ABB's plant at Ratingen, Germany, is proof that, with the right processes, plans and communication, efficient and productive manufacturing can be based almost anywhere in the world, as E&T discovers.
Located in central Germany between the urban hotspots of Frankfurt, Cologne and Düsseldorf, Ratingen is a modest town of under 100,000 inhabitants with little in the way of history, and few famous sons - outside Germany, at least.
Yet there will be E&T readers around the world whose mains electricity supply is dependent on Ratingen and its industrial products, for nestling in the shadows of the ISS Dome conference centre is a factory belonging to power systems manufacturer ABB. Built in the late 90s, this modern, sprawling 76,000m2 complex houses 1300 employees, and is one of the company's manufacturing bases for medium voltage (40kV) products.
Products such as vacuum interrupters, embedded poles, vacuum circuit breakers, IS limiters and gas-insulated switchgear roll off a production line which has managed to survive against competition from low-wage economies, despite - or perhaps because of - its location in the heart of high-wage Europe.
The Ratingen plant's leading product is ABB's ZX2 switchgear. Consisting of a metal-partitioned circuit breaker and busbar gas compartments, it can be remote-controlled and as an option mechanically interlocked, and manufacturing it demands extra care and attention, because it uses the controversial SF6 gas (see sidebar).
Working with SF6 requires special precautions, and those are fundamental to the safe working practices at the factory. 'We know it is one of the gases that is under focus from the Kyoto Protocol and therefore we make some very strict rules on how we use it,' Norbert Wuillement, manufacturing manager at Ratingen explains. 'We monitor how much SF6 comes into the factory and how much leaves the factory in the manufactured switchgear unit, so we always have a picture of any losses that may occur.
'We have been successful in reducing the losses that we previously had by handling the SF6 in a sealed and automated process; there is no manual SF6 handling required. Therefore we do not have losses related to manual handling of bottles or filing units. We have managed to achieve a leakage rate of 0.25 per cent a year. We also have a sealed recycling unit, so if we have a leak or any problem with the unit that requires us to safely take the gas out, we can do so with this equipment.'
As part of a global manufacturing operation, the factory is under extreme pressure to match the productivity and economics of similar ABB facilities in low-cost locations such as China and India. 'There is a very high pressure,' Wuillement, says. 'Productivity-wise we are ahead of our colleagues in the low-cost countries, but nevertheless we are constantly facing the pressure to reduce the full cost and for that reason we are focused on innovation on the product itself and also in the processes.'
It is a well known fact in manufacturing that in order to improve something first of all you need to measure it. 'First we have clear working plans which specify the times for producing any component and we are focussing on at least improving the process so that the annual wage increases are compensated for by the productivity increases,' Wuillement says. 'The other issue is that we focus on the full cost that we also focus on improving the modules itself that at the end of the day result in a reduction of the production costs.'
An important tool in the measuring campaign is benchmarking, and Wuillement utilises both internal benchmarking within the ABB Group as well as benchmarking against competitors. 'Within ABB we have established a permanent benchmark process in which we visit other factories, and other factories send representatives to visit us, in order to see how things are done. We look at the same product that is produced in different factories. I have been to China a couple of times to review how the production process is carried out there - the same production process is used in different locations but utilises the best practice that maximises the potential of local conditions, but still produces the same product.
'We have also established what we call our operational excellence programme inside ABB, where each year a couple of employees from each organisation are nominated in order to participate in order to learn about production philosophies, quality philosophies. As part of this programme we are also frequently visiting factories that do not produce switchgear - they are automotive or mechanical equipment manufacturers. This allows us to learn about their production philosophies in order to see how they are dealing with the targets and challenges that they have.
'Each time you go to a well managed factory you can learn something. Based on my experience I would say that we are fairly good, but there is still a lot to learn, and a lot that can be improved on. Always when you go to another location you get ideas that can be established in our factory to improve the process. But the feedback we get from companies that visit us is that they think they can learn a lot from us.'
The philosophy at Ratingen is one of continuous improvement, undertaken in a collaborative manner. 'This means that we sit together with the team and look at certain areas where we feel that we need to improve things,' Wuillement explains. 'Then we address them, define what needs to be done, identify the relevant responsibilities, then we continuously review the results to ensure that the effect is a continuous improvement. Everybody within the factory can provide input into this process. It is not only a management tool; input comes from the workers on the shopfloor right up the management chain.'
Chief amongst the tools is a 5S strategy in the production area and what is dubbed Critical Chain Project Management in the project management department that ensures that they are reducing the engineering times and have a clear of view of how the projects are running time wise.
In order to reduce costs ABB decided to focus on their core competencies in-house, and allow the commodity manufacturing to be subcontracted. 'We have defined our core competencies and have decided to concentrate on producing the cubicles, in carrying out the engineering, in manufacturing the critical components that define the quality of the product, things like the circuit breaker and assembly of all the components that are inside the gas compartment, and very importantly, to do the quality testing of the complete panels,' Wuillement says.
Another significant innovation has been the shopfloor communication system that has recently been introduced. 'When we started to improve our process five years ago we did some work to discover the topics that we needed to address to ensure our success - things like having the right operators in the right jobs, the most ergonomic work place, the right tools, the right material and high up the list was to have the fastest and most up-to-date information system - this was to be our shopfloor communication system,' Wuillement explains. 'In the early days it was called shopfloor control system, but we realised that that the workers did not want to be controlled they want to communicate - and so we changed the name.
'It is a system that gives us clear input in the factory; gives information that the operators need, like bill of materials, the routing as well as other information that operators need such as torque values.' But this communications system is not a one-way street. Operators can communicate with their colleagues and the management so that an experience database is developed overtime.
'If we produce a prototype and learn some lessons we can put this experience in the database, and when we produce the part or assembly later the operator can see what we have learned previously,' Wuillement continues. 'So we only make a mistake once. It speeds up the time that we need to integrate new employees into the process. The new worker can directly access the information such as diagrams and work instructions without having to ask his co-workers. One of the major advantages is that the software is easy to use so that we don't need to spend a lot of time training employees, who to use this system: at the most they will need a couple of hours.'
The ability to engage the workforce in new projects, particularly ones as invasive as this, has often been their downfall. If not outright, then a gradually eroding of their efficiency. In this case that was avoided by bringing everyone in the factory into the process, making them part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 'The key issue is that what everyone wants is to have a clear definition of the target, understand the quality requirements, the process and the working time,' Wuillement says. 'It is absolutely important that everyone knows the requirements as well as the possibility to communicate with the foremen and colleagues. It also gives us the ability to communicate from shift to shift because in the past this has been a problem with the shift changed over without handing over all the information.
'We involved them directly in the process right from the specification stage. We interviewed people in the factory about what they wanted from such a system, what are they doing manually at present - such as writing quality reports or shift change documents - that they could have done automatically. We listened to what they wanted, what they thought would help us, and so the information we gained from these interviews formed the core of our specification.
'There were of course some discussions to define the functionality needed but this early involvement of all the people that would need to work with the system was very important. The people really came up with some brilliant ideas. We then involved them in the prototyping stage. We installed the first version in the factory, and allow the operators to test this before it is adopted. We do this with every change or update.'
Despite its recent successes it will be a constant battle for the German plant to maintain its competitive position against the low cost economies, he adds. 'The biggest challenge is to continue to innovate in the complete process - engineering and manufacturing. We still need to have good ideas to develop new families of switchgear that contain innovations of functions.
'Another very big topic is to improve our quality system even further. It is already on a very high level but looking on the demands of our customer this is an area that we can focus on to improve.'
Wuillement says that the long-term aim is to become the company's number one facility for medium voltage projects, and to move towards that the Ratingen team will continue to innovate, starting with the proposed introduction of automatic functional testing system this year. That, I am sure, will be the first of many process and product enhancements over the coming years, as Ratingen continues its struggle to survive.