When subcontracting company C-Mec was faced with serious operational constraints about six years ago, it was decided to radically change tactics. Due to competition with low-wage countries, the focus was shifted even more towards the ‘one-stop-shop’ approach and the production of smaller series. Automation and digitalisation were the common threads in this success .
Roots at Barco
We met with DOP Tom Vandewoestijne at the company’s registered office in Courtrai. He briefly guides us through the company's history: “Until 2008, we were a department of Barco. When the department was sold, we continued as an independent company. We produce metal elements for a wide variety of customers and applications. Barco is still one of our customers but we also produce elements for other well-known names such as Atlas Copco.
Over the years, our operations have expanded geographically through buyouts. In Belgium, we also have a department in Bornem where the slightly larger pieces are produced. In our country we employ respectively 100 and 40 employees. Abroad, we have departments in Romania and in the Czech Republic.”
“A few years ago, we faced a few obstacles. For example, the wage cost which put us at a disadvantage - and still puts us at a disadvantage – compared to low-wage countries. The war for talent which is raging here in the region is also an issue. Our answer involves an efficient production process combined with an appropriate logistics framework. Our entire machine fleet is based on the 'one-stop-shop' principle: our industrial customers place orders with us and we deliver them using a make-to-order approach.
It is important to mention that we do not have our own range of products, we work exclusively on what the customer asks us to do and we do this on a just-in-time basis. Sometimes this means very small series of a few parts, ranging from simple concepts to the most sophisticated elements. In order to carry out all the related processes on time, you need to have everything in-house; here we can punch, laser work, cut, bend, machine, turn, mill, powder-coat and wet-lacquer, and finally carry out assembly tasks. That gives us a huge advantage.
I often cite the example of our wet lacquering line, one of the first major investments we made in 2014 as part of our transition. We can paint parts ourselves if necessary. Previously, we had to subcontract externally, which meant that we could no longer control delivery times. In addition, this puts an end to discussions in the event of damage. “This one-stop-shop approach appeals to customers, but it means having to deal with an intense pace of work each time. Every day, 3 to 400 orders are prepared. For each new product, we first have to carry out an analysis: which steps to take, how quickly, where to hire staff and what price to charge for them.”
Factory of the Future
“For the past six years, C-MEC has been a member of Agoria’s Advanced Manufacturing steering committee. We are therefore familiar with all the changes involved in the Factory of the Future journey? However, we do not see winning the Award as a goal in itself, because the sector we are in is changing so fast. In this sense we are originals, because we did not use the seven transformations as a guide, even though the Factories of the Future are the common thread in our working method.”
Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
Investing in machines with added value
“Anyone who wants to promote the one-stop-shop philosophy must listen carefully to their customers' requirements. To meet their demands, you must constantly invest in new technologies. This is undoubtedly the main pillar in our transition.
In particular, we have invested in a new punch/laser combination and a digital printer for printing parts. At the time of purchase, it not only met current demands but also enabled us to enter new markets. Today, the machine is constantly busy, which means that our investment was well worth the money. In addition, we found that the ordinary press brake required a set-up time of 15 to 20 minutes for each new order. This poses few problems for large series, but it is problematic for those asking for small series. This is why we invested in a press brake with automatic tool changeover. The set-up time has been reduced to two minutes. A fully automatic press brake was also a good investment.”
“Robotic automation is also a strong pillar in our transformation, you can find robots everywhere in our production lines. A robotic infeed of our press brake frees our employees from a very physical task. We also use robots to perform simple loading and unloading tasks. It took a long time to master the movements of these devices, but they now perform their tasks perfectly. In the past, employees had to load and unload everything. Now they only have to make sure that the stock is replenished on time. All of these examples do not mean that our automation process has reduced employment. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Human Centred Organisation
Impact on staff
“Our employees’ tasks have clearly evolved. Before, everyone had their ‘own’ machine, with all the physical work that goes with it: feeding, holding, fastening the parts and so on. Today they are often responsible for several machines, but the physical tasks are now performed by a robot. Their job involves more supervision, which nevertheless requires more thought and planning.
Our employees have accepted this gradual process. I think each of them has a more interesting job than they had six years ago. The ergonomics are improved. We have invested in a lifting system for assembling heavy frames. Previously, lifting was done with a forklift truck, which was tedious. We found the solution by visiting a company in a different sector as part of the Factory of the Future programme. Networking does indeed pay off.”
“What is also important is that we have improved the lines of communication between the departments through a few small physical changes. We have placed the department head’s office in the middle of the workshop. Before that, employees had to walk to the office to discuss a matter or ask a question. Now this is done in a much more direct way, which saves a lot of time. Another measure that contributes to speed and efficiency is quality control. In the past, incoming parts had to wait until the quality control department had time to carry out an inspection. That is why we have trained our machining staff to perform some inspection tasks themselves, without having to wait.”
Not entirely paperless
“In theory, we could work completely digitally. However, after discussing the matter with the staff, it was decided to continue working partly with paper. Many workers want to have their work on paper. For example, those who work with protective gloves find working with screens less than ideal.”
Streamlined communication brings order
We are therefore a company that works to order, orders that are processed very quickly. Moreover, they often involve small series of specialized parts. We therefore consider a robust underlying communication system to be vital. We asked ourselves how an order is processed in practice. "Most of the work takes place at the beginning of each order, certainly for a completely new part. All the programs for laser processing, welding, bending and so on are first prepared offline, which takes the most time. Once completed, the bill of materials and bill of labour can be put together very quickly via the ERP system. All that remains to be done is to check that the work centres are not overloaded, that everything is available and that there are enough staff to process the order. Each time, creating order in the process is a great challenge.”