TCM explores the Bigfoot Industries campus in Armstrong, British Columbia and discovers what Bigfoot President Grant Bilodeau meant when he said, "He's a Bigfoot or he's not." Tip: You can hit it with a hammer and fasten it without tying it. And it's a secret.
Grant Bilodeau, president of Bigfoot Industries, caused a stir in Truck Camper magazine last July when he said, "It's either Bigfoot or not." fits the name Bigfoot, that's the expression I use towards the team. It's right or it's not. There's no middle ground for me."
That's a bold statement in an industry known for focusing more on the bottom line than the bottom line. We've heard comments like that before. Unfortunately, elements of the RV industry are known for talking but not walking.
However, something was different about Grant's comment; a belief that compelled us to plan a trip to Bigfoot's headquarters in western Canada. What exactly was Grant talking about?
Bigfoot Industries is located in Armstrong, British Columbia, approximately three hours or 125 miles (200 kilometers) from the Washington state border. Driving Route 97 is nothing short of spectacular as it meanders along the mountain banks of deep blue lakes. Do your best to take your time as you pass dozens of enticing orchards, vineyards, wineries, and roadside stalls selling delicious apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries, and plums.
This was our fourth visit to Bigfoot Industries after 2007, 2010, 2015 and now 2018.big foot in motion', the original Bigfoot Industries was shut down during the Great Recession of 2008 and then methodically restarted in 2010 by Grant and a dedicated A-list team from the original company.
Without a doubt, Bigfoot's stunning return is one of the most triumphant stories of any RV manufacturer from that horrifying time, and a must read for anyone interested in campers and the power of the human spirit.
This photo shows the entire Bigfoot Industries manufacturing complex, including the main offices (center left), fiberglass workshop (top center), production line (center with door open), and storage room (center right). If you look closely you will see our caravan parked in front of the head office. It's a huge installation; easily one of the largest in the motorhome industry.
The Bigfoot fiberglass tent is an exceptional purpose built structure. The interior of this building is even more impressive.
At the rear of the fiberglass shop are four large, enclosed, ventilated JBI paint booths. Manufactured in Osseo, Wisconsin, these spray booths feature advanced ventilation systems designed to keep fiber optic technician safety and fiber optic production as clean as possible.
Immediately behind the paint booths, Bigfoot stores its fiberglass molds for the RV, trailer, and shower stall. After each use, these molds are carefully inspected and maintained.
Fiberglass frames are made in teams of two. An operator is responsible for applying gelcoat and chopped fiberglass. The other rolls up the applied fiberglass, installs additional fiberglass and deck reinforcement materials, and monitors quality and tolerances.
The cart contains three rolls of Owens Corning fiberglass, the same high-quality material used in the manufacture of Ranger boats. The carriage also transports the resin and anchors the fiberglass pneumatic gun system; hose, mast and boom.
Most of Bigfoot's fiberglass shell is made from pulverized layers of chopped fiberglass and resin. Additional fiberglass layers are installed to increase strength in key areas.
In the photo above you can see two of the types of woven fiberglass used during this process. The result is a fiberglass exterior that is light, strong and highly weather resistant. No frame required.
The cutter gun operator has the critical task of applying fiberglass and resin as evenly as possible to achieve uniform carcass thickness. Uniform thickness is essential for proper structural integrity.
Speaking to Bigfoot's production and management team gave us a deep appreciation for the skill and experience that goes into this endeavor. Suffice it to say, decades of experience go into every Bigfoot fiberglass shell.
After the fiberglass and resin are applied, they are rolled to eliminate air pockets, fully saturate the fiberglass with resin, and evenly distribute the resin for optimal strength and quality. In the photo above you can see the team working in the narrowest parts of the mold using small hand rollers.
While fiberglass and resin are applied to the sidewalls of the mold, the second operator uses a larger roller. This was done with the same constant motion as applying gelcoat and fiberglass.
Every few minutes, the second operator also checked the thickness of the wound fiberglass and resin with a gelcoat thickness gauge. The teeth of this tool are designed to measure the thickness of fiberglass and resin when wet for repeatable results.
THE SECRET OF THE GLASS
The title of this article is "The Mystery of Glass". This secret lies in the bottom shape of Bigfoot fiberglass decks.
What's the secret? We have been asked not to disclose the exact nature of the undisclosed materials and processes, but we can explain exactly what they do; Dramatically reinforces the support, floor and mounting structure of a Bigfoot truck trailer. As Grant explains, they essentially built an I-beam into the basement frame, and that's just part of the secret ingredient.
The result is a proven, molded fiberglass RV shell that's built for off-road use and durability. To our knowledge, no other GRP trailer company uses this combination of materials and techniques to reinforce their frames. It's Bigfoot's crystal secret.
The inner wall and the closed-cell insulation panels are assembled in the fiberglass workshop. The yellow and pink colors come from the different glues used during this process.
After the fiberglass crew has finished spraying a mold and it has properly cured, the mold is moved to an adjacent spray booth. The insulated inner wall panels are then coated with adhesive and prepared for installation in the formwork.
The insulated interior wall panels are light enough to be lifted and placed by a two person team. Here you can see how the insulation panel on the driver's side is inserted into the mould. The roof and the passenger side panels are already installed.
Once the panels are in place, they are pressed together to ensure proper contact and adhesion with the fiberglass deck. This involves gently tapping the panels with a rubber mallet and wooden slab to distribute the pressure evenly. The Bigfoot team calls this process "tapping".
When the fiberglass lower shell, panels and floor are finished and fully cured, it is time to remove the shell. This begins by blowing compressed air into a series of holes on the back of the mold. Compressed air blows the fiberglass cover out of the mold.
While compressed air is introduced, the rubber mallet gently wedges the inside edges of the mold. As mold blocks their ability to see each other, the team calls back and forth to let them know which parts of the shell have come loose and which need extra compressed air and hammer blows.
When the casing is completely separated from the mold, the equipment removes the casing from the mold. This step brings the shell down to about six inches.
Three other team members join the team to place the structure on a series of supports.
When the bowl is far enough away from the mold, the team of five angles the bowl down and into its base.
It may be old hat for Bigfoot gear, but we can't get enough of the stunning beauty of a fiberglass camping shell. The entire bottom of this fiberglass bowl is seamless and seamless. not one. And it's 100% waterproof. You could probably swim in nearby Okanagan Lake.
After being tried, tested and worked with every type of RV on the planet, molded fiberglass is the best way to build an RV for maximum durability. Period. End of the story. That's all.
Moments after the shell split, Rob Ferroux, Bigfoot Industries production manager, inspected it. Rob has been with the company since 1984 and started inspecting Bigfoot trailers and trailers in the late 1990's. During our three days at Bigfoot we watched Rob inspect every aspect of the production line and the finished product.
Rob marked any blemishes on the gelcoat with a buffing stick. Most stains had to be pointed out in order to be noticed. Grant, Rob and the Bigfoot production team are unwavering in their commitment to quality.
Separating the top layer begins with the same compressed air and hammer/wedge process as the bottom layer, but that's where the similarities end.
When the top cover comes loose from its mold, more than a dozen members of the production line's Bigfoot team join the effort. So the bark goes down and up from all sides.
The top level is literally a walk to the lower level.
The forward nose was supported with a wooden beam while the crew checked and rechecked the fore-aft alignment. The entire conch wedding took about five minutes.
Some people might wonder if they would need more than a dozen production line workers for this ceremony. After all, the lower shell was moved by only five people. Grant explained that there were several additional members of the Bigfoot team here who wanted to be part of the Truck Camper magazine photo. Hey, they read TCM too!
Before we continue, there is one more important detail about molded fiberglass RVs that deserves attention. Here you can see a cut GRP shell for a rear compartment on the production line. Consider the thickness of the gelcoat, fiberglass, and high-density closed-cell foam insulation.
When we first visited Bigfoot Industries in 2007, Wolf Ernst, the company's sales director at the time, insisted that we use a steel claw hammer to cut a section of Bigfoot's fiberglass wall. We did, but not to Wolf's satisfaction, and he started banging on the wall. Only when he hit the wall with all his might with the tip of the hammer was he able to make a mark. Our jaws dropped.
Eleven years later, Grant was back with the steel hammer. Grant tried to send the poor wall panel across the concrete floor. As in 2007, the only mark Grant could muster was on the edge of the gavel. To say that this is an impressive demonstration of the incredible strength of Bigfoot's fiberglass chassis is an understatement. Do not attempt this with any other truck or truck trailer.
In a building attached to the main production line, a sawmill prepares all lumber, aluminum honeycomb, and closed-cell foam insulation materials for fiberglass, cabinetry, and manufacturing equipment.
Another standout memory from our visit to Bigfoot Industries in 2007 was the CNC-cut closed-cell foam insulation. Where every other RV manufacturer cuts their closed-cell foam with knives and hot wires, Bigfoot uses a CNC machine.
At the time, this practice was well ahead of any RV manufacturer in North America. Even today, few RV manufacturers use CNC equipment to cut insulation and wire. Utility knives and hot wires are still the norm in most factories.
The same CNC machine is still used at Bigfoot Industries. The computer and software have been completely updated, but the table and CNC machine itself are the same. And they're still ahead.
Once the wood, honeycomb core and closed cell insulation materials are prepared, they are packed, labeled and shipped. This particular set is for a 25C10.6E Bigfoot Camper.
The aluminum honeycomb core is incredibly strong and light. The material has no screw but is ideal for floors and other construction elements. It is also cut with the same table saw as wood products.
Bigfoot Industries has an entire building dedicated to storing parts and materials for the production line and service. This photo was taken from the center of the storage building and shows only half of the available parts and materials.
As we turn around, we discover plywood, awnings, holding tanks, Heki fans, closet doors, and countless other parts, components, and materials. Essentially here is everything needed to build a Bigfoot truck trailer after the shells are done.
The most impressive aspect of inventory building is the organization. Each item is located in a specific area on a clearly marked shelf. Which ignites our throwback machine again...
12 years ago, Bigfoot Industries was the only campervan manufacturer seriously following the Lean Manufacturing (aka Toyota Way). Other truck trailer companies have adopted various aspects of lean manufacturing, but Bigfoot sent its management team through extensive training in 2007 and implemented lean manufacturing across the company.
Lean manufacturing at Bigfoot Industries continues today under Grant's leadership. Grant himself became a Lean Blackbelt certified in 2005. As company president, Grant continues to weave lean manufacturing concepts into the company's cultural fabric. Lean is evident everywhere you look at Bigfoot, including stock construction.
Bigfoot Industries currently owns a production line for RV and travel trailer products. Here you see caravans and trailers alternating in a row.
Alternating between RVs and trailers, the production line behaved when we visited. Bigfoot programs and builds custom trailers and RVs from its dealer network.
Electrical wiring harnesses, hydraulic wiring harnesses, control cabinets and other production components are assembled and prepared right next to the production line.
These copper gas lines will be mounted on the other side where the electrical harnesses will be made. All Bigfoot copper gas lines and electrical wiring harnesses are manufactured in-house.
Finished caravan top and bottom shells are delivered from the GRP workshop to the production line for finishing. Finishing work includes cutting out the compartment window and door openings and gluing the two shells together with caulking and belt trim.
Before applying the sealant, the two shells are separated using a set of Happijac Caravan Jacks inside the unit. This allows the shell seam to be cleaned and primed before the sealant is applied and the two halves are permanently bonded together.
Part of the prep work includes applying masking tape to prevent excess sealant from seeping into the landing gear. This is one of the final steps in the fiberglass frame before the RV interior takes shape.
When the fiberglass casing is finished, the production line equipment starts to work. Here you can see the wiring and plumbing systems being installed at the first station.
We were very interested to see Bigfoot applying Plasti-Cote roof sealant on the production line. While nearly the entire RV industry uses Dicor's self-leveling roof sealer, Plasti-Cote is designed for fiberglass surfaces and is applied with a 2-inch brush.
For clear lines, Bigfoot glues the ceiling surface. When the tape is removed it leaves a perfectly straight line of Plasti-Cote material. Grant explained that Bigfoot has used Plasti-Cote for many years and that it has proven to be extremely reliable.
It's not uncommon for refrigerators to be installed in RVs before the side panels and front door are finished. With many RV designs, there is simply no other way to incorporate the refrigerator into the unit.
Bigfoot installs refrigerators through the front door opening before the door is installed. This means radiators can be removed and replaced on a Bigfoot truck trailer by first removing the front door. That would be no small effort, but it is more than possible.
Most members of the Bigfoot team have been with the company for decades. It harks back to Grant's big decision to source and hire the best of the best from the original Bigfoot company when he took over the company eight years ago.
The first people on his list were the people with the most experience and commitment to the business. If you ask when people started Bigfoot, the answer usually starts in the 1980s.
Now you might be thinking that workers with so many years in the business could build the campers blindfolded, with one arm tied behind their back while wearing a large foot suit. While that's probably true, everyone goes ahead and consults the construction sheets; older employees too. This practice stems from lean manufacturing principles and is still actively practiced for new employees today (see above).
Speaking of sheets, each unit has a set of sheets that outline the exact options and interior that the dealer and/or customer ordered. The commuter worksheets are accompanied by a series of construction worksheets that detail what needs to happen at each station and exactly how many hours are allotted for the task. Thinner.
Of all the things we saw in Bigfoot that impressed us (and there are many), what struck us most was how every element of an RV's interior has been carefully refined to achieve a perfect fit, unit after unit.
For example, Bigfoot lockers are built into kits for each caravan and are located next to the production line. If you look closely you will notice that there is no plastic bezel (aka trim) anywhere on this finished case. Bigfoot doesn't use Gimp.
This is particularly impressive as molded fiberglass RVs are not perfectly formed for identical wall thicknesses. Hand sprayed fiberglass cases vary slightly. This small variation rules out standardized production closets without a cord.
And that's where Bigfoot's skills, experience and unrelenting cultural attitude to quality come into play. When bringing in and installing each interior component, it is checked, measured and adjusted for accuracy.
In the case of the 25C10.4 shown above, start with the bathroom stall. Once installed, checked, measured and precisely adjusted, the bathroom cabinets are brought in and checked, measured and precisely adjusted. This continues element by element until all the cases and components of a unit fit together perfectly.
As we watched, parts of the unit were removed, scraping a hair here or there before they snapped into place. It takes a long time, but the results are unmistakable. After so many manufacturers have built and installed cases using the Gimp to hide tolerance issues, it was impressive to witness.
Another exaggerated example of Bigfoot's obsession with quality is his steam-bent counter and table tops. Starting with a handmade template, the material for the wooden headband is steamed in a steam box (middle right picture).
Once the wood paneling is removed from the steam box, it is quickly placed on a custom jig. This process must be done quickly, as freshly steamed wood begins to lose its elasticity in less than a minute. Once installed in the fixture, the trim can be adjusted for a full week.
The result of this work is smooth molds ready to produce the highest possible quality Bigfoot tables and countertop cladding. We have never encountered steam-bent trim at any of the RV and RV factories we have visited and examined over the past 12 years.
Oh how we loved seeing the front decal attached to a truck trailer. This is the first time the Bigfoot "monkey" is shown in a 1500 series truck trailer. He looks really happy to be free!
After it has rolled off the assembly line as a freshly completed Bigfoot, each caravan is checked for leaks. To do this, the device is sprayed with water and all windows, seals and housing are checked for signs of water ingress. In the unlikely event that a Bigfoot truck trailer leaks, the team wants to contain it before it leaves the factory.
Rob carries out the final inspection of each Bigfoot. He inspects every cabinet, electrical and plumbing, material and finish, and generally inspects the entire unit with his flashlight and over 30 years of Bigfoot manufacturing experience. Did we mention this team is fans of quality?
On the final day of our visit, we gathered the entire Bigfoot Industries team for a group photo; Fiber optics, inventory, production and administration.
"Either Bigfoot or not."
Now we understand what Grant meant by his bold statement. There's an unmistakable commitment to Bigfoot, not just to quality, but to a level of quality we've never seen before.
Grant has made a conscious choice to prioritize quality over volume and profit. To be honest, most manufacturers would never create or enforce Bigfoot's extreme quality standards at the expense of production. For Grant, it's the only way to run the company.
Bigfoot RVs and truck trailers cost more than the competition. All we can say after our time with the Bigfoot team is that you definitely get what you pay for.
For more information about Bigfoot Industries, visit the website atbigfootrv.com. Click here to request a free oneBigfoot Campervan-Flyer.
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