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I Toured a Keystone RV Factory, Here’s What I Learned

I Toured a Keystone RV Factory, Here’s What I Learned

After 5 years of full time RV living, I finally took my first RV factory tour.  I was blown away by the operation.

Here’s a little context – last week I flew to Elkhart, Indiana to work on a collaborative marketing project.

Elkhart (and the surrounding area) is the RV capitol of America, home to almost every major RV manufacturer. The factory I toured produces Keystone Montana 5th wheel RVs.

Today I’m sharing the 5 biggest lessons I learned from touring this factory, meeting the plant managers, and peaking inside their top secret Innovation Lab.

Let’s dive in!

1. RVs are Assembled by Skilled Craftsmen and Women

The biggest takeaway from my whole experience is how RVs are assembled by craftsmen with some many different skills.

This Keystone Montana factory manufactures a ton of 5th wheels – it was buzzing with activity.

The factory operates like a hybrid assembly line. Workers complete different stages of each RV like a synchronized swimming routine. They drill, hammer, seal and wire unit after unit.

It was loud and fast paced – yet, never chaotic.

Here’s the cool part – not much is really “built” on the assembly line. Completed pieces like walls, slides and cabinets are already constructed before they hit the line. Some of the parts even come pre-wired for easy “plug and play” connections once they make it to assembly.

BTW – if Keystone can make up to 20 RVs a day, I can’t imagine how many of these tiny RVs can be made each day!

2. 12v Wire Standards are Awesome

Keystone introduced a 12v wire standard to all of the Montana RVs. When the RVs are manufactured every 12v wire is color & number coded for easy identification.

It was very cool to see first-hand how they wire up each RV.

The color/number code allows repairmen to easily identify electrical issues. Additionally, it lets RV owners know exactly what power source they’re tapping into when making mods.

Even though this seems like a no-brainer, it’s not the industry standard.

12v rv wire

3. The Work Hours (and Wages) are Crazy

RV factories in the Elkhart area usually have an early morning clock-in time. The typical work day begins around 4am and wraps up at noon.

From what I understand, this is largely because the local culture. The Amish make up a big percentage of the work-force and early call times have become the norm.

As for wages – the structure is a bit different.

Timothy Aeppel of Reuters writes:

“…pay, as for assembly workers at most RV factories, (is) a combination of a low hourly wage and a large production bonus, referred to as the “piece rate.”

This makes workers motivated to build RVs, but it has downfalls too.

4. The Innovation Lab Has a Pipeline of Great Products

One of my favorite parts of the Keystone Montana factory is their large, two story innovation lab.

This is where a team of Keystone RV engineers test suppliers’ products, tweak their existing systems and flesh out brand new innovations.

While I can’t tell you about everything they showed me (some of it’s super exciting…I’ll let you know soon), here are a few of their most recent innovations:

  • Keystone Load Safe System: This innovation lets the trailer weigh itself! It can let you know if you’re over-loaded and communicate with your tow vehicle.
  • Key TV: This is a behind-the-scenes innovation that reduces wire runs and increases quality with satellite TV reception.

5. Company Culture Was Pretty Dang Good

From the President to the engineers, everyone I met seemed happy to be manufacturing RVs.

Honestly, I wasn’t expecting that kind of camaraderie.

The Montana “assembly line” in particular had an awesome group. A large part of the factory workers have been on the team for 10+ years. Father & sons working together.

The Amish community in northern Indiana adds a lot of culture to the operation.

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  1. John Schroeder says:

    Nice that Keystone color codes their wiring. Too bad that owners can’t get wiring schematics for their expensive RVs.So far Keystone refuses to make them available to owners.