Over the last 3 years, a team of engineers and apprentices at Schaeffler UK's manufacturing plant in Llanelli, South Wales, has successfully implemented a range of new automation systems across the plant. These systems have helped to improve the efficiency of individual machines and complete production lines, as well as helping to reduce manual handling, remove bottlenecks from production, and to reduce manufacturing throughput times.
Interestingly, the team itself comprises three engineers, all of who began their careers at Llanelli on the apprenticeship scheme. The team, which was established in 2010, possesses a blend of engineering skills and experience to help tackle every type of automation project that the plant requires.
Amazingly, the team also boasts a combined experience of 57 years at Llanelli. Darran Williams (automation technician and team leader) has worked at the plant for 25 years, Mark Williams (CNC machining specialist) for 17 years and Grant Nicholas (fabrication specialist) for 15 years. Darran and Mark have been part of the automation team from the beginning, with Grant joining 2 years ago. Periodically, the team receives extra help from its own pool of apprentices - this year Daniel Summers, a toolroom apprentice in his fourth year of the apprenticeship, has been helping out. At other times, apprentices from maintenance or production may be asked to help.
Neil Walters, Production Support Manager at Llanelli, oversees the automation projects: "These days, how many UK manufacturing companies can you walk into and find a team of three engineers with a combined 57 years' experience working for that plant? And who have all come up through that company's apprenticeship scheme? It's truly amazing and demonstrates Schaeffler's commitment to its workforce and the value the company places on recruiting new apprentices every year, even in difficult economic times."
Established in 1955, the Schaeffler plant in Llanelli manufactures high-precision engine components (mostly mechanical tappets) for the automotive market. The plant employs 250 people, including seven engineering apprentices and one graduate trainee. Two of the apprentices work in the toolroom, the other five in maintenance and production.
The production environment is fast paced and highly automated. In the last 2 years the company has invested several million Euros in new surface coating technology for tappets, as well as a 66-tonne deep drawing press, which enables the plant to produce highly repeatable, superior quality tappets for automotive OEMs.
Automation projects at Llanelli therefore vary in size and duration, from small, 1-week projects to larger projects that can last for several months. Examples include the design and implementation of new conveyor systems, parts transfer and feed-in systems for various types of machinery, including CNC machines, heat treatment furnaces, presses and washing stations. The projects themselves typically arise from Continuous Improvement or Kaizen initiatives, where specific production problems need resolving.
Around 90 per cent of components used in these automation systems are designed and manufactured in-house at Llanelli. These include linear guides and shafts, fasteners, bearings, fixing and mounting systems, and machine support frameworks. Other components such as electric motors, gearboxes, sensors and variable speed drives are bought in.
As Darran Williams states: "The automation projects team requires many different skills: electrical, mechanical, hydraulics and pneumatics, fabrication, machining, welding and toolmaking. We also need people who can work in a team and who can look at a problem and then go away and find the most appropriate solution. For current apprentices such as Daniel [Summers], this kind of project experience is invaluable and has helped to develop his toolmaking and problem-solving skills."
This move towards using standard, automation components has helped to support new machine optimisation projects, where groups of CNC machines have been "˜linked' via a single feed-in conveyor system. This has helped to "˜synchronise' production and improve plant throughput.
Darran Williams says: "In terms of solutions, everything was bespoke. For example, we used many different sizes of conveyors. We now choose from just five sizes, which minimises stock and simplifies maintenance and repair. Our three grinding machines, for example, now all use the same drives, motors and gearboxes, as well as similar feed-in systems."
Neil Walters adds: "In terms of developing new skills and career progression, the apprentices here get the opportunity to work on some of the most technologically advanced production machines in the world. Some of our new machines are valued at millions of Euros. It's exciting for the apprentices but also shows how much we trust and believe in them.
"With all our apprentices, over the first 2 years you begin to see how they are developing, what they like and dislike and what they are really good at. Our task is to then put in place training programmes to develop their skills accordingly. Daniel Summers, for example, has had a very thorough grounding in most areas of our business during his 4-year apprenticeship, including the toolroom and many areas of production, as well as experience working on automation projects. He has really started to blossom. Last year, he was part of a team of four apprentices from Llanelli who presented to an audience of 1200 other apprentices at Schaeffler's Annual Apprentice Meeting in Germany. This demonstrates the confidence he now has in his own abilities and his willingness to try new things and to learn new skills."
In May 2012, Schaeffler held its Annual Apprentices Meeting in Herzogenaurach, Germany, where 1200 apprentices from 29 Schaeffler sites across eight different countries gathered together to share ideas on improving apprentice training and skills development; to develop communications between Schaeffler's various professional training centres across the world; as well as to share experiences and to learn about the cultural differences between the various nations in attendance.
Most of the apprentices were from Germany, but others were from Austria, China, Hungary, Mexico, Romania, Switzerland and Wales. The Welsh contingent included Daniel Summers and three other apprentices from Llanelli: James Thomason (technology apprentice), Tim Dewick (electrician) and Gareth Gravell (toolroom technician). At the Annual Apprentice Meeting, each group of apprentices from different countries were asked to give a PowerPoint presentation to 1200 apprentices (in a large lecture theatre) about their respective countries and cultures and how their apprenticeship schemes actually work.
When asked about the benefits of being a Schaeffler apprentice, Daniel Summers comments: "As well as having been able to learn all the technical machine skills in the workshop, i.e. turning, milling and grinding that are relevant for my apprenticeship, I have also developed good team working skills and would like to progress further with the company to help them be even more competitive in the future."