High expectations: Himalaya project of thyssenkrupp Steering in China
12.11.2020 I Carola Borovnik
Automotive manufacturers around the world rely on electric steering systems from thyssenkrupp – as well as the production lines they require. In China this year, the local Central Manufacturing (CM) team from thyssenkrupp’s steering division launched tailor-made solutions for four OEMs producing in China: one European, one Chinese and two U.S. manufacturers. With the successful implementation of its “Himalaya” line of electrically adjustable steering columns, thyssenkrupp is setting new standards: in terms of speed, flexibility and quality along with cost efficiency.
“For us, this is the most demanding series of contracts to date, comparable to the challenge facing mountaineers who want to climb not one but several peaks of the Himalayas. In addition we had to catch a fast moving train, i.e. a very steep ramp-up to cover the demand of 3,700 pieces-per-week as one costumer was in full production relying on costly and drying-up imports”, says Rolf Fehr, Head of Manufacturing Engineering at thyssenkrupp Steering in China. The project name was given to the program at the very beginning, and the comparison with the highest mountain range on earth is no exaggeration. In the world’s largest automotive market, orders in the gigafactory category are among the proverbial “eight-thousanders”.
Highest customer requirements from product quality to cost efficiency
The commitment of a U.S. customer in Shanghai is an example of this: “For this project in Shanghai, we had ambitious cost-efficiency targets and a very tight schedule. At the same time the customer expected cutting-edge technology and top quality,” says Wang Shuhong, Project Management Supervisor at thyssenkrupp Steering in China.
thyssenkrupp’s local CM team in China convinces all down the line
Flashback: thyssenkrupp had already distinguished itself several years ago by supplying the first factory of the same U.S. customer at its home base. That’s why the headquarters of thyssenkrupp’s steering business in Eschen, Liechtenstein, was also involved in the tender for the Shanghai project from the very beginning, with a clear aim: to produce steering columns directly on site so as to be independent of imported key components. With its local CM team in China, thyssenkrupp had, so to speak, the base camp for its Himalayan expedition.
The second important point: with its convincing overall package, the assembly machines experts at thyssenkrupp also won the race for best cost efficiency in China. “It’s always important to understand exactly the requirements in order to avoid ‘over-engineering’. Sometimes less is simply more – as in this case,” reports Fehr. In contrast to a highly automated system, the Chinese team at thyssenkrupp presented a much more cost-effective semi-automated solution. The intelligent concept fully met the requirements: through superior cost efficiency combined with full competitiveness in terms of cycle time (CT). Thanks to the so-called MTM (Method-Time-Measurement) tool, thyssenkrupp’s production line in China is able to achieve short production CT at top level.
An extremely complex project – like an international mountaineering expedition
One of the biggest challenges was the complexity of the project. The main reason for this: the extremely high demands on the flexibility of the assembly line. Wang Shuhong: “Normally you build a line for a customer. We managed four projects in parallel – for four customers with a total of seven different vehicle models, supported by three tk development teams and three suppliers, all together on three continents.”
In order to perfectly meet all customer requirements, the Himalaya team has been set up internationally. The global teamwork had to be coordinated – over long distances and in three time zones in parallel. The effort paid off, as the combined thyssenkrupp know-how from three continents was now available: the experience from development and manufacturing in the U.S. was incorporated as well as the expertise from the headquarters in Eschen – and, of course, the special know-how of the steering location in China and its local suppliers.
Like a change in weather shortly before summit arrival – COVID-19 disrupts all schedules
From the kickoff of the Shanghai plant of the American client in early 2019 to the start of production, a total of only 358 days were available for the development and implementation of the complete “Himalaya” line. And at the end of January this year, another special challenge followed: due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chinese government ordered a general lockdown at short notice. “The lockdown during the hot phase cost us eventually only two weeks due to everybody’s commitment and high degree of flexibility. Not only our team but also our local supplier partners in Suzhou and Nantong were directly affected by the travel restriction in all directions. However, the team was able to pre-release the assembly line remotely and continue with its release effort immediately after setup at the plant,” says Rolf Fehr, “Our local CM team reacted extremely flexibly and managed to work out a feasible plan despite all the prevailing uncertainties.”
The customer in Shanghai currently is able to produce 250,000 vehicles per year. From 2021, with the launch of a second model in Shanghai, an annual global volume of over 1,000,000 vehicles is expected. For the team from the steering center in China, it is now a matter of ramping up production and at the same time supporting the start of production of the other customers.
Annual turnover of about 90 million euros
The Himalayan expedition is therefore continuing at full speed and thyssenkrupp Steering is right on schedule. Rolf Fehr: “Just one month after the start of production, our plant’s efficiency in production for the American electric carmaker was already above 60 per cent weekly average – this is an extraordinary achievement as, normally, it takes much longer to achieve such levels with new and complex assembly machinery.” The effort is worthwhile. For all four customers together, tk Steering China expects annual sales of around 90 million euros.
High-end production line for steering columns in a class of their own
However, it is not only the “Himalayan” production line that deserves the “high-end” rating, but also the electrically adjustable steering columns that are manufactured by thyssenkrupp on this line. For luxury-class vehicles, for example, thyssenkrupp has developed steering columns with continuously variable electrical height and length adjustment. These high-tech components operate with high precision and naturally meet the strictest safety standards. This is ensured, for example, by the flexible energy absorption system and the compact design which helps prevent knee injuries in the event of accidents. The technical features of this steering column also include high rigidity combined with low weight – this is ensured by materials such as aluminum and magnesium – and the very small installation space required. And thanks to the “easy-entry” and “memory function,” the driver enjoys maximum ease of entry and operation. All of this shows that in principle, the demands on production and products are equally high, as are specific customer needs that require maximum flexibility – like climbing several “eight-thousanders” instead of one.