Le Mans is the main location for the production of CLAAS tractors. Around 10,000 roll off the factory’s production line every year. Production figures are to be increased significantly in future. To achieve this, major modernization work has been carried out – without disrupting operations.

Christina Schneider

Starting point

“Stopping production to modernize the factory was out of the question,” ­recalls project coordinator Alexandre Baudy. “This was where the end-of-line process, the final quality control, was located three years ago,” he says, pointing to the first assembly station. Around 50 tractors are produced every day in Le Mans, with the factory only winding down for the four-week summer break in August and at Christmas. Replacing a whole assembly line in one fell swoop would never have worked, but it was also abundantly clear that the factory was in need of modernization.

There were many reasons behind the 40-million-euro project christened CLAAS Forth: “The factory is already ­relatively old, there are many new technologies available, and the standard of quality has risen,” says Baudy. “What’s more, machinery is now more customized and consists of more individual parts. We also want to manufacture significantly more tractors moving forward – in an attractive and safe environment.”

CLAAS plans to sell 13,000 tractors per year in its core Western and Eastern ­Europe market and tap into new markets moving forward. The three-year modernization project not only involved renewing the technical equipment, entire processes were redesigned too, such as the internal logistics system or facilities to fill up machines with a variety of fluids. There were three key factors in modernizing the factory while maintaining operations:

1. Planning

The use of virtual reality was extremely important. “First of all, we made sure that we mapped the whole factory and all of the buildings in 3D,” the project coordinator says. Delmia software then allowed the tractor factory to be simulated virtually, including the production of models that don’t even exist yet. 3D animations and VR glasses simulated a variety of ­different options to design processes more efficiently. This also shed light on the necessary construction-related changes. “This was a huge advantage,” says Baudy. “It enabled us – and continues to enable us – to improve production together with our employees before implementation, and make adjustments to machinery for example. Essentially it allowed us to get ahead of the game.”

2. Machinery

Automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, were key to the modernization work while maintaining factory operations. “AGVs are now state of the art,” explains Emmanuel Bozo, project manager for phase three of CLAAS Forth. They transport tractors from the first assembly station to the final station on the line and are able to move loads of up to 20 metric tons. At the start of the main assembly process they pick up the power trains. The AGVs are powered by induction technology equipped to the factory floor, with a white magnetic strip ensuring that they stay on track. Sensors at the front end of the vehicle detect any obstacles and bring the AGV to a halt if necessary, meaning employees can move freely between the vehicles without any risk to themselves. “Adding more AGVs in the future will allow us to manufacture up to 75 tractors per day,” says Bozo. “They also give us a great deal of flexibility.” The first AGV went online in May 2018, and the AGV integration was completed in August 2019. At the moment there are 36 vehicles in the Le Mans factory, with more on the horizon.

3. Employees

Involving employees in the process was the third key factor in CLAAS Forth. “Besides a handful of consultants, we put our faith in our own workforce,” says Baudy. “They know the factory best – ­every movement and every angle – so it was clear that they should help the experts plan the modernization work.” The core project team comprised 50 colleagues: engineers, technicians, workers, and apprentices. Representatives from Controlling, Human Resources, Purchasing, Logistics, and Research and Development were also involved. Even the name of the project, CLAAS Forth, was chosen by employees. The communication model was also tailored entirely to them. For example, a weekly CLAAS Forth forum was held in Le Mans, which was open to every­one and provided updates on when, how, where, and why things were changing. Employees also received training on the implementation of the new structures.

“The effect of this level of employee integration was twofold: identification and pride,” says Baudy. “We saw how some employees were taking selfies at the production line. They are using equipment that they designed themselves.” Employees are benefiting particularly from the ergonomic improvements. Headsets also allow them to communicate much more easily at certain stations. There is now more space generally as only the parts that are needed and fitted are actually brought to the assembly line. One other element has had an impact on the working environment: some 250 metric tons of new paint. All of the walls and ceilings have been painted white, and the floors in a light gray, significantly improving the brightness.

Implementation

The changes were implemented in three phases, each of which involved a variety of sub-projects. “Planning temporary changes to production to make space for the renovation work was a project in itself,” says Bozo. “Anyone who last visited the factory three years ago would now be completely lost; everything has changed.” Huge logistics warehouses used to be located where the production line now ends.

Colleagues in Le Mans have learned a great deal over the past three years. They are already sharing their knowledge with their colleagues in Harsewinkel, where the SynPro 2020 combine harvester production modernization project is underway. In France, thoughts have already turned to new projects for Le Mans. “The next task on the list is the office concept,” says Baudy. “We are considering introducing a flexible office system. So far only a handful of people in the factory have been able to work from home, and this is a figure we want to increase significantly moving forward.” With all of its changes and new features, the factory in Le Mans remains a highlight for employees and visitors alike. It was recently selected as a showcase for future industry by the French organization Alliance Industrie du Future.

Emmanuel Bozo

was responsible for phase three of CLAAS Forth as project manager. At the end of the main assembly section, work focused on automating the driving and braking test benches and adjusting internal logistics to match the assembly line.

Alexandre Baudy

maintained a close eye on the entire CLAAS Forth at all times as project coordinator.

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