Powered-up precision

Posted on 10 Jan 2011 by The Manufacturer

MAHLE Powertrain provides unrivalled facilities for the production of complete engines, sub-assemblies, machined components and precision castings.

The UK-based operations were formerly part of the legendary Cosworth Engineering Group and were acquired by MAHLE GmbH in 2005. Recent years have been tough, given a deep recession which has torn large chunks out of the UK automotive industry. MAHLE Powertrain has faced the challenges head on, and backed by a strong parent company has radically restructured and invested in new equipment, resulting in winning two major orders recently which will power the company well into the future.

MAHLE’s facilities include an aluminium foundry in Worcester, using the patented Cosworth casting process, a plant for machining cylinder heads and blocks in Wellingborough and an engine assembly plant in Northampton. ‘We have all the capabilities to be a strategic partner for cost effective engine manufacturing, supplying OEMs at every stage from concept and design, through production to aftermarket support,’ says Stephen Large, operations manager for manufacturing at MAHLE Powertrain Ltd.

History – a racing edge
MAHLE Powertrain’s casting process dates back to 1979.

The MPT aluminium foundry uses a patented process which was originally developed to meet the exacting standards of race engines, and has evolved into a production process that offers the same benefits to volume production. Their casting process offers successful solutions for many applications including cylinder blocks, heads, brake components and other components.

In-house facilities include a metallurgical laboratory, real time x-ray monitoring, co-ordinate measuring machines and a unique electromagnetic pump/metal delivery system, supported by a highly skilled team. The group has helped design and develop ultra-low volume prototype components and volume production parts, with a dedicated low volume production facility for supply of high performance castings. Success stories include production of the V12 block and cylinder heads for Aston Martin, the V6 cylinder head for Audi and V10 cylinder head for Lamborghini.

Since the 1980s, MAHLE Powertrain’s road engine machining facility has supplied to major OEMs worldwide, with customers including Audi, Aston Martin, JCB and previously Ford, GM, Rolls-Royce. “We design and engineer manufacturing solutions to meet our customers’ requirements, from low-volume prototype or series cylinder heads and blocks, through to complete manufacture of multi-cylinder engine assemblies, matched to complex and ever-changing demands,” says Large.

Keys to success
Keys to success are the ability to provide fast and flexible processes, short production lead-times and flexible volume capacity supported by highly experienced specialist engineers. “We can offer an economyof- scale approach to meet product requirements,” says Large, “with manufacturing based on a cost effective combination of capital and labour, process traceability and close cooperation with customers on facility and process development.” MAHLE Powertrain’s cross-functional team approach is designed to ensure that projects are managed effectively and responsively as OEM needs rapidly change. With 30 years of machining experience, the company has a vast bank of automotive engineering knowledge to draw on.

A year ago, MAHLE transferred its engine assembly lines from Wellingborough to Northampton. The Northampton facility includes a dedicated assembly logistics hall, which supports the assembly of cylinder heads and engines for OEM programmes. “The move gave us a dedicated facility which optimises production, improves plant layout, efficiency and cleanliness, and reduces stock movements.

Optimisation has reduced stock movements very effectively.” The company mainly manufactures automotive engine components, and is currently doing work for Audi and Aston Martin as well as having a dedicated plant for manufacture of off-road diesel engines for JCB, featuring 21 Heller CNC machines. The other part of the business is consultancy for the automotive industry.

Despite scaling down volumes due to the harsh impact of the recession, MAHLE Powertrain has restructured and feels well placed to respond to new and highly competitive markets. Strong investment in new automation also ensures faster and more effective response to demanding engineering challenges.

New investment
In 2009, MAHLE invested £70,000 in new Ramsell furnaces for the Worcester based aluminium casting plant, creating better uptime, improved energy efficiency and greater throughput. The company has just signed orders for a new robot fettling cell. Traditionally, the fettling process, to remove the flashlines, is a very labour intensive and time consuming process. The £300,000 investment in the new Vulcan robot fettling cell will significantly boost productivity.

MAHLE is investing about £4m in new production equipment for Wellingborough, including 12 new Matsuura CNC machines with 5 axis capability and a high pressure robot washing station from Dürr which will boost quality, process throughput and energy efficiency. There has also been significant investment in the building and power infrastructure to improve the carbon footprint and facilities in the production area. About £40,000 was spent on new energy efficient lighting, and the new power distribution system will give the plant capacity for growth. Despite the recession, there was no problem raising finance as the German parent MAHLE GmbH is a foundation with strong financial resources, so there was no need to go to market for further funding.

Weathering the recession Admittedly, the recession hit MAHLE Powertrain hard. “There has been a lot of change since the recession really struck home in Q3 of 2008, resulting in significant cuts in manning and infrastructure. Major contracts vanished almost overnight, but fortunately we won two major contracts recently for the supply of machine cylinder heads and blocks for OEMs which will secure jobs for the next five years at Wellingborough and Northampton,” says Large. “The new investment will also enable us to offer customers the technical ability and flexibility for high quality supply of engine components for the future.” By serving a wide range of different markets including automotive, off highway and defence, MAHLE Powertrain is particularly well placed to understand the different requirements, quality standards and tooling solutions necessary to meet increasingly demanding products and programmes. “We recognise the importance of achieving efficient process capability for all key areas, whether at high, medium or low volume. Today we are well integrated into the customers’ supply chain management systems, and have introduced account managers who work closely with customers.”

Continuous improvement
Continuous improvement is a way of life and is embedded in all production operations, including casting, machining and assembly. There are monthly continuous improvement reviews of all lines, headed by departmental heads. Visual management is important. Every production cell features an area with KPIs clearly identified and lists of further opportunities for improvement. KPIs are reported separately to senior management, who feed quality data into the group headquarters in Germany.

Kaizen events are held monthly by teams “and are considered to be a normal part of the working month,” remarks Large. The continuous improvement programme uses a broad toolset including 5S, Pareto analysis, statistical process control (SPC), Ishikowa diagrams, root cause analysis and total production maintenance (TPM). Key achievements of lean are significant reduction in set-up times, improved productivity, reduced downtime and more visual management. On time delivery in full performance with customers at Worcester, for example, is now 100% with ppm less than 0.5% failure.

Before the downturn, MAHLE utilised Smallpeice as a consultancy for introduction to lean, and another government backed scheme to take some staff through business improvement techniques to NVQ level.

“Continuous improvement is part of everybody’s job,” says Large. “Some group members have come over from Germany to advise on specific areas like root cause analysis, but the process is well embedded at all levels today.” MAHLE Powertrain’s manufacturing sites are focused on financial and quality KPIs to ensure that customer and business expectations are achieved.

“Informing and involving the whole workforce in achieving the KPIs is vital for any organisation. The KPIs and the Balanced Scorecard approach enable all employees to see how their efforts effect the overall success of the business,” says Large.

Retraining has played a vital role in optimising operations, boosting quality and process efficiencies. “All employees now have development plans with a view to increased flexibility and overall ability. The company supports all levels of vocational and academic training, up to and including MBA,” says Large.

“We try to ensure that improvements identified by a team are acted on, and encourage the empowerment of employees to improve the way they work for the benefit of themselves and the company. Continuous improvement becomes a way of life.”

MAHLE Powertrain has taken major steps to improve its carbon footprint. The Worcester plant has moved away from reliance on electricity towards gas for the furnace. “For all three sites we have mapped out the use of compressed air, resulting in changes to the way we use compressors. The deployment of energy efficient lighting at two of our sites will be extended to all sites in 2011.” MAHLE Powertrain has significantly reduced the volumes of waste to landfill at all sites. Most of their packaging is predominantly returnable or recyclable, and the company is ISO14001 accredited.

‘Sustainability is a win-win,” notes Large. “In the next six months, the introduction of the new robot washing cell will reduce the volume of water used, as well as improve productivity and quality of end components.”

Looking forward
MAHLE Powertrain now sees a definite u-turn in terms of the recession. Having secured several long-term contracts, the company is now well placed to further invest in future growth, with a firm foundation and world class engineering experience to hand.