Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Hotfire engine plant set for a benchmark?

Will JaguarLandRover’s (JLR) new engine plant in Wolverhampton, UK, establish an industry benchmark? That is the question many are asking as work gathers pace to bring this unique plant to the first stage of fruition.

Ratan Tata, Tata Motor’s supremo will hope so. He will expect it to be ‘best-in-class’ when he comes to tour the plant in the final stages of shake-down as production gradually ramps up.

At the Geneva Motor Show, executives announced JLR would add a further £155million to its original investment commitment of £355million making it a genuine £500million plant

The company has also announced it is adding an engine test centre alongside the machining and assembly halls and will commit a further 650 jobs to the 750 already announced.

In its earlier statement, announcing the plant, the company declared an ‘eventual capacity of 300,000 engines’. Assuming JLR can hold the workforce at 1,400 this would give an output per employee of 214.

                               Unique opportunity

If for no other reason, the plant will have its own particular and unique benchmark. It is the first engine plant that JLR engineers – design, manufacturing and plant – will create in their own right.

As such there are immense pressures on those participating in the new facility, suggesting not only teamwork on an unprecedented scale, but a requirement for employees to have a cultural fascination for production of class-leading engines at the highest levels of quality and manufacture.

The cause of the pressure is obvious. The last major engine plant created in the UK from scratch is BMW’s Hams Hall plant in the West Midlands – the first BMW engine plant outside Germany and Austria. At that time, in 2001, the parent company invested £400million in the highly automated facility; it has added since to that total from time to time, especially as Hams Hall has increasingly used a range of intelligent processes including highly complex automated parts assembly lines and automated guided vehicles from Swisslog of Buchs, Switzerland.

It should not be forgotten also that BMW and PSA have a joint venture. Crankshafts and cylinder blocks for the Mini arrive complete from PSA in France while Hams Hall supplies PSA with cylinder heads. Engine size is 1.6-litre.

Last year, BMW announced it would build its new i8 engine for hybrid sports cars alongside the current production of gasoline and diesel engines (pictured above). This is part of a £250million investment in its UK sites. 

Such investment will no doubt bring additional work for German machine tool makers like Grob-Werke, which is a long-established family-owned business supplier to the car company of both machining and assembly lines. It has plants in Mindelheim (Germany), São Paulo (Brazil), Bufton (USA) and Dailan (China), and awards from Daimler, Ford, GM, John Deere, VW and Volvo.

Grob-Werke is one of few which has managed to remain aloof from various waves of mergers and acquisitions as too have companies like JW Froehlich, still one of the leading suppliers of hot and cold test stands and leak testing equipment. And there are others.

In its first year Hams Hall built 70,000 engines; it took 10 years before the plant passed the 200,000 milestone in 2006 to reach the magic 400,000 engines. That was achieved in 2011 when the plant, possibly with 1,000 employees produced 433,689 engines. That is 433 engines/head. The firm currently shows it has 800 employees.

BMW’s Steyr engine plant in Austria on the other hand, manufactured well over twice that number of engines – 1,029,496 engines from a workforce of 2,725. That is an output per head of roughly the same – 377.

JLR is hinting at an ‘eventual output’ of gasoline and diesel engines from the plant on the i54 business area adjacent to the M54 motorway west of Birmingham of 300,000 – one third that of the Steyr facility with half the workforce. The implication is that the i54 facility will not share the same level of capital investment in automated equipment.

                               Consistent quality

The automation levels will need to be substantial, however, to achieve high and consistent quality; this in turn requires consistent levels of monitoring of both finished machined parts and bought-in components, including the core five Cs - camshaft (composite), crankshaft, connecting rods, cylinder heads and cylinder blocks.  In some cases in the supply chain or in plant this will require highly automated processes with self-correcting machining.

Machining is one of the major processes of any engine plant, turning raw castings from foundries into core components that themselves become finished parts to be passed further down the line for assembly and test.

Engineers will have carried out their own cost/performance benefit benchmarking work across the board of processes and components, such as assembled camshafts (e.g. Krupp Presta) versus cast or forged camshafts (e.g. Mahle); and checked out vendors' products (e.g. for diesel fuel injection Bosch, Delphi and Siemens VDO). And then be satisfied with the results.

At plant level, it also demands an excellent man-machine interface in order to achieve a whole that is far more than the sum of the parts. For it is only through manufacture, assembly and test that dreams become a reality. Such dreams however require a further ingredient: successful and intelligent purchasing with a profound knowledge of foundry and manufacturing practice. Purchasing is the fourth link in the dreams chain.

And the number of parts in an engine can be high. In some cases over 400 is quite common; multiply this by some 1,200 engines produced per day and this equates to nearly half a million items on a daily basis. Parts such as turbochargers, fuel injection systems,, EGRs, SCRs and so on.

To imply consistency on this scale suggests that simultaneous engineering has to be at the cornerstone of design, manufacture and purchasing. Here, product design and production processes evolve at the same time. Engine design and design and the specification (and purchase) of machine tools and other manufacturing machinery, including such basic facilities as washing machines, hot and cold stands, leak testing, balancing and any automated assembly, have to be undertaken simultaneously.

For many people, this new engine facility will present a unique opportunity to be in at the ground floor of a complete entity; the birth of a new engine plant from a clean sheet. This happens once in every 10 years; maybe once in a working lifetime.

Twenty five years ago, it took at best five or six years (in some cases many more) to bring an engine from a clean sheet to a finished manufactory. Today it can take three years.

Additionally, compared with a quarter of a century ago, there is so much information which is freely available. There is no excuse for a new facility not to set a benchmark in its own right. The digital age has made data available world-wide.

                                    World-wide access

Machine tool vendors and other equipment suppliers now have access to complete machining and process lines from all over the world, even complete shops; a decade ago they may have been privy only to their own particular process. But because processes are far more integrated and linked one to another, engineers are more aware of the implications of any particular manufacturing process.

However, through acquisitions and rationalisation, the number of machine tools groups has depleted and expertise is concentrated fewer companies in Europe, Japan and the US. One of the leaders being MAG. Added to which is another factor, Tata Motors may not have quite the purchasing power of a company like BMW, Ford, GM or VW.

Nevertheless, it is now possible for process engineers to ‘cut and paste’ machine tool clusters from any one of a number of engine plants world-wide to complete an entire shop floor, and weigh up the costs and implications.  

Notwithstanding this, senior engineers at JLR have not only witnessed a unique migration of their companies through the hands of various owners, notably BMW, Ford Motor Company, but also, subliminally, they have experienced the attitudes that different ‘owners’ take to ‘the customer’, as well as quality, consistency and time-to-market; the stark contrast between German and North American attitudes to quality, working practices and housekeeping.

And they have been able to witness, at first hand, through their travels from plant to plant, the good, bad and indifferent of manufacturing process practices. In their heads they will have conducted their own benchmarking.

Good working practice runs through the entire gamut of manufacture, from bought-in parts to the delivery of finished engines. To these must be added important holistic plant issues of energy consumption, emissions control, environmental impact, water and effluent treatment, and waste and recycling. The simple matter of how coolant from machine tools is processed often provides a valuable clue to an attitude of mind as much as it is of cleanliness, plant economics and health and safety matters.

On top of all this, is the wealth of expertise that is available through JLR’s Whitley and Gaydon engineering centres, not to mention the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), all of which is overlaid with cultural experience of a different kind, namely from Tata Motors.

The WMG, with its long links to Tata, may at first sight seem an ‘odd ball’ in this immense collection of engine development and manufacturing expertise, yet it provides its own unique perspective on various detailed engineering matters which, while divorced directly from manufacturing, nevertheless can inject its own slant on particular problems, simply because it is divorced from day-today issues.


And so it is, the arrival of this new plant is a golden opportunity – a once in a lifetime opportunity – to carve out a new culture in manufacture. Shall we even see a 50/50 split of men and women on the shop floor; or even 70/30?

Once the plant is complete, Tata Motors executives will be anxious to 'showboat' the results of their investment before their peers throughout the world; to demonstrate how wise their decision was to rescue a ‘failing’ business from Ford with its all-powerful 'group staff' system. In turn, their peers as they wander down the aisles, will conduct their own mental benchmarking exercise to assess the overall value of the work. Will they decide it is the new benchmark?

On the face of it, JLR has been a text-book revitalisation of a dead body, discarded as unmanageable, unprofitable or unworkable by BMW and Ford Motor Company. But the momentum has to be maintained, ever mindful and wary of the many twists and turns in the market that can beset this fickle market place.

There has been a root and branch transformation to inject new momentum. This new momentum must not now be wasted or allowed to evaporate with the arrival of a new engine plant.