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Polaris Electric Vehicles featured in Company Week

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VP and GM Keith Simon has catalyzed Polaris' consolidated EV manufacturing operation in Southern California.

R.D. Taylor Sr. started making electric vehicles in Anaheim as a poultry producer in 1949.

"The location we're at today was actually a chicken farm at one point," says Simon, Polaris' VP and GM, commercial and government for North America. "The original owners of the company were farmers."

Walking from coop to coop proved inefficient, so they made a three-wheeled electric vehicle to speed up the process. He joined forces with his son-in-law, Fred Dunn, and named the resulting business Taylor-Dunn Manufacturing. "The farming business went away and they turned into a cart-manufacturing business," says Simon.

The market quickly mushroomed from EVs for neighboring farmers to EVs for other businesses, including a nascent nearby amusement park: Disneyland. From there, Taylor-Dunn grew with demand from a diverse customer base. "We used to say, 'Airports to zoos,'" says Simon. But the spread has expanded to manufacturers, warehouses, corporate and college campuses, and resorts.

The company began a new chapter when Polaris Industries acquired Taylor-Dunn in 2016. "Since then, we've been growing that segment of our business and our presence here in Anaheim," says Simon.

Polaris also moved manufacturing for another EV acquisition, GEM, to Anaheim from the Midwest. Polaris bought GEM from Chrysler in 2011 and brought production to California in 2017.

GEM's street-legal electric vehicles top out at 35 miles per hour and have two to six seats or a small truck bed. "It is the first commercially produced low-speed electric vehicle of its type in the United States," says Simon. "What we've created here is our Polaris Electric Vehicle Center for Excellence."

The operation is growing, he adds. "In the last 12 months, we doubled our workforce here in Anaheim."

Today, the business serves markets ranging from manufacturing and warehousing to airports and college campuses to public transit. "Add GEM to the mix and you get a street-legal version," says Simon. "You've got a full portfolio of products that work well around city centers for shuttle service and delivery of goods."

Polaris' EVs are increasingly used in urban areas all over the U.S. to boost "last-mile" transportation, and every major vehicle manufacturer is exploring the market. "It's becoming more popular and our vehicle has become the vehicle of choice for a lot of operators," says Simon. "It's an interesting space for us right now."

Case in point: Anaheim's new FRAN (short for Free Rides Around the Neighborhood) service launched in early 2019 with 10 of GEM's six-seaters. "It's a very forward-thinking initiative," says Simon. "They're using them to alleviate problems around urban areas. It's congestion. It's parking. It's pollution. . . . This micro-transit concept helps move people around urban areas without any of those problems."

Simon says warehousing and manufacturing remain top markets. "We do a lot with horizontal material handling," says Simon, highlighting tug systems that serve manufacturing lines around the country.

Taylor-Dunn's catalog includes more than 50 base configurations for EVs, but the company also takes on custom projects. "When you think about custom vehicles, there's an infinite number of configurations you could have," says Simon, citing options on everything from colors to specialized tool racks for maintenance fleets. "It's pretty amazing some of the customization we can do. It opens doors for other things down the road."

Innovation has been a selling point since day one. "If you look at the history of the company, Polaris is all about innovation," says Simon.

In recent years, that means moving towards driverless EVs. "We've been adapting our vehicles autonomous applications."

About 75 percent of the Anaheim workforce is in manufacturing-related jobs at the company's 180,000-square-foot facility in Anaheim, where a modernization initiative took hold in 2018. "We'll continue to invest in advancements in laser-cutting technology and bending and welding," says Simon. "Manufacturing-wise, we're always on the go."

He adds, "We're very vertically integrated. Our products are designed in-house, especially on the Taylor-Dunn side."

All laser cutting, bending, machining, extrusion, welding, painting, and assembly is handled at the main facility. "Very much like an automotive plant, our vehicles are built on an assembly line," says Simon.

The worldwide supply chain includes components like wheels, tires, electric motors, and batteries. "We work with hundreds of vendors around the world," Simon says. "We've got a broad supplier base to pull from. When possible, we partner with the broader Polaris."

He adds, "We definitely do as much as we can leveraging local vendors. It's part of our strategic sourcing initiative."

Challenges: "For EVs, the battery technology is what's got to advance for adoption to continue to increase," says Simon. Performance and longevity need to increase and costs need to come down, he says.

"The other thing is being able to keep up with all of the players in this space," says Simon, pointing to a global EV industry that's growing by leaps and bounds

Opportunities: "Everything we're doing is aligning with the macro trends you see all around the world," says Simon, citing EVs, micro-transit, and autonomous vehicles. "For us, it's all about urban mobility. It's about moving people and moving goods. We think there's opportunity everywhere."

Needs: Labor "is always a need," Simon says. "We partner with the city here and do what we need to do to be competitive and attract talent."

Legislation that incentivizes EVs is another need. "They have to encourage the category of low-speed electric vehicles," he says.