Injection specialist Maplan expands new-style operation into China and Slovakia. Patrick Raleigh reports
Moulding machinery maker unfolds the map
As well as the imminent start-up of a first overseas facility in China, managing director Wolfgang Meyer has announced plans to build a unit in Slovakia and a possible early expansion of production at the company’s new base in lower Austria.
The plans reflect growing sales, which have risen steadily from €24 million in 2011 – just before Maplan’s acquisition by the Soulier family – to €38 million in 2015 and are expected to reach €45 million this year. The workforce has, meanwhile, increased from around 180 to 220 employees.
In that time, Maplan’s capacity has more than doubled to around 300 rubber moulding machines, which have a clamping force range of 15 to 1,200 tonnes. This expansion was accelerated by the 40km move from its former home at Ternitz to the Kottingbrunn site, which has the potential to make up to 500 machines a year
The goal now is to reach a turnover of around Ä72 million by 2021, Meyer said at Maplan’s ‘days of technology’ customer event, held 31 May - 1 June in Kottingbrunn. Sales, he added, would reach €30 million in Europe, €20 million in America, €10 million in Asia and the remainder coming from aftersales.
A key element of the strategy is a 3,300 m² production facility in Wujin, Changzhou, China operated by subsidiary Maplan (Changzhou) Rubber Machinery Co. Ltd. The rented unit is located about 180km north-west of Shanghai, where Maplan has an existing service base.
Maplan aims to soon start assembling machines in Wujin ahead of an inauguration in late September. The target is to make 100 machines a year – mainly 250-tonne and 400-tonne models – in the first few years and eventually to reach a 200-unit annual capacity.
While the move into China was a big decision, “at some point you have to jump.” said Meyer, adding that the decision to go there was driven by customers.
“A lot of customers in Europe or North America were saying that they also needed the same machines in China,” the MD explained. “If you are not in China and do not have machines for the Chinese market and the aftersales then you are automatically out of some projects.”
Moreover, Meyer noted that some customer companies are being bought by large Chinese multinationals, which are increasingly exporting production technology rather than bringing it in from Western countries.
“If you are not in China and you are not in contact with these people, you are out of the game,” he again emphasised.
There will, though, be some differences, for example, in cylinder sizes as Chinese moulders use slightly different operating speeds than European or US customers, he noted.
Maplan aims to have 90% local content in its Chinese-made machines, with metal and other parts bought in China, but from the same brands used by the company in Austria.
Maplan’s decision to invest in China was helped by the recruitment in mid-2016 of Deven Lokagariwar, a former CEO of rival machine maker Desma’s China operation, with experience of building up a company there.
“This was pure luck,” said Meyer, explaining that Lokagariwar’s availability emerged during a search, last year, for a manager in the American market.
Lokagariwar, added Meyer, believed Maplan’s project would work out in the international market, as well as in China. This encouraged the company to bring forward its plans in China by at least a year.
“He came to Austria and by August or September we decided to go to China,” said Meyer, remarking that “if you had European people who think they know the Chinese market the project could take three years and burn a lot of money.”
In a new 11-stage building process, machines are moved on a special rail, one step every day. Parts are brought around the machine so that the correct fittings, pipes and screws etc are ready-to-hand for the workers.
As Meyer explained, a machine consists of 600-800 parts and every machine is a little bit different. Maplan has also measured that with the old style of production about 30% of the time used to build a machine was in searching for parts.
To develop the new process, the company broke down how its machines were built day-by-day and established how to locate parts to make them easy to find and access.
A model of every part in stock is now fed into Maplan’s ERP system, which automatically orders the parts for the different assembly steps. And when a box is empty, suppliers are notified by RFID to come and restock the parts.
“This is Industry 4.0 for our production in that we don’t need to do anything manually,” said Meyer, who also pointed out the challenge of retaining experienced workers today, with many people now changing jobs every couple of years or so.
Where people were scared of having “a job where they only out one screw in”, they now understand that the system helps them, the MD added.
“Now they can concentrate on their own work and are more motivated and work much closer with the management to even improve the system. It gives you an extra kick to move forward.”
Line production is restricted to machines of up to 450 tonnes – around 80% of Maplan’s machines – due to weight and size restrictions. The original plan was to line-produce 30% of machines initially, though this figure has already ramped up to 60%.
Such production systems are common in the plastics machine industry but not in the rubber sector, due to the very small production runs involved and the level of variation between machines.
“We had to invent, with a specialist company, a system able to really make on the first day a 160-tonne machine, on the next day a 250-tonne with completely different configuration,” said the MD, who knows of no other company building such specialist machinery in this way.
“We also had to know, on this step here I need 16 hours today, on the next day only 8 hours, and the next one 13 hours,” he emphasised. “It goes very deep into programming, production-planning and everything else.”
Going forward, the Austrian operation will be further supported by an €8-million investment in a new 3,500 m² factory for the manufacture of “assemblies” in the Slovakian town of Malacky, near the capital Bratislava.
The Slovakian unit’s operations are set to include assembly of electric cabinets, machining of metal parts and hydraulic pre-fabrication. Due to start in early 2018, the facility offers lower-cost, skilled labour and logistical advantages, being just 130km away from Kottingbrunn.
“We are planning to produce some parts there because we need a certain flexibility,” Meyer explained. “It is about a one-hour drive from Malacky in Slovakia 30km north of Bratislava and so is excellent for know-how transfer in both directions.”
Back in Kottingbrunn, Maplan is currently building up shift patterns to increase output as sales levels continue to build at record levels.
“We are building up to run a full second shift to increase capacity” said the MD. He added that Maplan might have to expand the Austrian facility, as capacity at the production area is already “getting tight”.
“The question for me is always: is business going up like it is now or will it go down?” a cautious Meyer concluded.