As a sub-contractor for Ford, Opel and Volvo, among others, Kautex’s fuel tanks can be found in most of our vehicles. And you will not be surprised to find out that a deep disruption is currently underway in the mobility sector. The fluctuating mobility market requires Kautex to take a long-term view. How is the company reacting?

Blow moulding

We met with Jan Lodewijckx - the company's operations manager - at the production site in Tessenderlo. He told us more about the process underlying the fuel tanks: “We manufacture the tanks using the blow moulding process. We feed the plastic granules into the machine, heat them and make a plastic tube. The tube is collected in a mould and then blown into the shape of the mould, which is the shape of the fuel tank. After cooling down, we finish the two tanks by attaching the necessary valves, clips and other components. Each tank has a very specific shape and specific properties. Due to the large volumes, each product has its own production line. We only use a flexible line for smaller series, with several adjustable robots that we can quickly convert. We are seeing a move towards smaller series, which is the result of the diversification of car manufacturers' models.

Winner in 2020

Earlier this year, Kautex won the prestigious Factory of the Future award. How did Jan Lodewijckx experience this process? “When Agoria came to talk about the programme here three years ago, we were a bit hesitant at first. At that time, declining volumes on the market created uncertainty about the future and there was a feeling that the Factories of the Future were going against that sentiment. As a result, we did not go down this road at first but we later realised that that uncertain situation in the automotive industry would not disappear any time soon.”

“In any case it is a very competitive sector and developments in electric mobility are contributing to this situation of permanent uncertainty in the market. In the face of that, we decided to re-examine our thinking. We realised that we had to do everything we could to ensure our future. For us, the programme was the ideal guideline for challenging ourselves and constantly improving.”

Strong in data

“When we finally joined the movement and evaluated the results of the first audit, we found that we were already achieving a good result in several aspects. Our analysis of the data was accurate. We extract a lot of data from our machines, such as temperatures, oil analyses and pressure measurements. We use the data to analyse disruptions, enabling us to learn lessons for the future. As a next step, we want to continue to explore our data for use in a predictive maintenance programme.”

Safety product

“Moreover, our process is not the only pillar that attaches importance to data, because data and documentation are also becoming more important for the product. It should be recalled that we produce a safety product that is subject to strict requirements. Every tank that we manufacture is therefore given a barcode to which we can attach a wide range of information: weight, photos during assembly, information about the coupled pump, the results of the leak test, etc. If something happens to our tanks, vehicle manufacturers can always contact us to request this information.”

Eco Factory

“The audit highlighted facets we had not considered. The story about the 'eco factory' is a good example of this. We did have programmes here covering energy savings and environmental management, but we had not yet considered the impact of transport on the CO2 footprint of our systems, for example.”

“Our tanks occupy a large volume despite their limited weight. Thanks to the audit, we considered transport could be optimised. We are finding that our customers are increasingly sensitive to this. They want to know the exact amount of CO2 emitted throughout the entire production process for each component. Apart from this example, the evaluation showed that we had already made much progress in many areas. We were already on the right track a few years ago. The award was, so to speak, a reward for those efforts.

“The fact that we are already so far along is also due to the demanding sector in which we operate.”

We are already preparing for the EURO 7 emissions standard, which will undoubtedly come into force soon. It requires limited weight for the tanks and the selection of optimum valves, among other considerations. Anyone who attempts to comply with the strict quality standards and environmental regulations in the automotive industry is already on the way to becoming a Factory of the Future.”

The process requires energy

“Our production process requires a lot of energy: heating the plastic, then blowing out the shape of the tank with compressed air and cooling the product. These are three energy-intensive processes. We want to save energy in all of them: we are trying to reduce the pressure required for the blowing process, so that the compressor is activated fewer times, we have a programme for sealing compressed air leaks, and we are looking at how to optimise the cooling process.”

World Class Production

“This factory is relatively young. The building was built to foster fluid goods logistics, with a high bay warehouse between the logistics hall and the production area. This has enabled us to easily automate the transport of parts. Our blow moulding machines are also a good example of 'world class production'. They are entirely built within the Textron group and are constantly equipped with the most modern technology, such as new controls and robotics. In the past, remnants of the blowing process were removed with a knife; nowadays robots carry out this task. Do we have fewer employees because of this? No. But we are seeing a shift from 'direct' to 'supervisory' operators. Due to the diversification of vehicle models, we are also forced to have a certain degree of flexibility.”

“Maintaining speed is important, but we are working on a just-in-time basis. We are therefore not building up a stock. This requires an optimal production flow. As a result, we are always looking at new technologies and evaluating the possibilities for their implementation. For example, we tested a cobot on the Ford focus line.”

“Since the machine in this line came into contact with the water from the leak test and it was difficult to achieve the required speed, we opted later on for a traditional robot. At the moment we are working on a project with a 3D printer for prototyping and spare parts production.”

Integrated Engineering

“Simulation is also becoming an increasingly established practice here. During the development process of new tanks, we can simulate the appearance of the tank, the filling process, the exact position of an emergency vent valve, etc. We can also use this virtual model in the validation process.”

“In addition to product simulation, we also use the technology to simulate entire production lines. When we had to manufacture a new tank, the associated line was previously built entirely from cardboard. A long and intensive process, of course. Today we can do this with the help of a virtual world based on sensor information. Using VR goggles, you can then move virtually around the new production line. We also use this technology to familiarise our staff with the machines.”

Digital Factory

“Here again, I am referring to our data collection efforts. We extend this to our production process, where our employees can always consult the current status on large screens. In addition, there are a number of digital and automatic tools at the workstations, such as a help system to easily call the team leader. The use of a holographic lens is also a good example of this. Anyone can observe the world to examine a problem in the machines or in the production process, to point out things, ask for details, make annotations, place machine holograms, etc. The possibilities offered by this technology are endless. This also proved its usefulness during the COVID crisis.”

“We are also currently considering transitioning from paper to digital working instructions. We try to support our employees as much as possible when we implement new things. This is again closely linked to the Human-Centred Production pillar of the Factory of the Future programme.”

Smart Manufacturing

With series of a few dozens of thousands of pieces, batch size 1 does not seem to apply. Although this deserves a few explanations:

Jan Lodewijckx: “As mentioned, we work according to the Just-in-Time principle, but we are currently developing a Just-in-Sequence approach with a customer. We deliver the tanks into the manufacturing sequence of the customer's cars. If their production process requires a tank for a diesel car first, then a petrol tank and then a hybrid tank, we deliver the tanks in that order. However, a considerable amount of know-how is required to properly manage the logistics of such an approach.”

What does the future hold?

A company that manufactures fuel tanks for vehicles is keeping a close eye on developments in electric mobility. What will happen to Kautex Textron if electric cars without fuel tanks take a firm foothold?

Jan Lodewijckx: “I previously talked about limiting CO2 emissions. Car manufacturers will increasingly impose this reduction as a requirement on their subcontractors. If they do this for electric cars, I am still not convinced that they could take over the market. Nevertheless, our group is also targeting this market. For example, we are actively developing battery systems. In the future there will be more interesting developments that we are already following closely. Water and water management systems will be more important in cars. Self-driving cars will also require a completely different approach to the car interior. By already positioning ourselves, we are trying to anticipate what will arrive in the future.”