of eight to suit up various trimmers and brush cutters, the heat as well as the adjective buffet that clouds us is nearly overwhelming. There are a litany of terms that seem to have been invented by Tim the Tool Man Taylor such as “thick cabbage” in reference to dense foliage that the 323R Brushcutter disposed of with much ease. At any marketing event there is an interesting, mind-numbing use of the rhetorical question that assaults one after any serious information has been dispensed. You’re familiar with this process when person x says, “This is tasty macaroni but it needs bacon, right?” That mental conundrum of partial agreement and rhetoric has been mastered by the staff but it is not without much southern charm and ado.
On the first day I test out a hedge trimmer with the jargon-esque name of 327HE4x. I have never trimmed a hedge in my life, and I am sweating profusely, wishing I had arranged a meeting with one of Reviewboard’s official product testers prior to this moment. Flashbacks of high school gym class failures are flooding my mental periphery, as a pretty girl with a Husqvarna polo has to start the unit for me. When the unit is purring in my hands I am put at ease, I trim the top of a hedge off without trying; I’m starting to get my sea legs now.
This unit has an “articulating cutter bar” which means to the layman that you can bend the blade to your will allowing you to cut in more ergonomic and safe ways from various distances and angles. What seems to be a simple idea is really months of design and engineering, sometimes years, all to develop a simple blade that can move to the hedger’s specific needs. Most outdoor power equipment manufacturers realize the belaboring hassle of modifying something that simple, what takes an army of engineers many months to perfect could have been an entirely new, beefed up product but built the old way. It is this insistence to innovate while the competition merely agitates that keeps Husqvarna at the top.
Throughout the course of the hot day, I sort of ambitiously float around different products sometimes finding the courage to volunteer to use them in front of professionals and writers and sometimes a hybrid of the aforementioned. I watched Husqvarna’s 580BFS, which is “the most powerful commercial back pack blower” on the market hover a basketball 5 feet in the air. Many of Husqvarna’s newer, heavier-end products are outfitted with X-Torq engine design. This is an effulgent innovation that cuts polluting exhausts by 60% and increases fuel efficiency by 20%. It is featured on lots of new units.
The first day takes a serious turn towards my early demise when I am notified that before the day is done I will be required to use a chainsaw and to cut down (or in my instance at) a tree. If the Research and Development Center is Husqvarna’s Chocolate Factory then their Chainsaws would be the Gobstoppers Slugworth is after. I am only able to approach this particular challenge with confidence after several pep talks from various members of the staff. In my paws I am brandishing the 346 XP E-Tech Chainsaw with TrioBrake. I am told this is the safest possible chainsaw on the market, and with that reassurance I quickly text the few people in my phone who I think would be slightly perturbed by my missing a limb. My editor never responded to my beacon that he may need to elongate my deadlines should I be a one armed writer.
The unit is designed for professional arborists who know what they are doing so features such as a side-mounted chain tensioner, and quick-release cylinder cover as well as permanently attached bar bolts quickly win brand allegiance for the rest of a pro-logger’s career. The global product manager is assailing me with these fun facts as I mutter at least seventeen Our Fathers and rip off on the chainsaw opening the throttle wide and hard. A flutter of exhaust is curving off the chain serenely and horror films of yesteryear rush into my mind unwanted as I cut a limb from a fallen tree before I even realize what I am doing. The only response a normal person can muster when cradling power on that scale between their fingertips is a, “Wow. May I try again?” The product manager ‘s assorted teeth are now shining in the sun as he nods and I go to work fashioning off chunks of tree limb and what are called donut pieces. Those would be the round cuts from the base. I am actually having fun… cutting off chunks of dead tree… with a chainsaw. I considered writing this piece with a pseudonym so my liberal friends wouldn’t find out.
On the second day of the bonanza the media was allowed to tour the entire facility. We were told inspiring quotes such as, “R&D brings the product to life.” Which I am still scratching my head over, too. There are large rooms full of smart people who are committed to modeling “types” of consumers and predicting your purchasing trends. “The post-recession consumer’s orientation is networking. They will rely on friends and reviews for information.” Since 70% of consumers review product online prior to purchase, people committed to hiding in cubicles to write reviews suddenly become a worthwhile commodity.
The R&D Center abounds with testing of all magnitudes and types. From cycle testing, a room where chainsaws are started 10,000 times in a row, to emissions rooms where every molecule of exhaust is run through a 1950s looking robot that calculates exact particulates. There are engineers who handle finite analysis of a product, virtually testing stress points and potential problems. In fuel centers where engineers are grappling with the ethanol dilemma, as well as through-out the center we see a commitment to service, excellence and innovation. Within these walls I learn of camaraderie unrivaled in other businesses, as well as the party foul of calling an engine a “motor” within earshot of an engineer.
After the effulgent tour, we step outside into a record setting heat index to test more equipment. Yesterday’s enthusiasm is essentially missing from all members of the press, and Husqvarna’s employees repeat the analogy of herding cats at least 3 times. At the station dedicated to traditional tractors I race multiple writers for the best course time on the GTH27V48LS unit. This tractor has a 27-hp V-Twin Briggs & Stratton engine, and a hydrostatic transmission which I rev’d with the lust of an 11 year old before peeling out down the race course. The fender-mounted cutting deck adjustment was easy to use and I am assuming spring assisted. The cast iron front axle handled everything I gave, which is certainly more strain than a traditional job would’ve yielded. Walking away with 3rd place is not something I am used to, but certainly given the company present wasn’t an entirely regretful possession.
The zero-turn mowers proved to be the most entertaining product of the entire trip. A cross between Snoopy’s UFO and a beached submarine is a zero-turn mower. Operated with whimsical levers that I would have imagined more fitting for a Mech Warrior suit, the mower can perform extremely low degree turns at daredevil speeds and complete massive mowing jobs in enviable times. Certain zero turn mowers are capable of hitting speeds of 18 MPH for teleporting across golf courses or evading police with intermittent success. The unit we tested was from the PZ series, which is marketed specifically for commercial landscapers. Upon first laying eyes on this beautiful flying saucer I quickly quipped that I would make it pop a wheelie. I was told this was impossible. Here at Reviewboard, we don’t respond well to claims like those and I proceeded to make the PZ leap three feet into the air at what I am guessing to be around 10 MPH. Exhilarating is a word that only half-asses the true feelings I experienced while navigating the zero-turn. They are certainly the future of lawn care.
Husqvarna represents an interesting paradigm in global corporations especially within their sect of outdoor power equipment. They are open to innovation; rather they demand it from all of their employees. A company that so obviously values the advancing of the bar on product that has been stagnant for much too long (look at the overall changes in outdoor power equipment and try not to frown) is admirable and worthy of applause.