Siemens in Congleton: Enter the dragon

Posted on 7 Dec 2012

Tom Moore visits Siemens’ award winning Congleton plant to find out how a UK manufacturing facility can make ubiquitous electronics components competitively in the UK.

On my way to the Siemens factory I’m woken by a phone plugged into a Siemens socket. Leaving the house I’m captured on film by numerous CCTV cameras, the likelihood is that one of them was made by Siemens. Arriving on a Siemens train with my laptop in another Siemens plug, I ride the taxi through countless traffic lights operated and maintained by Siemens.

Siemens is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Its broad reach into our daily lives goes almost unnoticed, yet the inverter technology at the Congleton site in Cheshire alone reaches thousands if not millions of people a day. Variable speed drives controlling the speed of motors driving production lines and baggage-handling systems around the world came from this quiet pocket in the North West.

Competing with the Japanese

“Manufacturing electronics components more cost effectively than Far Eastern suppliers is unusual,” asserts proud Finbarr Dowling, managing director at Siemens Congleton, which exports 98% of its products. Tech-hungry China is its largest market.

“The ‘Made in UK’ brand is more respected elsewhere in the world than it is on British shores,” says Mr Dowling.

“My most successful products sell best in China, which has grown rapidly. The Chinese know the value of world class engineering and are prepared to buy it. Products stamped with ‘Made in the UK’ are something we should be singing about from the rooftops.”

Siemens' Motion and Control division is able to buy machines and products from other divisions of the company using Siemens Finance

But Dowling is irked that Siemens’ Crystal, London’s newest landmark building, a glittering glass structure dedicated to improving knowledge of urban sustainability, is literally and culturally overshadowed by the high rise towers of Canary Wharf. Many of these financial hives are filled with ranks of the qualified engineers the UK needs in industry if Osborne’s vaunted March of the Makers is ever to become a reality.

Competing with the City for a shrinking talent pool is a challenge. But Siemens Congleton has, and continues to attract some of the bigger available fish. Its 60 on site R&D engineers design a lot of the products that are made at Congleton and the team has just finished developing a new range for manufacture in Chinese factories as it “had the skills and they didn’t.”

Skills ladders

With 500,000 boxes of electronics leaving the door every year, the plant is a hotbed of talent feeding many of the top jobs throughout the company’s 60 UK sites. Martin Hottass, UK skills partner at Siemens explains that the competitive pressures on Siemens Congleton have made continuous improvement a speciality for its staff.

Strolling through the canteen which, Dowling notes, serves food that is all produced within 15 miles of the site, pictures from previous eras show Congleton’s success in developing the people that keep it in the UK.

Above Congleton sits Jürgen Maier, managing director of Siemens UK industry sector, whose journey is tracked from the back of the Congleton crowd as a young graduate on the left side of the canteen wall to the forefront in a more colourful image taken when he became head of the invertermaking site.

You may remember The Manufacturer’s factory visit to Sudbury, which makes point-of-care testing from diabetes checks to high-volume urine lab testing platforms. Yes, you’ve guessed it, managing director Neil Eardley arrived from Congleton in 2011.

“To be a manufacturer of electronic products in Cheshire is really bucking the trend,” explains Congleton’s boss Dowling. A lot of people like to describe themselves as passionate but this man really is, going into detail about the company’s cleaning arrangements and the site’s decision to set up a wormery, areas that wouldn’t come within the scope of most senior managers. “We take the topic of sustainability extremely seriously, whether it’s the contribution from the worms towards our zero landfill target or the deployment of the latest Siemens building management technology. We’re all over it.”

The search for productivity

Dowling took the hot seat at Congleton in the knowledge that it had a sturdy framework of best practice in place. But even so it would be hard to deny that he is doing well for the site.

“To survive as an electronics manufacturer in this country you have to be world class,” he says.

So would you define Congleton as world class? “No, not yet and that’s not really the point,” Dowling answers. “Our mantra is simple, we need to do something better today than yesterday, it’s about continuous improvement,” states the MD tasked with finding 5% productivity gains each year. Congleton delivered 6.1% productivity savings last year, with a lot of those savings coming from different divisions of Siemens, one benefit of being part of the giant German manufacturing collective that is Siemens.

“I can’t determine if gas prices increase, what I can determine is our use of electricity and gas,” asserts Dowling. The site has recently been fitted with the latest sensory and lighting equipment from Osram, another Siemens company.

Electricity usage has dropped by 5% and gas by 50% over the last year. When you make a product to save energy in other factories, you inevitably have your finger on the pulse for the latest innovation at home.

When a new energy saving device rolls off the production line in Congleton, the site is one of the first to benefit. Dowling notes the installation of its own inverter technology so that electric charge can change direction and move around the factory more efficiently. “A factory full of electrical motors not using inverter technology typically spends around 50% more on electricity than it needs to,” says Dowling. “Motors are the biggest reason for electricity consumption so by using our technology you can save money and we’ve done that ourselves.”

But after plucking the low hanging fruit by fitting more energy efficient boilers, lighting controls and air compressors, Dowling needed to forage for further productivity gains.

A breath of fresh air

“You have to question existing thinking,” he says. “Certain processes had to be air conditioned and you ask why. Then you find out somebody 15 years ago produced a report saying that surface mount [printed circuit board manufacture] needs to be air conditioned, which turned out not to be true. After finding this out we moved from air conditioning to Breezair technology.”

Breezair, which uses evaporation to cool air, claims it can be up to 90% cheaper to run than air conditioning. Dowling happily throws his weight behind the technology by saying that “the energy saving is impressive, reducing costs by £100,000 per annum.”

Next on the factory’s shopping list will be an energy management system with real time data as information currently arrives at 30 minute intervals and is hard to trace. “We’re deploying more meter points to see [our usage] in real time. We need that data. As an example, all our printed circuit boards (PCBS) are coated with material to protect them in nasty environments. It’s energy intensive and new technology will be able to tell if our wave soldering machine should be turned off, put on standby, or left on at weekends.”

The site has spent between £3m and £4m on capital equipment each year for the past decade to keep the plant competitive. Even “when times got tough nearly four years ago and the workforce to a man and woman were prepared to give up 20% of their salary to take a four day week for three months,” said Dowling.

A large chunk of recent investment has gone on surface mount, purchasing five £700,000 machines that can place a lot more components on the PCBs, automating more of the process. The machines, made by ASM Pacific Technology, are more accurate (so less wastefull) and quicker and place components smaller than any human could attach on both sides of the board.

“The Made in UK brand is more respected elsewhere in the world than it is on British shores” – Finbarr Dowling, Managing Director, Siemens Congleton

As we stand and take in the speed at which the PCBs whizz through the process, Chris Rowlands, head of manufacturing at Siemens Congleton, informs me that the factory would have looked completely different had I been standing in the same spot just one year ago.

The new PCB making machines can components more accurately in less time, which equals less waste all round

Cell evolution

As a result of a 26 lean cell design this year, the factory has doubled output on a control unit in its Sinamics drives product family. The employees redesigned the area themselves, starting with cardboard and tape and then planning out the cells and where they fit on the production floor with mechano-like structures.

Spending £1m on the new design, the factory has seen a 50% space saving that has given it more manufacturing space to produce new products and existing ranges.

Asked what technology excites him the most, Dowling explains, “Our existing product is integrated with the control board and power module in one box. Future products have modularity so that the customer can mix and match, perhaps choosing to have separate control units as that is where a lot of the communication technology is.”

Regenerative drives also feature on his list, quite understandably given the energy savings that the technology can provide. “It is a bit like Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems [KERS] in Formula One. When the brakes are applied, it regenerates electricity – putting it back on the grid. Not only is it using motion control to save energy but when applying the brakes to the motor regenerates it.”

Time is of the essence

A lean redesign of Congleton’s warehouse has cut its size by 50%. Having a smaller warehouse saves time and keeps storage more organised. With the Japanese earthquake and tsunami crisis affecting Siemens ability to send its variable speed drives on time and in full (OTIF) in 2011. Its performance during this period sat at around 85%. But the warehouse redesign has played its part in driving this up to a 95.2% average over the last 12 months and 99% over the last six.

Less man hours are required in production due to the more efficient layout. Supporting the in full requirement of OTIF, the new pictar lighting system indicates each component, connector, label and information leaflet that needs to be packed before a product leaves the factory.

The storage space is modular so uses minimal space, lighting up each cubby hole in the sequence required for packing, ensuring that nothing is left out. Almost like an arcade dance machine, lighting up to show the dancer which steps to move onto, the site has installed 10 systems in the last two years at a cost of £10,000 each.

Around the world

If the factory wasn’t in this leafy region of the north west, it would most likely be in Germany or China, two of the most popular destinations for goods made here.

After the size of the workforce shrunk during recession, the Congleton team is now larger than it has ever been, employing 520 people.

However, having learnt from the lessons of the recession, 25% of operators are third party workers. This has allowed for greater flexibility at a time when the Chinese economy has cooled. “There’s been a lot of recruiting in the last 12 months but we’ve experienced a slowdown in China and Germany so we’ve been able to flex third party workers.”

As at most companies, shop floor engineers are on variable hours so that when a particular cell is quiet, people go home and Siemens trade back the hours.

Keeping a keen eye on its biggest geographical marketplace and with China going through a once in a decade leadership change, Dowling says that the slowdown has been hard to get to the bottom of. “China has been pretty flat all year. There is a deceleration of the economy but not at a rapid rate.” While Congleton exports to 78 countries, 10 countries make up 90% of that. Dowling predicts that India will be a large growth market as more of the country benefits from electrification.

“Manufacturing electronics components more cost effectively than Far Eastern suppliers is unusual” – Finbarr Dowling, Managing Director, Siemens Congleton

The future

Repeating the problem faced by many manufacturers, both Hottass and Dowling are most worried by skills as the supply of young people dwindles. From 2010 to 2020 the amount of 18 year olds entering employment, apprenticeships or higher education will fall by 110,000 from 800,000 people to 690,000.

Despite this, Dowling and Hottass are convinced that lessons of the past have been learned. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable both visited a Siemens plant in Berlin, showing engagement with manufacturers at the highest level not just in the UK, but internationally, in order to address a rebalancing of the economy and perceptions about skilled career destinations.

Hottass explains that a substantial amount of post-graduates at English universities studying Electronics are non EU-based and return to their home country, a problem that further concentrates an already small pool of talent in the UK.

But Congleton does all it can to make the most of every skilled individual available. With the number of women in management roles a topic of hot debate in the UK, Congleton differed from the rest of the sector and its sister Siemens companies (where women made up 8% and 12% of new recruits). For the last two years 50% of Congleton’s intake for graduate and apprentice positions have been women.

With Congleton’s history of producing leaders in industry, its factory floor could be harbouring the future managing director. And guess what? That individual could be female.