IMM's Plant Tour: Specialization leaves this molder flush with success



This tower, which replicates the waste water system of any building of up to four levels, is used to train more than 5000 customers and students each year on the newest plumbing designs. It can be reconfigured to show common errors, their consequences, and how to avoid them.

The last 15 miles on the way to visit the Geberit GmbH production facility in Pfullendorf, Germany is a two-lane country road through gently rolling farmland. As you near the town, a large, white building becomes visible, and a bit later you see the Geberit logo on its side. Why would a worldwide leader in sanitary water handling and flushing systems have an airplane hangar? As IMM soon learned, the building is a high-stack warehouse—and very visible proof of the investment Geberit makes to ensure the quality of its products.

Our first stop upon entering this modern facility is not the normal meeting room or production area. Rather, it is an in-house product showroom. Various designs of the company's flagship in-wall flushing systems are mounted in realistic bathroom surroundings to show the latest colorful and stylish designs. Transparent panels reveal parts of the flushing systems normally hidden inside the wall.

As Christine Dietz of the marketing department describes the various products, several key points emerge. The company's prime focus is on its clients, particularly through innovative design that allows maximum flexibility in a bathroom's architecture. She says that, along with that design leadership, customers find absolute quality in every component of every system. The combined customer/design/quality focus is apparent in the nearby Abwasserturm, a wall of fixtures that provides an X-ray look at a building's waste water system.

Geberit AG, the Swiss parent company, celebrated its 125th anniversary by becoming a public company in 1999. It has been in plastics for a long time, too. In 1935, it used plastics to make noncorroding pipe and fittings and in 1953, a process developed to make complete cisterns from plastic became a major step forward for the company. The product line today offers solutions for renovation and modernization projects, as well as new construction. Geberit is active in more than 70 countries and has production locations in eight, including the U.S. The Pfullendorf facility began in 1955 at another location and moved to the present site a few years later.


In this aerial view of Geberit's Pfullendorf facility, the tallest structure at the back is the automated high-stack warehouse. The work flows unidirectionally to it and the adjacent rail and truck docks. A system of overhead conveyors connects the entire production system, such as those shown here connecting assembly to packaging. Routing of components can be changed as production is shifted to meet customer requirements.


Product, Manufacturing, Quality
There is a very sound reason why Geberit shows its products before showing the plant: The facility is designed around the products. Holger Kirsch, managing director of the Pfullendorf operation, states unequivocally that the company's highest value is quality, and it has the production system to guarantee it.

The product development team must define a product's quality before one is ever made. The production system is based on that quality. Independent product designers ensure a "look," and the groups and departments that make, test, package, store, and ship the product are on the development team from the beginning.


This automated assembly system, which is one of eight, puts together the 23 pieces of a flushing system in 10 seconds while performing quality checks. Geberit began designing automated assembly systems like this one in the early '90s that combine speed and quality assurance.


Geberit's overall product lines include much more than the tank-based flushing systems that are the primary products made in Pfullendorf. There are complete installation systems; public restroom systems including sensors, faucets, fittings, and traps; building drainage systems; water supply systems; and underground piping for water, sewage, drainage, and irrigation. Consider for a moment how these products are embedded in walls and floors or buried underground. Once construction or renovation is done and a building is in use, they must function perfectly for many years. Opening a wall to solve a problem is a major issue. Therefore, Geberit designs, builds, and tests everything to the point where it can guarantee components in daily use for up to 25 years.

The facility has been certified ISO 9001 since 1990, but that's merely the surface of the quality ethic at work. Geberit maintains several specialized testing labs, and its local companies ensure conformance with often stringent local standards. A materials development and testing lab designs special compounds. A software development group creates product planning and costing systems, as well as an online catalog with product selection assistance. Molds are considered a basic quality parameter, and a significant investment is made in the latest moldmaking technology. The products can be flawless only if molds are designed, built, and maintained correctly.


This Demag Ergotech machine with Wittmann robotics brings thick-sectioned pipe joints to an overhead cooling line and performs assembly before containerizing the finished subassembly. Quality stations are at every molding machine, at assembly systems, and packaging. The stand-alone lab shown here performs strength, flex, and other tests that require specialized testing equipment.

 

Vital Stats
Geberit GmbH & Co. KG, Pfullendorf, Germany

Square footage: 129,000 (12,000 sq m)

Annual sales: 2001—1.165 billion Swiss Francs ($742 million)

Markets served: Public and residential sanitary water systems

Capital investment: Building supply distributors, architects, builders

Parts produced: HDPE, ASA, HP, PBTP, others

Materials processed: >10,000 metric tons/year

Resin consumption: 1000 at Pfullendorf, 4200 worldwide

No. of employees: Three shifts, five days plus Saturdays as needed

Shifts worked: 65 at Pfullendorf, 50 to 750 tons, Demag Ergotech and Engel

Molding machines: Insertion, blowmolding, insulating foam

Secondary operations:Welding, decorating, fully automated assembly

Internal moldmaking: Yes

Quality: ISO 9001

Logical, Automated Production
As production manager Dieter Schoch unrolls a floor plan of the facility, the logic is apparent. Starting from the front, manufacturing comes first, then assembly, then packaging, and finally finished goods warehousing and shipping. The linear work flow begins with the eight material silos outside the manufacturing area. There are 65 injection molding machines ranging from 50 to 750 metric tons of clamp force in the production hall. There are blowmolding machines to make tanks and, on a lower level, automated foam molding systems produce tank insulating jackets.

The factory, which operates 24 /5 and Saturdays as needed, is a model of automation. Robotic systems ranging from simple to very complex are everywhere. Speeding the work flow is an interlocked system of overhead conveyors that connects everything. It moves components to assembly, assemblies to packaging, and packaged products to warehousing and shipping. From molding to packaging, workers have almost no contact with the product other than quality checks.

The machines, mostly Demag Ergotechs integrated with Wittmann robotics, and some from Engel, are all automated to some degree. In effect, this factory is one integrated system. Injection molded, blowmolded, and foam parts travel by overhead conveyor to one of eight custom assembly systems.

To ensure rapid response to customer requests for any of its products, Geberit designed the conveyors so that parts from any machine can be sent to different assembly stations. Schoch says this flexibility requires about 25 mold changes a day. Located above the work floor, the conveyors also give back the floor space normally dedicated to transporting products. Installed in segments to avoid production stoppages, the newest conveyor segments connecting assembly, packaging, and warehousing were completed last year.

Geberit began designing and building its assembly systems in-house in the early 1990s and installed the newest one at the end of 2001. Each includes numerous physical and visual quality checks as well as stations from which quality technicians can take products for more thorough testing. The systems are also fast. Putting the 23 pieces of the recently introduced Unifill flushing system together, for example, takes less than 10 seconds.

The assembled Unifill and other components are conveyed to the packaging area and made into kits. The tanks and corresponding kits for a system are then inserted into bar-coded cartons by industrial robots.

What People Do Best
There are definitely people involved in this process, but they are not doing the repetitive work a robot can do without variation or pause. Instead, they are well-trained specialists who work mostly on quality assurance. They perform visual checks of molded appearance pieces for surface defects. There are manual parts loading stations in the assembly area that must be filled, but their capacity is large enough that the operator can spend most of his or her time on quality and problem solving.

It's the people, too, who have developed efficient processes that maximize productivity and quality through automation. One example of this efficiency, machine-side, is an integrated production cell that consists of Wittmann robotics and a Demag Ergotech injection machine. It molds pipe joints, inserts a rubber gasket, and applies grease before the part is sent on to the assembly area. The robotics also feed and empty a custom-designed overhead cooling lane for these thick parts.

Scattered throughout the production, assembly, and packaging areas are a number of six-axis industrial robots from Reis and Kuka performing complex positioning sequences. In one case, an industrial robot takes a just-blowmolded tank, inverts it, and shakes it to be sure no trim pieces remain inside.

A good example of how Geberit's people conceive of systems with quality built in is a station that stamps holes and windows in a plastic mounting bracket. Many of the holes could have been drilled. However, drilling produces small scrap pieces that require removal, so die stamping is the method of choice.

Another station joining pipe sections to the main tank using heat and pressure welding is immediately followed by a leak detector that uses air pressure to reveal any holes in the weld. Schoch says this supports Geberit's policy of testing every unit as opposed to periodic sampling.


A quality station like this on each molding machine is maintained by an operator well trained in quality procedures and, thanks to automation, with the time to monitor production intensively. The automated parts removal/containerizing devices on these three 80-ton Demag Ergotech Concept machines, Geberit's newest, are typical on the machines molding smaller parts.


Investing in Logistics
The company continues to take advantage of the precision and efficiency that automation offers in its packaging and shipping areas. Cartons for finished products are received flat and then automatically assembled at the packaging station for filling. A completed tank is inserted next, followed by other system components, before the package is sealed—all by robotics. To be certain all components are included, the carton is weighed on a scale precise enough to detect the absence of even the smallest part. Coded and numbered cartons are palletized by robots and stretch-wrapped to form integral storage and shipping units.

The conveyor then takes the loaded skids to an adjacent shipping dock. There are 14 truck bays and a railroad siding. If a skid is to ship immediately, it is staged for loading. Other skids stay on the belt and head into a two-part, high-stack warehouse—the large structure visible from the road into town.

There are 10 lanes of shelves in the warehouse, seven of which are fully automated. The other three are manually tended to accommodate irregularly shaped or oversized pieces. The warehouse is 84m (276 ft) long overall. The manual parts loading area is 20m (66 ft) high and holds about 4000 loaded pallets. The automated loading section is 32m (105 ft) high with space for 22,500 pallets. Incoming product components not made in Pfullendorf also are stored here. The people working in this area scan the pallets to verify count and destination. A computer then specifies the correct packing of trucks and rail cars according to delivery sequences.


Geberit uses industrial articulating-arm robots such as these for many assembly functions. These are assembling small molded components to form a system. This six-axis robot from Kuka is inserting blowmolded PE tanks into a preformed foam insulating sleeve on a turntable, which is unloaded by another robot on the other side.


Top Quality, No Exceptions
Geberit has its own apprentice programs for design engineers, plastics technicians, and polymer engineers, and promotes continuing education for everyone. Investing nearly 3 percent of sales in R&D, it has raised its innovation rate—the percent of sales from products brought to market in the last three years—to more than 30 percent. The company's recent quarterly report expects an overall increase in sales volume and profitability for 2002. Sources say their strict adherence to client focus, design innovation, and quality has positioned the company at the top of the market.



Contact information
Geberit GmbH & Co. KG
Pfullendorf, Germany
Christine Dietz
+49 (7552) 934-01
www.geberit.com

 

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