Attempts of Lighthouse Plant: Searching for the Highest Efficiency

Recently appointed “prioritized supplier” of a well-known Swedish furniture multinational, the Italian company Manuex manufactures, relying on a production process starting from raw materials, almost 4.5 million drawers every year. In partnership with Cosberg, and counting on the opportunities of digitalization, the company is pursuing a project aimed at maximizing efficiency, starting from the assembly lines for the runners. With the aim to improve the whole production cycle. This is a first, concrete example of Lighthouse Plant.

di Fabrizio Dalle Nogare

The Western Alps as a close background, a lot of green around and a feeling of serenity envelop the small village of Quaregna, in the Biella province. A short walk from the city hall are the warehouses that were once intended for what was one of the many textile companies in the area and today – thanks to some happy intuitions – are home to an engineering excellence able to give new breath to the territory.
Crossing the threshold of the factory (12,000 square meters, to which must be added the 5,000 square meters of warehouse for the storage of the finished product), the calm and silence that welcomed us upon arrival in the village vanish. Here, the machines luckily work at full speed. “Manuex [which stands for Manufacturing with Excellence, editor’s note] was founded in 2010, following the agreement signed by the FVG (Formenti and Giovenzana) Group, with a well-known Swedish furniture multinational, to date our only”, says Antonio Camoletto, Plant Manager at Manuex. “We actually started from scratch, planning the plant organization and purchasing the machines. In 2012 we delivered the first drawer and we got into full operation. We were just 50 when we started, while today Manuex has more than 200 employees, 160 of which work in production”. The FVG Group, to which the company belongs, has its headquarters in the Monza area and subsidiaries, mainly active in metal components processing, in Italy, China, Brazil and Slovakia.

A volume of 4.4 million drawers a year
“We are currently one of the three suppliers selected by our customer for the kitchen drawers”, explains Mr Camoletto. “Besides the Italian market, we serve those in Switzerland, France, UK, Russia, Benelux, Dubai, Turkey and North Africa. The minimum production volume required is 4.4 million drawers a year, but we are equipped to deal with a possible increase in requests and manufacture more than 5 million drawers. Currently, the daily production volume is 20,000 drawers for about 240 days a year. In 2017, our turnover was around 57 million euro”.
The fact of working for a single customer, albeit very important, obliges Manuex to seek marginality especially in production, trying to maximize the efficiency of production processes and to minimize waste, as we will see later. “We must also respect rather strict parameters, in terms of logistics, energy saving, CO2 reduction and sustainability”, adds the Plant Manager. “Besides, we pay great attention to packaging, for example, as the boxes we make should not get damaged during the several stages of transportation up to the store. For reasons of sustainability, these have to be transported in carton pallets rather than wooden pallets”. Given such strict requirements, the company’s satisfaction was great when, recently, it was appointed “prioritized supplier”: a privilege reserved to no more than 30 suppliers in the world.

A complete production cycle
But what exactly does Manuex manufacture? And how much technological research lays behind a drawer? “Apart from the front cover, we make all the components in-house”, says Mr Camoletto. “We profile and paint the metal side walls on our dedicated lines, as well as the so-called gallery, the tube that supports the taller drawers: this piece, in fact, connects the rear panel to the front cover, in order to prevent any possible deformation. The most complex components, however, are the runners, made by several elements: from the metal parts on which the drawer runs, up to the plastic ones, always produced here in our factory. The different elements must be assembled and we have two dedicated lines supplied by Cosberg. At the end of the process, we can pack the parts produced in a ready-to-sell box, respecting the our customer’s philosophy: the box has to contain the material in the smallest possible space”.
Something amazing about visiting the Manuex factory is to see the whole process of material transformation and product creation, starting from the raw material up to the packaging stage. As for the plastic, the cycle starts from the grains processed by moulding machines, while the steel is supplied in coils that are processed by machines capable to shape the profile, cut it, punch it and forge it where necessary. Once the metal parts have been painted, they are brought to the assembly lines, the heart of automation.

The next step in automation
The idea of automation as a reduction of those manual activities featured by low added value has been a standard for Manuex since its foundation. The challenge now is to take the next step, developing the potential of the digital factory.
Antonio Camoletto admits that Manuex is facing several challenges. “We work on a project with Toyota, aimed at further developing the concept of preventive maintenance, and on another one with FCA dealing with professional maintenance. With Politecnico di Milano and Cosberg – the latter our partner for some years now, that is, since we had to reorganize our production cycle to face a product change requested by our customer – we begun a very important project aimed at optimizing the whole production process, starting from the assembly lines, which are the most complex machines as for technology. The choice of identifying a highly complex line, analyzing it, detecting the portion of line from which to start and starting the work from there has two advantages: on the one hand, we could reduce the initial investments and then we could immediately measure the benefits”.
Later on – and here lies the heart of the Lighthouse Plant project – the company might apply the same concepts to other stages of the manufacturing process, thus reducing waste and inefficiency thanks to the possibilities given by digitalization, like data collection, monitoring and analysis, scheduled maintenance interventions or the use of high-efficiency components.

Towards the “self-governed” factories
At Cosberg – which, if we may say so, is developing the tools for upgrading the lines – they define an honour, but also a great opportunity, to be involved in the Lighthouse Plant project. “This is indeed a great opportunity, as Manuex is a company featured by a high level of automation that – over the years – has constantly raised by making relevant investments. Such an ambitious project becomes fertile ground for us to test ideas and solutions aimed at making our vision more and more concrete, real. A vision in which the factories of the future – anticipated by the Lighthouse Plants – are capable to “manage” themselves, just as it is already happening for some cars and as will happen soon for automation systems too. The latter, in fact, are already very close to being “self-governed” in many situations: handling unexpected events, performing self-diagnosis, facing breakdowns, dealing autonomously with spare parts orders. By extending these concepts to the whole factory, it is not difficult to imagine that these will lead to the automatic configuration of processes, plants, consumption levels, according to incoming orders, the availability of raw materials and resources, the technical features of incoming material. The first stage of the project is well underway and the experience gained so far has already guided some of our choices, especially about technology. The more we go on, the more complex and challenging all this will become. At the same time, however, it is supposed to be more and more engaging, constructive and stimulating”.

Detecting the bottleneck
“By monitoring the whole assembly line with a software developed by Politecnico di Milano for modelling flows – explains Stefania Basini, Lean Manufacturing Manager at Manuex – we managed to detect the so-called bottleneck, that is to say the individual machine from which to start, also due to the complexity of the work carried out. Specifically, the assembly line for the so-called “middle” profile of the runner. Later on, within this section of the machine, the station on which to intervene will be identified and some changes will be carried out – ranging from the addition of electric actuators or systems capable to give information about the machine wear – and integrated into the pilot stations”.
The synergy between Manuex and Cosberg has already led to the adoption of improvements on the assembly lines: in some stations, for instance, welding has been replaced by riveting; in general, the number of six-axis robots has been increased, an automatic greasing system has been installed, as well as a marking system and some poka-yoke checks.
“We actually share a plan with Cosberg”, summarizes Stefania Basini. “We take advantage of their skills in terms of software, design, logic and, at the same time, we can provide them with valuable information on how to improve the lines”.