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A sandbox for adults:: Bobcat’s Acceleration Center helps company develop construction machines

Think of it as a sandbox — for adults.

Bobcat’s Acceleration Center, in Bismarck, is where the company develops and hones the machines trundling through the dirt at construction sites across the country. In a company-produced video, Bobcat staff tout all the things the acceleration center helps them do, set to footage of big equipment rolling across the dirt in a 35,000 square-foot indoor dirt space facility. 

Excavators are compared one after another digging and turning right up against a concrete wall, or rushing across the dirt side-by-side. There’s scribbling whiteboards about attachments, clamps, backfill and the like — and a sketch of an excavator arm. The dirt itself, employees boast, is a perfectly uniform mix built for test purposes.

The center itself is a $28 million expansion of an existing location in Bismarck, with indoor and outdoor test areas, office space and more The project broke ground in 2013, opened in 2014, and turning out new equipment soon after. It has more than 200 employees, a corporate spokesperson said.

One of its earliest accomplishments, said Matt Sagaser — the center’s director — was an update on a mini track loader called the MT85. More or less the size of a riding lawnmower, it runs on a pair of treads and is touted by the company as an increasingly nimble way to manage small jobs. On the company’s website, it’s shown handling small-scale work like moving dirt or carrying a wooden pallet stacked with gear, with an operator standing on the back to ride and drive.

“(Designing and building) a product typically takes around two to two and a half years, all the way up to four or five years, depending on the size of the product and the complexity of the product,” Sagaser said. “We started the design of this … in February, and we went into full production on that product in November. All together it was right around nine months.”

It’s exactly the kind of “acceleration” in product development that Bobcat officials were seeking with the center. And it’s the kind of development that company leaders have hoped not only streamline the way it brings its products to market, but one they’ve hoped since its inception would build a stronger North Dakota workforce, drawing engineers from North Dakota’s top schools.

Bobcat’s roots go back to the late 1950s and the invention of a small front-loader for an upper Midwest farmer trying to clean out the upper levels of his barn — but lacking the lightweight, nimble equipment to do it. It’s since grown into an international brand with a significant presence in North Dakota. Its North American headquarters are in West Fargo, and it has a manufacturing presence in Gwinner, Wahpeton, Bismarck and across the Minnesota border in Litchfield. There are sales and manufacturing sites in Europe and Asia, and a “proving grounds” in Arizona. 

Being a global company means it’s often beholden to global market forces. Trade tensions that drive up the cost of steel do the company no favors, as then-company president Richard Goldsbury told the Wall Street Journal last year, citing concerns about Japanese competitors’ access to less expensive steel and a competitive marketplace edge. 

“You get a step forward and then you have to take two steps back because of the tariffs,” Goldsbury told the newspaper.

But a year later, Sagaser downplays those concerns, especially in the context of the work engineers and other staff are doing in Bismarck.

“As we look at the impacts the industry sees from all different types of variables, whether it be political, or industry-related with interest rates or what have you, prices fluctuate and change all the time,” he said. “Whether it’s the parts we buy … or the parts we make with other components that we purchase ...We’ve been dealing with it for 60 years, and we don’t expect it to ever change.”

Besides an ever-present push to expand its line of products, Sagaser said many of the new items that the center is working on help make their equipment “smarter.” Just as the automotive industry is loading up its equipment with new features, Bobcat wants to take its products in the same direction. 

“Part of our new loaders that we’re launching in the near future…will have a display that has the ability for the customer to press a button to interact with their dealer, or with another entity that works on that connection of what that machine needs, or what that machine’s problems are,” Sagaser said. “Versus a beeping noise that might have been there in the past, or an alarm code of some sort. Just smart machines.”

Stacey Breuer, spokeswoman for the company, pointed out that it’s something that truck owners going to job sites expect. 

“Our goal is to make our equipment smart like the car industry is making cars smart. But we feel we can do it faster and better,” Sagaser said. “We’re only driving four miles an hour in the dirt, and we’re doing very specific jobs in the dirt, or with attachments to move snow, typically, versus driving 75 miles an hour down the highway.” 

In the next five years, Sagaser said the acceleration center is expected to “do more” with its presence, growing within the space it has to tackle more and more.

“Over the past five years, we’ve added more than 50 professional employees,” Sagaser said. “Although we’re not expanding the building, we’re expanding our environment within the building, to make sure we have all those key elements of innovation to just satisfy that need of collaboration.”