Last May, just before the EMO machine tool exhibition in Paris, Ralph Nappi, President of the American Machine Tool Distributors' Association (AMTDA) led a group on a trade mission to visit some major French manufacturers. As part of this 12-member group, I would like to continue to share some of our experiences and observations.
As noted last month, the French are well regarded for manufacturing high tech products. They must export to survive because their domestic market is not large enough to consume their entire production of the aircraft, automobiles and other products they produce. Rob Mikulec, president of machine tool distributor Osgood Machinery (Lancaster, New York) and Chairman of AMTDA, best characterizes the challenge of manufacturing in the French economy. "The French manufacturers operate in an environment of high labor costs," he says. "Law is reducing the allowable workweek from 39 hours to 35 hours later this year."
That situation means that large-scale manufacturers must rely on the strategic use of technology if they hope to be competitive beyond France's borders. The plants that we visited had all the right new equipment, but they did not stop there. They focus on the process. Indeed, it is only through an emphasis on continuous process improvement that leading French manufacturers can achieve the necessary combination of high quality and low costs that allows them to be competitive in the global economy.
An automobile engine facility that we visited was indicative of all the plants we saw. Located near the Belgium border, La Francais de Mecanique was created in 1969 as a joint venture between Renault and PSA (Peugeot-Citroen). As the largest automobile engine factory in Europe, it is most representative of contemporary European flexible machining and assembly. The facility occupies 150 hectares on the Artois-Flandres industrial estate with 423,000 square meters of manufacturing space. The organization is based on the concept of the product, its confidentiality and autonomy in technical and manufacturing terms, while the overall management remains common to all sectors and departments.
The 4,526 members of the full-time staff (assisted by 327 temporary workers) produce more than 400 metric tons of parts per day. Included in that impressive volume of output are 12,000 crankshafts, 44,000 cylinder liners, 5,200 camshafts and 26,900 critical components (such as suspension arms, connecting rods, induction and exhaust manifolds, steering knuckles, hub carriers and pulleys).
During normal operating times, the plant averages 6,640 engines per day, but last June the output reached 7,500 engines per day. Among the mix of products are six different engine programs, three gas-powered engines and three diesels. They are used in Peugeot, Citroen and Renault automobiles.
All of these engines are shipped to the assembly plants without being "hot tested." Indeed, the first time many of the engines are run is when the automobiles that they are mounted in are loaded onto the transportation vehicle for delivery to the dealer. If that sounds like a lack of final quality control, consider that La Francais de Mecanique experiences less than one failure in more than 100,000 engines. That level of performance can only be reached by building quality into the manufacturing process. And it can only be achieved through the coordinated participation of management and a work force dedicated to the principles of continuous process improvement.
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