In 1991 Vallourec, the French steel concern, decided to set up a new production plant for MIM parts in France. Gildas Merian, who has been with Vallourec since 1982, was commissioned with finding a suitable site. IMI talked with Merian about the steps he took to establish the factory in the northern French city of Caen.
Identifying the Requirements
Injection moulded metal parts are generally small in size and the manufacturing is more complex than plastics moulding. After the moulding process, the binder is removed and the parts are sintered. During these operations, a comprehensive group of quality checks and precision tests must be carried out. So the range of equipment and facilities must be correspondingly diverse.
The production area needs injection moulding machines, mixers, pelletizers, numerous furnaces, binder removal equipment, and comprehensive quality assurance and test facilities. Offices are also needed for development, design, and management staff.
To avoid prolonging the search, a fundamental limitation was imposed from the start. The plant would be established in an existing building large enough to house the required production facilities. Its ceiling should be high enough to accommodate overhead utilities. A young and dynamic company needs to be flexible, so opportunity to reorganize the manufacturing structure had to be a priority. Rigidly structured or inflexible buildings were ruled out. Efficient air conditioning would be essential to provide the degree of temperature control required by the MIM process.
"We preferred to develop the market for our products rather than put all our efforts into setting up a new plant," Merian told IMI. "In the months it would take us to build a new factory, our competitors would be building up a lead and stealing customers from under our noses."
Like a conventional moulding operation, close cooperation with mouldmakers is essential, so Merian looked for an area with established mouldmakers close at hand. Merian also thinks it's important to have good links to educational establishments specializing in plastics technology and associated industries - partly because the next generation of trainees would be on the doorstep, but also because the company would be able to make use of the services and facilities offered by such institutions. France has only a few institutes of this kind, in Strasbourg, Oyonnax, Donai, and Alenýon. The Institute Superiore Plasturgie Alenýon (ISPA) trains both technologists and engineers and provides them with a thorough grounding in plastics processing. Leisure facilities attractive enough to lure experienced workers from other parts of France were also a priority. For the numerous testing and inspection jobs, Merian wanted to be able to re-cruit female workers with experience in precision engineering, and find them in sufficient numbers for the new site.
Narrowing Down the Choice
A location had to be found that would satisfy all these requirements: one with mouldmaking and plastics processing industries nearby, a supply of plastics engineers, an educational institute near at hand, and an existing plant with sufficient height that offered room for expansion. Caen, a middle-sized city only a few miles from the Channel coast, offered all that plus a mild climate and a new industrial estate.
Gildas Merian is satisfied with his decision. "Our plans have worked out," he said. "We are satisfied with the site. At each stage in the development of the company, we have been able to find the right staff, and the supply structure is exactly what we need."
Since autumn of 1992, Impac and Merian have been busily recouping the total investment of FFr 30 million (US$ 6.5 million) for Vallourec, the parent company. Trade is booming. The company is receiving more and more new projects, which are being handled together with local partners. In the last financial year, Impac's sales totalled almost FFr 20 million (US$ 4 million).