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Inside Webasto

If you have a sunroof in your vehicle—yes, we mean car or light truck—there is a good chance that Webasto made it, as with an estimated 42% marketshare, it is the biggest player in a field that just keeps growing and growing as vehicle manufacturers work to differentiate their vehicles with accessories like sunroofs. Here's a look at some of the things this company has been doing.
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Webasto Sunroofs Inc. (Rochester Hills, MI) is, as its name makes clear, a supplier of sunroofs. One of its parent companies, Webasto AG, was established in 1901 in Germany as a manufacturer of bicycle parts; by 1932 it became a manufacturer of folding sunroofs. Since then, the firm has become a major player in the world's sunroof industry, with customers ranging from Alfa Romeo to Volkswagen. One of Webasto AG's strategies is to partner with companies in a given locale. In the case of North America, the partnership, which was established in 1984, was with Canada's Magna International. Today, Webasto Sunroofs is the largest North American supplier of sunroofs for both OEM and aftermarket applications. (For the rest of this text, all references to Webasto will relate to the joint venture company, not to Webasto AG.)

The 1999 Pontiac Grand Am is equipped with the Webasto-built sunroof. This style of sunroof is known as a "spoiler" type, given the way it moves up over the roof.

According to M. Brett Healy, director of Sales and Marketing, Webasto, the North American company anticipates 1999 sales to be in excess of $200-million. From the standpoint of customers ("We pretty much do business with everybody," Healy remarks), General Motors accounts for nearly half of Webasto's business ("They're very aggressive with sunroofs"). Healy points out that not too long ago Ford was its biggest customer, it, too, being about 50% of the firm's total sales. "Ford didn't shrink its demand," Healy says. "It's just that others grew."

And when he talks about growth, the bar charts he references show a steady, ratcheting rise in sunroof fitment rates, as vehicle manufacturers use sunroofs to help differentiate their models in the market. In addition to cars (about 20% of all cars that will be built in 1999 are to be equipped with sunroofs), Healy anticipates that there will be a big surge in the light truck market—yes, sunroofs installed in pickups (they're now available in sport utes and minivans)—within the next few years. During 1998, some 7% of the light trucks built were equipped with sunroofs; in 1995, that figure was about 2%.

According to Healy, Webasto Sunroofs personnel expect to achieve overall annual growth on the order of 10 to 15% for the next few years. Sunroofs are hot.

The need for efficiencies in design and manufacturing is something well understood by Fred D. Olson, Webasto Sunroof's vice president, Operations (although the title may not sound like it, Olson is the number-one executive in the company). Olson joined Webasto in mid-1997, having come from Magna's Atoma Closures & Electronic Systems Div., a producer of a variety of mechanical systems and devices, such as door-latching devices. One of the things that Olson drove at Atoma, and has since brought to Webasto (recognizing that there are commonalties between the operations of the two companies, which are both mechanical assembly intensive), is what he describes as "an error-proofing orientation." The objective, of course, is to continuously improve operations; this is the incrementalism of getting better day by day.

What's more, it makes good business sense, as it prevents a defect from being made and shipped. As Healy puts it, "We have a big emphasis on mistake proofing rather than relying on inspection or having the customer find the problem." Certainly, it is better to catch any problems as early as possible—and long before it arrives on the customer's loading dock.

But Olson recognizes that in some situations, bigger things have to happen by way of making improvements, especially when faced with the opportunities to attain more business. It is tough to inch your way to big production volumes.

So Webasto went for some big changes (while continuing to find the improvements necessary to make the workstation-level functions at the factories more efficient). Which is precisely what happened as the company reorganized its manufacturing operations.

Webasto has two plants in Rochester Hills. One of them, designated Assembly 2, included stamping and assembly. The other was assembly. These plants became increasingly congested as the amount of business that Webasto won grew year after year.

So, Fred Olson explains, in order to have the opportunities to improve the Rochester Hills facilities, an existing stamping plant was purchased in Livonia, Michigan—across town from Rochester Hills, but still comparatively proximate. This permitted the stamping operations in Assembly 2 to be moved out, thereby opening up room for a concentration on assembly within the facility.

In addition, Olson and his colleagues surveyed the landscape of Webasto business and determined that it would be valuable to have a facility that could serve vehicle manufacturers that are located in the southern states. After deciding to build a new plant, Lexington, KY, was selected for the site.

Inside the Webasto Lexington plant, the assemblers generally work in pairs. Extensive error-proofing is used to assure build quality. Although this appears to be a simple setup, there is an impressive array of sensors that facilitate the proper assembly.

With a new facility in Lexington, this provided the opportunity to take some of the work that was being done in Rochester Hills and to move it down to Lexington. So 35% of the work was moved when Lexington opened. The amount of work that was done in Rochester Hills was split between the two plants, where major upgrades were made to the facilities (as in painting and lighting) and the production processes (as in all-new lines) were significantly improved. According to Olson, some $10 million were spent during 18 months to make these changes—that's certainly not incremental spending.

Because material flow was improved, and because space was opened up via the stamping plant in Livonia and the assembly plant in Lexington, an outside warehouse was closed, which accounted for some savings. In addition, there have been measurable improvements in both assembled product quality and amount of waste generated.

This puts Webasto in a position to produce 1.5 million sunroofs per year. And it is likely to need that capacity in the not-too-distant future: in 1999 it has orders for 900,000 sunroofs; based on the business it has been awarded and that which Healy and his colleagues project, it will be making one million sunroofs in 2000.

Mark Wallace is the general manager of the Webasto plant in Lexington. The plant started shipping sunroofs in October, 1998. During the prior 18 months, Wallace was involved in things that he'd never anticipated—such as building and staffing the 101,000-ft2 plant.

Fred Olson says, "I told him, `You'd better do a good job—you've got to run it.'"

The plant produces products for customers including GM, Ford, Mazda, and, not surprisingly, perhaps, given its proximity to Georgetown, Toyota. The daily rate at present is from 1,000 to 1,500 sunroofs, with the "colleagues" (138 total, of which 85 are direct) working two shifts. (One interesting aspect of the employment: when hiring began, the unemployment rate in the Lexington area was less than two percent, yet they were to receive some 2,500 applications. The testing and screening procedure lasted two weeks.)

Given that the Lexington plant started as a clean sheet, as the assembly process development proceeded, Wallace and Webasto engineers worked to (1) reduce the complexity at each work station, (2) provide flexibility to accommodate changes in volume, and (3) improve quality. Benchmarking was performed in plants in England and Germany where similar products are produced. Tact-time analysis was a big area of focus, with processes being video taped and assessed so that it was possible to determine each move that an operator makes to perform an operation (thereby permitting any ergonomic issues to be caught and rectified), as well as to determine the best way to achieve line balancing.

The five main assembly lines in the plant have all been error-proofed, with an average of 50 error-proofed items per line, with more coming on all the time. "Every time we find a problem, we look for a way to error-proof it," says Olson. To assure that the error-proofing items that are in place work as intended, there are sunroof frames (or fixtures) with known problems that are run through the lines at startup.

There are visual management boards at line side; the production schedule is posted in the plant cafeteria. To assure that there is good communication, there are daily production meetings.

Although building sunroofs is a manually intensive operation (i.e., the robotic automation is limited to the glass-preparation area of the plant), there is still not insignificant technology involved. For example, Olson points out that all of the screw guns are electric, not pneumatic, (thereby providing torque and angle sensing and data logging) and that each of the Georges Renault screw guns costs some $10,00. There's a Brown & Sharpe Vento coordinate measuring machine used to check roof assemblies. Allen-Bradley PanelView 550 units are throughout the lines, displaying operator information. And there is an array of sensors—proximity, color, counting, etc.—implemented throughout the assembly operations.

Olson observes, "We want to be the supplier and the employer of choice everywhere we are."