APPLIANCE traveled to Albacina, Italy to report on Merloni’s cooking appliance factory.
7,000 Appliances Per Day
Merloni's Albacina, Italy factory may be the company's oldest plant, but its products and processes are some of the most advanced in the cooking appliance segment.
Built in 1958, Albacina was Merloni Elettrodomestici's first appliance factory. In fact, claiming that this is "where it all began"couldn't be more accurate: the founder's father, Aristide Merloni, was born just 600 m from the factory.
While Albacina may be the company veteran, the plant has much to be proud of since its early days of appliance production. The facility currently boasts 40,000 sq m (430,556 sq ft) of covered area, 600 employees, and a production of approximately 1.6 million cooking appliances annually, which equals a whopping 7,000 appliances a day.
According to the company, Albacina is the largest appliance plant in Europe in terms of units shipped. Achieving this, says Enrico Cola, director of Merloni's Cooking Business Unit, is possible through "innovation in products and processes, high productivity and flexibility, and an excellent quality standard."Mr. Cola adds, "We aim to sustain the growth, and to keep this pole position."
Albacina has the largest production out of Merloni's four cooking appliance factories. The Thionville, France plant has the second largest annual production at 500,000 units, with the Lodz, Poland facility following close behind with an annual production of 480,000, and the Refrontolo, Italy plant finishing up with a production of 120,000 units. While it does produce a small amount of free-standing cookers (200,000 units), the majority of Albacina's production is split between its Ariston and Indesit brand built-in ovens (700,000 units) and built-in hobs (700,000 units).
Over the last 42 years, it is safe to say that Albacina has gone through more than a few changes. Perhaps one of the most dramatic changes the factory has experienced, not to mention the cooking business unit as a whole, was its transition to a platform manufacturing approach 5 years ago. According to Mr. Cola, the approach enabled the cooking business unit to offer a wider range of features on the same structure, which not only speeds production, but, in the long run, is most beneficial to the consumer.
Innovation was the driving factor for implementing the platform strategy on several levels, explains Mr. Cola. The first factor was Merloni's goal of renewing its product range every 2 years. In order to achieve such a lofty goal, a platform approach seemed the only logical choice. This included redesigning the business unit's current product range. Its freestanding ovens, for example, previously included three cooker models: a 50- x 50-cm model, a 53- x 53-cm model, and a 54- x 57-cm model. The line now includes one standard size-50 x 60 cm.
This, in turn, required some innovation in production processes and machinery. A new production flow was put into place, which allowed for constant production and little to no down time. However, the most significant investment, according to Mr. Cola, was a new press that was co-designed by Merloni and press supplier Manzoni Group. "The new press was a way of balancing product and process challenges,"explains Mr. Cola.
Since Merloni has a long-standing relationship with the Manzoni Group-it has purchased three of its presses-partnering with the supplier to develop a new press was a logical choice. At 2,000 tons, the automated machine is the factory's most powerful press, producing up to 26 pieces per minute and allowing for complex shapes in six phases.
The factory is divided into three main departments-pressing, porcelain enameling, and assembly. Out of the 600 total employees, 58 percent of the workers are involved in the assembly operations, with the remaining 42 percent divided as follows: 13 percent in the pressing department, 15 percent in the enameling department, 9 percent in production support, and 5 percent in miscellaneous positions.
Processes start from the raw material storage area, which stores metal coils before it is used on the factory floor. From there, the material is formed and shaped in the pressing department, which includes the new 2,000-ton transfer press; two 1,000-ton transfer presses, which output about 12-25 pieces per min; an automatic production line for the base and the sides, which outputs 100-150 pieces per hr; and an automatic pressing and weld line, which produces 300 pieces per hr.
Within the pressing line, the oven cavity production flow begins with coil feeding, followed by coil shearing to produce metal sheets. After the metal is cut, it moves via conveyor to a pre-drawing hydraulic press and then a drawing hydraulic press, which has automatic die changing. Next, it moves through a trimming hydraulic press and is taken via conveyer to the welding line.
According to Luciano Torselletti, plant manager, the factory's pressing line is very efficient. "With this line, we produce only what we need in production. This is a flow line; we don't want inventory,"he explains. According to Mr. Torselletti, the units that are produced are based on what the assembly department will need 1 hr later. In addition, in order to keep production flow constant, there are buffer zones in several areas of the line so that the production line never stops, even during tool changes. For instance, there is a metal sheet buffer next to the coil feed for when a new coil needs to be installed.
The fully-automatic welding line includes two machines, which together have an output of 5 pieces per min. The process begins with case bending and pre-spot welding. The factory uses a case roll welding process, which produces a continuous seam that reportedly increases the quality and performance of the oven. According to Mr. Torselletti, this process is also used at Merloni's Thionville location to produce Pyrolitic cleaning ovens. "Although we do not now, this enables us to make Pyrolitic ovens like France, if we want to, in the future,"says Mr. Torselletti.
After moving a sizing station to assure the correct geometry of the oven cavity, the cases are taken through two stations for skirting and drawing to obtain the cavity's "collarette"or flared bottom portion. Robots then put the top and bottom into place for welding, and the cavity is complete. The only manual process in the entire line is an aesthetic check.
The factory's porcelain enameling department line begins with a cleaning area, which consists of three robots. There are two lines for wet enameling and four lines for powder enameling. Mr. Torselletti explains that the factory is currently powder enameling the inside of the cavity and dark-colored models, but is still wet enameling white or light-colored products. This, he says, is necessary in order to keep a high level of quality, as he wants to be sure that there is no mixture of paint colors. He adds that with the popularity of stainless steel appliances, the wet enameling line only has to run on one shift.
When the cavities have been coated, they are taken to a vitrification oven, which heats up to 850°C (1,562°F) to ensure that the enamel is fired onto the steel. After a 100-percent quality check, the units are taken via a shuttle to a storage area, where they are then transferred to the assembly line as needed via automated guided vehicles (AGV).
The manual assembly line includes five lines for the free-standing cookers, four lines for the built-in hobs, and five lines for the built-in ovens. While it has achieved impressive results with its automated processes, the plant still utilizes manual labor in its assembly operations. "We want to be sure to be flexible and to have high quality in the assembly line,"says Mr. Torselletti. "We think people are able to be more flexible and can ensure the total quality of the final product."
In assembly, workers install the components, starting with the heating elements, insulation, sides, gas components as necessary, and cables. Next, the ventilation fans, lights, controls, and other accessories are added. After they are completely assembled, the units are taken to a finished product storage area, which can hold a maximum of 6,000 units.
Five percent of the daily production is then transferred to the plant's quality control area. The area includes more than 100 test suites, where reliability tests, performance tests, and component tests are performed.
Mr. Torselletti says he is very pleased with the new production flow. One important advantage, he says, has been the increase in quality. For example, he says, the lack of manual interventions has reduced the potential for error, and the reduction of welding spots has improved the enamel adhesion because there is low stress.
In addition, the company recently implemented a new quality program that Mr. Cola says is the plant's biggest accomplishment to date. "The most important objective reached was the "Salto di Qualità"(Quality Leap) project, which led to considerable improvements in terms of culture and performances,"he explains.
According to Mr. Cola, verbal and written communication is important to achieve quality, as well as a high level of awareness and attention to detail. Plant management posts each line's daily quality results next to a time clock to ensure that each employee reads the charts daily. "We realize that 60 percent of faults are related to behaviors. It is often a matter of attention and being aware of the importance of working properly,"Mr. Cola explains. "As a consequence, we stop production every year for 10-minutes to communicate with workers about quality and safety,"he adds.
Another aspect of improving quality was implementing a new management structure, explains Daniele Dolce, Cooking Business Unit Human Resources coordinator. The plant now employs engineers as plant workers to increase skill level within the factory. "If a younger engineer wants to become a plant manager, he has to start from the shop floor,"says Mr. Dolce. "This allows us to do a different kind of management-not a directive style of management, but a style that is focused on interaction between people."
Mr. Dolce is also striving to improve plant safety. Albacina has already seen some success in this area: it cut the amount of safety injuries by 50 percent between 1999-2000 and continued this downward trend between 2000-2001, dropping to approximately 21 injuries from 34. According to Mr. Dolce, this was accomplished through training and awareness. "Every time there is an injury, a frown symbol is posted on the meeting point bulletin board, along with a description of what caused the injury. The symbol stays up until the injured employee returns to work,"he explains.
While Mr. Cola, Mr. Torselletti, and Mr. Dolce are all pleased with the recent accomplishments of the Albacina plant-from the production flow and new platform approach to the close attention to quality and safety-they have already set future goals to further improve the plant's processes. "We will invest in a number of areas,"says Mr. Cola. "As far as the automation of the manufacturing processes is concerned, our future plans will be implemented in the pre-assembly and assembly areas of our built-in ovens, utilizing the so-called lean production, from the enameling department to the pre-assembly department. In terms of new products, we will be focusing on innovation; we are currently working on new aesthetic looks and new performances,"he adds.
As an organization, the company plans to invest in the most important part of its production processes, its people. "We want to move forward toward a more empowering organization,"explains Mr. Cola. "We are working on making all business units managers increasingly more responsible. This will enable us to control costs more and, thus, improve profitability."