Take a tour of JCB's Compact Products plant

PMV finds out how JCB manufactures its compact excavator range

ANALYSIS, PMV, Compact Products plant, JCB

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Although impressive, the dizzying array of equipment unveiled during JCB’s recent international press conference [October 2014, PMV Middle East] came as no surprise to those in attendance. A company doesn’t invite journalists from all four corners of the globe unless it has something impressive up its sleeve.

The attention that JCB paid to its manufacturing facilities during the visit, however, was a somewhat-unexpected treat. All too often, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) get carried away with their latest releases and forget to recognise the people and facilities that make such releases possible.

Fortunately, JCB set aside time for attendees to take a look around its Compact Products plant, situated in the English county of Staffordshire. A selection of frontline staff members were on hand to talk PMV through the measures that have been implemented at the facility to ensure the highest-possible levels of quality and safety.

The eight-tonne production line – where engineers produce the largest of JCB’s compact excavators, the 85Z and the 86C – was our first stop on the tour of the plant. Here, we were shown VisualFactory, a software application that JCB has installed to ensure safety, quality, and consistency throughout the course of the manufacturing process.

“This programme is designed to provide our operators with everything they need, right in the palm of their hand,” said Josh Wilcox, production engineer at JCB Compact Products.

“This system is important because every machine produced on the line is unique. There are a variety of base options, including dippers, dozers, and tracks, and an array of extras, including comfort, environmental, and safety features,” he explained.

When one considers the wide array of customisable features available on JCB’s compact excavators, it’s hardly surprising that engineers such as Wilcox welcomed the recent introduction of VisualFactory. The programme not only guides users through the assembly process, but also features integrated safeguarding mechanisms to ensure that staff members cannot proceed if a mistake has been made.

“Before I can do anything, I have to log into this software with an identification number that is unique to me,” said Wilcox.

“From here, I can see all of the machines that are currently on the line, and the production status of each machine. I have the option to start afresh with a new machine, or continue with my work on an existing machine. In turn, the software generates instructions for the specific machine that I am working on, and filters out any unneeded information,” he told PMV.

In addition to allowing users to review and manage their workloads, VisualFactory uses its unique ID system to ensure that the tasks being conducted match workers’ individual skillsets. The system also forces users to conduct health and safety checks before they begin their work. Once these preliminary checks have been carried out, VisualFactory starts to flex its instructional muscles.

“Tasks are listed on the left-hand side of the screen in a chronological order,” Wilcox pointed out.

“The instructions are clear, concise, simple, and intuitive. Accompanied by an image or a video, this arrangement makes it very easy for operators to know exactly what they should be focusing on at any one time.

“Moreover, this ensures quality; it means that we have the appropriate components for every step in the process. Factors such as torque values, meanwhile, have to be entered manually. They are then validated and checked by the system to ensure that the engineer is using the correct values.

“If the colour of the value remains red, the operator knows that he or she has done something wrong. Conversely, if the inputted value turns green, the operator can continue to the next stage – they are on the right track,” he added.

Before an engineer is able to begin work on his or her next machine, VisualFactory flags up any steps that have been missed along the way. The implementation of this system, therefore, has allowed JCB to integrate quality control into the production process itself, rather than including it as a separate stage at the end of the line.

“By using a device like this, we have been able to guarantee quality compliance right from the start,” explained Wilcox.

For the next stage of our tour, we took a walk to the opposite end of the Compact Products facility to hear more about the production process itself.

“My colleagues in the manufacturing zone use laser cutters, press brakes, and robotic and manual welders to produce the fabrications that we use on our vehicles,” commented assembly manager, Jim Dowling.

“Once the parts have been manufactured, they are loaded onto a fully automated, powder-coated paint plant. Our operators continually monitor this process throughout the day so that we are 100% confident that the components being delivered to the assembly line are of the highest quality,” he said.

JCB’s Compact Products plant boasts five assembly lines that are used to build excavators ranging from 0.8 tonnes to 10 tonnes. However, despite the diversity of models produced at the facility, the British manufacturer has implemented a number of checks to ensure consistency.

“Although our machines vary greatly in size, we have a simple, modular build that is clear and repetitive,” explained Dowling.

“That’s employed on all of our assembly lines; it gives us consistency.

“We’ve also introduced kitted projects, which have helped to uncomplicate our assembly process. Essentially, parts are delivered sequentially to the assembly line, ensuring that operators can only build what is put in front of them; they cannot become confused. In addition, we use a barcode system that automatically orders materials for us as and when we need them,” he added.

JCB has employed a low-level storage strategy so that line feeders can clearly see when more parts are required. This arrangement also optimises operators’ lines of sight, offering a spacious and safe working environment, according to Dowling.

“Last, but by no means least, all of our operators are empowered to use our ‘stop, call, wait’ system,” he told PMV.

“We actively encourage our staff members to challenge us as leaders; to come up with ideas that improve health and safety, quality, and processes. This helps to keep us customer focused, and ensures that end users receive machines of the highest-possible quality,” Dowling concluded.

Although all part of the JCB Group, the British manufacturer’s product divisions operate as semi-autonomous entities. However, in order to ensure that quality and safety are upheld across the line-up, the checks and balances that were demonstrated during the tour of the Compact Products facility can be found in JCB plants the world over.

As quality group leader at JCB Compact Products, it is Mick Keaveny’s job to ensure that these measures are maintained at the Staffordshire plant. During the final portion of the tour, he talked us through operations at the facility’s ultraviolet light and dark station.

“This area is used to check the robustness of our hydraulic circuitry,” he explained.

“The intense light stations that you can see around you are as close to midday sun as we can get. This aids the quality inspector when he’s walking around, carrying out his visual checks,” said Keaveny.

With the curtains closed and the lights turned off, the station is transformed into an ultraviolet zone that can be used to identify leaks in hydraulics systems.

“Prior to the machine being started up, we put a measured amount of ultraviolet dye into the hydraulic tank,” Keaveny told PMV.

“As the machine starts, the oil flows through the system. It mixes with ultraviolet dye to show as a different colour. Each inspector has an ultraviolet torch that he uses to check the machine; in particular, around its hydraulic circuit,” he added.

This strategy enables JCB’s quality inspectors to quickly and effectively identify leaks. If the dye, which shines brightly under the UV torch, is detected, it can only have come from one place – the unit’s hydraulic system.

“This process takes 90 minutes per machine, and every machine that we produce goes through exactly the same process,” said Keaveny.

“We have one person working in each quality control station, and every line has its own station. There are approximately 30 to 35 people currently working on the quality control team, inspecting these machines,” he added.

Obviously, the members of Keaveny’s team are not looking for hydraulic oil exclusively. Approximately 200 checks are carried out for each unit, and the inspector must use a handheld computer to manually confirm that they have been conducted in real time.

Once a machine has passed through the ultraviolet light and dark station, it will be taken outside to the hard-test area. Once here, each machine will be put through an intense, 90-minute-long workout, during which around 40 – primarily functional – checks are conducted.

The tour of JCB’s Compact Products factory left little room for doubt; the British manufacturer places quality and safety at the centre of its operations. Whilst obviously reassuring, to an outsider, the implementation of safeguarding measures at every stage of the production process – including the end – could be viewed overkill.

However, as Graeme Macdonald, JCB’s CEO explained, this watertight attitude to quality has played a key role in the success of the manufacturer’s compact excavator range.

“After a record year in 2007, when we sold over 8,000 units, we were facing a new challenge in 2010: how to take JCB Compact Products to the next level after the deepest recession in living memory,” he said.

“So we did what JCB always does in difficult times; we invested in the future of JCB Compact Products. We ploughed over $30mn into manufacturing technology and new product development.

“You can see for yourselves our investment in new technologies and lean processes. It is this commitment to efficiency and total quality that makes JCB Compact products a world-class manufacturing business,”
Macdonald concluded.

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