How did digital technology turn a suburban Cheshire factory into a world-beater?

Posted on 4 Jun 2019 by Jonny Williamson

Siemens UK has been in the vanguard of industry’s drive for a meaningful governmental industrial strategy and the adoption of digital technologies in manufacturing. Nick Peters visited the Siemens factory in Congleton, Cheshire, to discover just how well Siemens is managing its own digital revolution.

The Siemens factory at Congleton - image courtesy of Siemens.
The Siemens factory at Congleton – image courtesy of Siemens.

The Siemens factory at Congleton in Cheshire is something of an anachronism.

In the age of the mega factory, where space and economies of scale work together to create efficiency, Congleton must work twice as hard just to keep up. Surrounded by houses and the river alongside, it has zero room for expansion.

When the factory first started making variable drives in 1990, 400 workers annually produced 50,000 of the variable speed drives and controls that are their stock in trade, and the factory was suited to that level of output.

Since then, it has had to keep pace with the demands of faster, leaner modern manufacturing simply to justify its existence, and history proves it has succeeded.

Today, the same number of workers – 400 – produce more than one million drives and controls per year.

The devotion and commitment of the Congleton team to staying as lean and fast as possible lends extra significance to the quote from Siemens’ global CEO Joe Kaeser that takes pride of place in the reception area: “Always act as if it were your own company.”

Virtual CAVE

The Virtual CAVE at Congleton - designing factory cells in VR
The Virtual CAVE at Congleton – designing factory cells in VR.

The urgency that drives life at Congleton is that it is not just having to compete for business with market competitors, it is also having to vie for the work with other Siemens plants across the globe.

It creates a remarkable pressure-cooker atmosphere in which innovation and collaboration combine to keep the factory at the head of the pack.

A classic example of that in action is the recent introduction of a new model variable speed drive for the HVAC and waste-water sectors, the G120X. The factory floor was already full, so they emptied their warehouse and handed all their stock to a 3rd party logistics company.

They then set about creating production cells using VR in their virtual reality ‘CAVE’ (Computer Aided Visual Environment) where team members can design their optimum working conditions without having to go through the time and sweat involved in building cardboard versions and configuring machine placement by trial and error.

It’s a process they use when developing new cells across the factory, cutting four weeks out of a 12-week process that they go through at least six times a year.

For the G120X, the challenge is immense. It is to offer customers 17,000 (yes, 17,000) variations of the product – arguably the ultimate batch size of one – at the same low price of mass-production. And to produce and deliver it sufficiently quickly that the customer wouldn’t dream of buying from anyone else, even if they could better the price.

Software is the key. The customer enters their personally-configured order online, where it is picked up by an SAP module that produces the work order. That goes into the Preactor scheduler and thence to the production line.

Currently the order to production cycle takes three days, with a week to 10 days delivery. In three years, through relentless refining of the process, order-production will take just one day and delivery just five days.

Brexit delays are currently slowing that down because the SAP variant configurator also calculates VAT and tariffs and cannot be updated until new ones are agreed.

Get it right, then digitise

The production process is wholly digital, down to the simultaneous quality validation processes built into the tools, such as torque levels on screwdrivers.

The goal is to build to order, not to stock, indeed to bring the entire process as close to the customer as possible.

The factory is part of Siemens Digital Industries UK, a new division that has emerged from a streamlining of Siemens divisions globally.

Brian Holliday, MD, Siemens Digital Industries UK.
Brian Holliday, MD, Siemens Digital Industries UK.

The division’s managing director is Brian Holliday, whose office may be at the company’s HQ in Manchester, but from the way he talks one suspects that a little bit of his heart will always be in Congleton where he once worked.

“I guess in Congleton, we’ve gone through a journey where we’ve thought about the existential threat of not being able to produce at all, given the global competition for the products that we make here,” he told me.

“That has always kept us focused on being lean, and on being able to produce at the right cost level for global demand. More recently, we’ve recognised that digitalisation adds more value for the future.

“If you can get good at something and then digitise the process, you’re very well set up to be able to use that as a springboard into the next step, or to use that to better inform your design and your flexibility for the customer the next time around as well.

“We don’t think the journey is in racing to become digital; the journey is in racing to give the customer what they want in the shortest possible time, at a cost that works, but digital tools are helping us do that in this next phase of development here.”

Your can listen to the full interview with Brian Holliday on The Manufacturer podcast.