A third Factory of the Future Award for Continental Mechelen | Agoria

A third Factory of the Future Award for Continental Mechelen

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Published on 04/06/21 by Sibylle Dechamps
Continental in Mechelen is one of the few companies that has been awarded the Factory of the Future award for a third time. Marc Moris, Head of the Department of Industrial Engineering, spoke with us on expanding the production facility into an exemplary factory within the Continental group.

Tier 1 supplier

Continental is a significant Tier 1 supplier for the automotive industry and, according to the specialised research institute Berylls, ranks second in Europe in its field. The Belgian pillar in Mechelen manufactures three main product groups: active wheel speed sensors, hydraulic valves and complete brake systems.

Production takes place on fully automated production lines using various technologies such as injection moulding machines, electric resistance welding, robots, laser beam welding, servo presses, camera systems, 100% functional test systems and a test system at an air pressure of more than 200 bar. The logistics are also highly automated, including an automated warehouse, e-kanban and product supply and pick-up using AGVs. It is clearly a Factory of the Future.

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Evolution and impact

The automotive industry is currently undergoing various fascinating developments. For example, the shift to electric-drive vehicles, the consequences of the diesel scandal and the access of Chinese car manufacturers to the European market. COVID-19 has also had a major impact.

We were wondering how Continental addresses these situations...

Marc Moris: “It goes without saying that COVID-19 has had a major impact on our market, something we have not experienced since we have been producing brake systems. The arrival of Chinese car manufacturers will not influence the Continental group because our factories producing brake systems are already integrated into the local supply chains.”

“The effect of the shift to electric vehicles on the production of current brake systems is minimal. A hydraulic brake system includes both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. This will not change for some time for safety reasons. I’d like to point out another significant trend, autonomous driving, which requires even more valves in a brake system. Various developments have been initiated to be able to offer ‘dry’ brake systems by 2030.”

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Factory of the Future

Why did Continental Mechelen join the Factory of the Future in 2014?

Marc Moris: “Our Plant Manager at the time, Stefaan Van Thielen, was a member of the Agoria Board of Directors. The idea to help the Flemish manufacturing industry was developed by Agoria and Sirris. Their objective was to attract production volume back to Flanders and to anchor it here. This vision led to the Factory of the Future assessment. Joining the assessment was a logical step in light of our 360° feedback policy. Structured reflection on what we have accomplished during the last few years is good practice and confirming we were working on the right elements felt good. Since 2010 we have faced the Industry 4.0 hype, which makes it useful to use the assessment as an evaluation tool.”

“Agoria provided a list of opportunities to continue our road to 'Cyber Physical Production System' in an actual Industry 4.0 environment. This resulted in a few focus points:

  • Integrating wireless physical elements in the data network.
  • Converting the production system to maximum flexible self-learning and adaptive Smart Production Systems.
  • Conditioned-based maintenance. And last but not least, using the factory as a marketing tool.”

“We took the recommendations to heart at the time. New ideas on conditioning-based maintenance were converted into attractive applications, for example. We also invested time and effort in the ECO Factory transformation, which has been acknowledged since. We were the first company within the Continental group to use 100% green energy. We also committed to attaining specific goals, such as the Voka CSR charter, which in turn led to us receiving the Continental Green Label award.”

“We have an internal energy manager who leads our ECOS team. ECOS stands for ‘Energy COst Savings’. The team has been active since the 1990s. We have a range of initiatives: central cooling system, heat recovery from air compressors, automatic shutdown of lines and hydraulic aggregates, energy-efficient lighting, etc. When considering new industrial washing machines, we took into account the recovery and savings in terms of water and energy.”

“We have closed-loop traceability at the Mechelen facility, from component to end product. We cannot only trace at the end product level but also at the component level.”

Traceability up to component level

“Automakers aim to avoid expensive recalls at all costs. This makes traceability essential to our industry. The early deployment of digital technology during production is one of this company’s greatest strengths. We have closed-loop traceability at the Mechelen facility, from component to end product. Not only do we trace at end product level, we also do at component level. We monitor various factors: supplier batch number, when the components have been taken from the warehouse, when they were conditioned, the machines where the processing took place, when the components were built into subassemblies and finally into which end assemblies the components were mounted. The data are all recorded, including all corresponding locations and times. That enables us to specifically address any complaints and save costs.”

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 Source of inspiration and reputation

Did other Factory of the Future companies ‘copy’ any of your ideas?

Marc Moris: “Yes, the lean approach to our material flow using AGVs inspired a few other companies. Our Human-Centred Organisation received a lot of attention, which also led to idea exchanges with other companies. Agoria also organised a themed event at our company. Continental Mechelen has a matrix organisation and there are teams in a few departments that operate independently (self-management).”

“This serves as further confirmation and certification of our benchmark position within the group, via external expertise.”

What did the award mean for the position of Continental Mechelen within the worldwide group?

Marc Moris: “The Factory of the Future Award enhanced our reputation within the group, especially vis-à-vis the German management team. It provided further confirmation and certification of our benchmark position within the group, this time via external expertise.”

Another Factory of the Future award followed in 2018. Did that take more effort, or a bit less?

Marc Moris: “Receiving a Factory of the Future Award is never easy, it is a question of continuously improving and taking advantage of opportunities. That also applies to the implementation of new technology. The assessments are aimed higher every year, which means you have to keep applying yourself to keep up, to stay ahead.”

Projects

Do certain projects stand out for you?

  • Smart Toolshop

Marc Moris: “The Smart Toolshop from the previous assessment was one great project. We developed a web-based platform for the production of the tools we manufacture in-house, which is the case for half our replacement parts and tools. Work planners once had to continuously phone and email the people responsible at the toolshop about order status. We developed a platform where work planners could monitor the status of their parts to avoid wasting time. The workpieces are placed in containers with tags that provide indicate the geolocation via Wi-Fi. This means we always know where the workpieces are. The work planners often receive a text message when the workpiece is finished. Everyone appreciated the new method and it saves time. The new work method resulted in a self-managing team at the Smart Toolshop, which used to require two team leaders.”

“Our far-reaching automation ensures we can manufacture our higher quality products at a lower price than low-wage countries can.”

  • Wheel speed sensor production

“Another major milestone in our recent history is the start of production of next-generation wheel speed sensors at Mechelen. This task has returned to Belgium from low-wage countries. Sensors are a typical low-wage product, and were one of the many components the manufacturing of which was relocated from Europe to low-wage countries in the 1990s. Our far-reaching automation ensures we can manufacture our higher quality products at a lower price than low-wage countries. We have therefore been making next-generation wheel speed sensors at Mechelen for one year now, and are planning to expand further. I believe more countries should try this. Once you have a high level of automation, sufficient output and optimum quality, you can do more than you thought was possible.”

  • Re-engineering of a production line

“I’d like to mention a third project, the re-engineering of an older production line. MK70 brake systems had been assembled on this line since 2001, but the product was being phased out. We converted the line to manufacture EBS brake systems for motorcycles. Parts of the line were sent back to the machine manufacturer for adaptation, new machines were built in and we converted a few machines ourselves, such as palletisers. The conversion project took one year. The low investment costs meant we could bring the production of these brake systems to Mechelen.”

The scientific inaccuracy of roadmaps

Over the last few years, have you tried to implement technology only to scrap it soon after?

Marc Moris: “We do not draw up a technical roadmap on our own, we do this with our colleagues worldwide. On the one hand, we work with simultaneous engineering working groups; on the other, we work within the worldwide Continental group network of excellence. But setting a roadmap is not a scientifically accurate endeavour. A supported idea can result in a prototype or a brief trial period, but some ideas always fail or are not as successful as expected. That was the case at Continental when we worked with Vuzix or Google Glass, a successfully proven system at another Factory of the Future. We believed the system could provide added value, and were aiming at using the system to reduce the amount of manual scanning our employees had to do. We encountered technical shortcomings and the users did not accept the system for ergonomic reasons. We also scrapped a later smartwatch system. The idea was that employees would receive error messages on a smartwatch, but the size of the equipment and keeping the battery sufficiently charged demonstrated the inappropriacy of the system.”

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Good work and digitisation

What projects have been completed recently?

Marc Moris: “The ultimate goal is not to produce a single poor-quality part. One of the pathways we have embarked on is the implementation of the Space software package, which provides in-depth analysis and monitoring of the process trends. We can therefore take action before a poor-quality part goes into production.

We are investing further in our digital transformation. In 2020 we assigned an Industry 4.0 coordinator to support this transformation throughout the company. The difficult circumstances in 2020 helped to speed up the process. We will also soon be applying new Human-Centred Organisation initiatives. We have no doubt that our new Plant Manager, Alexandra Bornemann, who has proven experience in change management, will be focusing on us receiving another Factory of the Future award in 2024.”

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