Innovative production at Pierburg’s plant in Thionville

With its eight ABB robots in constant motion and 12 cameras working in red light for improved resolution, it’s a sight to behold. But the new production line for pumps at Pierburg’s plant in Thionville doesn’t just look good. Every nine seconds, the facility churns out another finished product. The name “Flexline” says it all.

In production for the past year, the mini factory is in many ways a model of flexibility. It can make nine different products, requiring a mere nine minutes to switch from one to another. But it’s also intrinsically flexible in that it consists of individual, autonomous building blocks, which, compared with previous linked production lines, can be put together quickly and easily as well as added to. Flexline is therefore predestined for the final assembly of other products as well.

Ten million pumps per year

No other production line in the plant, which produces around ten million pumps each year, is as fast as this one is. For plant manager Andreas Müller, this is what an effective final assembly line looks like in a high-wage country. “This is the first line of its kind in the Group, so internally we look a little bit like trailblazers.” In addition to this, the quality of the products produced on the Flexline leaves nothing to be desired. “The whole thing,” Müller explains, “was part of a capital expenditure program that started under my predecessor, and which we kept up until it was completed about a year ago.”

Public funding

In order to bolster the Moselle region and prevent job losses, the French government provided funding to support innovative technologies in the region. Pierburg itself invested over €10 million in various production facilities in the French town of Basse-Ham, receiving an additional €1.35 million in state aid. This was coupled with a five-year guarantee of continued employment for Pierburg’s 350 local employees. Besides the guarantee of employment, Philippe Wernoth, the plant’s finance chief, sees other benefits: “The financial backing we have received has put us on the map. Influential politicians like Patrick Weiten, the former mayor of the nearby Yutz and now President of the Council of the Département of Moselle, have visited us. This has heightened our profile.”

Depending on the individual part specifications, the new production line can produce between 1.2 and two million units a year, and requires only one human operator per shift

Following completion of the internal capital expenditure program and the government financial aid, in which the region of Lorraine and the Département of Moselle also took part, Flexline went into operation in January of last year. Within a matter of weeks, in March 2016, it was used for producing the first series components. Depending on the individual part specifications, the new production line can produce between 1.2 and two million units a year, and requires only one human operator per shift, who is there to ensure the smooth flow of material and perform a visual inspection of the finished products. Other production lines at the plant require up to three operators. Moreover, the production material has to be forwarded to a predetermined position. This takes time and results in production cycle times that are twice as long. In addition, switching from one product to another takes hours. Operator Didier Hauvuy adapted quickly, indeed “almost naturally,” to the new Flexline concept: “I like being on the line by myself. I can establish my own working rhythm, and if anything goes wrong, I know it was me and nobody else.”