We'll tell you exactly how that worked presently, but first Plant Director Luk Hiltrop will guide us through the company's activities: "Electric windows, fuel injection systems, sensors, heating, ABS modules, camera systems, seat heating ... each of these systems requires a connector or module that communicates the necessary information securely with the car's intelligence unit and vice versa. We make such connectors or modules here at our facility. This is clearly a growing market as the number of functions in our cars is constantly increasing. Moreover, we are not just a production plant. We also devise the product development, the design of the machining tools and the production process ourselves. No fewer than 10% of some 80,000 employees worldwide are engineers. That figure speaks volumes about TE Connectivity's vision of engineering."
Combination of plastic and metal
Tom Demedts is our second interviewee. He is the continuous improvement manager at TE Connectivity. Tom outlines the production process for us: "Not all of our customers come to us with a ready-to-use product; we often start from a brief sketch, in fact. What makes our process special is the combination of metal and plastic parts. By way of example, let’s take a resolver, a part that is used in electric motors to determine the position of the stator and rotor. We have developed the complete production process of that piece with all the sub-aspects: we can inject mould certain plastic parts ourselves, we can punch and die the electrical contacts and also combine and assemble the whole into a completely finished end product. We also developed the production line ourselves. This integral approach constitutes important added value for many customers. "
Luk Hiltrop: "We are primarily a Tier2 supplier for the automotive sector, which means that we supply our components to suppliers of car manufacturers. For example, we make the plastic components and contacts that a wiring harness manufacturer then deploys in its final product. A second example is a brake module that we supply to a Tier1 supplier, on which they then provide the electronics and hydraulics so that they can supply their ABS modules the automakers. We do see some changes in the approach. For instance, we are finding that, when awarding projects, our customers are increasingly required to demonstrate to the manufacturers what steps they are taking to reduce their footprint, e.g. using less energy, reducing waste and implementing a circular system. We are also very conscious of this, thus 'green & sustainable' is an essential part of our strategy.
"The unpredictability of the market is an enormous challenge"
Tom Demedts: "Last year we experienced huge increases in production quantities, which is in keeping with growth in the electric vehicle market."
Luk Hiltrop interjects: "That increase takes nothing away from the fact that the unpredictability in the market has also increased enormously. Our sales fell sharply temporarily during the COVID-19 upswing in 2020, down by as much as -50% in May-June, at which point we had to react very quickly to keep our cost structure under control. But barely three months later, demand was again rising very quickly, so that we had to scale up just as quickly. Today we are at a level that is clearly higher than before COVID-19. For me, the adaptability to those rapidly changing market factors is one of the most important pillars to be able to speak of a Factory of the Future."
“Factory of the future is tailor-made for us”
"The concept around Factory of the Future is absolutely fantastic, because it is so holistic. It is not enough to be on the technological cutting edge, because you have to score well in all areas to win an award. For us, the programme goes a lot further than just an award; we really look at it as a mirror that tells us what is good and what can be improved. Because it is an external audit, in which you constantly have to demonstrate that you are working on your trajectory, the award gives us a certain prestige within our worldwide group. We try to present ourselves as a progressive production plant and try to bring the parts here that fit into our philosophy of the mobility of the future. The fact that only about 40 companies have succeeded in becoming Factory of the Future in recent years also indicates that not just any company can win this award."
Tom Demedts: "We have regular moments of reflection during which we look at how we can achieve our goals. The input we receive from the Factory of the Future programme is also of sterling value for determining where we can do even better."
Combination of techniques
Luk Hiltrop: "We always start from market demand. If a product cannot be made, or is difficult to make using existing techniques, we can examine how it can be made. This regularly leads to innovations that find their way from Oostkamp to the other plants. I will mention a few: a new punching technique for multi-prong contacts, the 2K story (see below) and the modular injection moulding principle. Our international Centre of Excellence is a great help on this front. They constantly follow up on new technologies and look at which plant can function as a test facility. We in Oostkamp would obviously like to be a pilot plant, because if the technology proves successful then there is a good chance that we can continue to produce the product in question on a large scale here."
Tom Demedts: "Sometimes ideas arise within our own plant, which we can then develop further with the support of the Centre of Excellence. A recent example is our 2K and modular injection moulding principle, where we can still make 2 completely different plastic parts with 2 different granulates simultaneously. When the batch of product A ends, the production of product B can start immediately thanks to a modular exchange system. The first product will be finished, while product B can already get started. This obviously has a positive impact on changeover time."
Luk Hiltrop: "We represent our long-term vision as a brilliant with 8 facets on which we want to make progress: delivery reliability, productivity, quality, stock rotation, safety, innovation power, customer orientation and especially the involvement of our employees. With this last facet, we are known as a company that attaches importance to our employees. We try to put them at the centre of all our decisions, involve them and offer a wide range of development opportunities. We also use the DISC methodology, where employees find out what their basic behavioural style is: Dominant, Influential, Stable or Conscientious. If you know in advance what your own profile and that of your colleague is, it facilities working together greatly.”
Digital: building up experience and daring to make choices
The path to Factory of the Future is not a guessing game. Each transformation must be analysed in depth, each investment must be thoroughly examined. TE Connectivity also applies this principle, as demonstrated by the innovative concepts that have meanwhile been applied worldwide. Nevertheless, not every project is equally successful.
Tom Demedts: "We participated actively in a project for the predictive forecasting of machine shutdown times for about three years, but unfortunately we had to phase it out. The idea was to be able to predict a shutdown up to one day in advance on the basis of a number of process parameters. The technology that was on the market at the time turned out not to be quite ready to achieve that, however. The potential was and is certainly there, but at one point we were so deep into the technology that we ourselves became a forerunner in this niche, as it were. But that's not our priority, nor did we want to create a spin-off to take that further. But certainly don't call this a failure, because you learn an enormous amount from these projects as well."
Integrated cells provide enormous production speed
A noted achievement of TE Connectivity is the creation of "Integrated Cells," a story that starts in 2012.
Luk Hiltrop: "There was very strong pressure from the market in that period to lower the price of plastic assembly products. These products are typically composed of 2 plastic components that are assembled in various ways."
"The process at the time consisted of the injection moulding of two granules on different machines, in a different location within the company and in a different material. All the necessary components were gathered in a warehouse until they could be assembled and then packaged and shipped to the customer. The question arose as to how that process could be done faster and cheaper. The answer lay in something completely new and very innovative. We developed the Integrated Cell principle, whereby both components are injected into the same mould using an injection moulding machine with 2 injection units. The 32 components (16 x component A and 16 x component B) are taken out of the mould at the same time with the same robot pliers in order to be fed immediately into the assembly line while still warm. During the assembly, 8 components A and 8 components B are assembled with each other to then undergo 100% in-line testing and automatic packaging. "
"The results were impressive to say the least: the lead-time was cut by 65% and the integration of 3 different processes into 1 process, together with higher process efficiency, entails that the number of operators needed for these processes decreased by 75%. Combining different processes also means that fewer m² are needed to manufacture the same products. Today, 13 of these fully integrated cells are active."
Do you want to better understand the Belgian manufacturing sector and the changes it is facing? Do you want to know the 7 transformations of the Factories of the Future? Benchmark the maturity of your own company? Or be inspired by the testimonies of other companies? Take a look at our #ManuMatters page. You will find an overview of the different actions undertaken by Agoria to stimulate the manufacturing industry and support all those who work in this sector.
Assessment - Factory of the Future
In recent years, has your manufacturing company performed exceptionally well in terms of lead time reduction, introduction of new technologies, automation, development of new products and services, quality improvement, turnover growth and staff expansion ?
Implementation guidance - Factory of the Future
If you are looking for advice on how to create your development plan, both on a technical level and on a human level, Agoria can help, in collaboration with Sirris.