The factory of the future

Our tractor factory is located in the town of Le Mans in North Western France. 10,000 custom-built machines are produced here each year. Since the CLAAS Forth modernisation initiative, the factory has become an object lesson not only in how to implement Industry 4.0, but how to involve the workforce in major projects.

It's no ordinary factory – that's what Romane Niepceron likes about it. "It's a very friendly, informal place to work", says the 27-year-old fitter. Yet the CLAAS Industry 4.0 factory in Le Mans is a hive of activity, with 70,000 m2 of covered production space, 1000 employees, and 10,000 tractors produced each year.

So what makes it feel so friendly? For Romane Niepceron, it's all down to the working environment. "The factory is quiet, bright and well lit", she explains. "And there's plenty of room to move around."

"Customer satisfaction is very important to us. We are highly motivated, and this, coupled with state-of-the-art technology, is what underpins the premium quality of our tractors."

– Alexandre Lanson, director of SFQuality

"We makes sure that our suppliers are aware of the high expectations of our customers right from the earliest stage of a project. In this way we can maximise the quality of the parts we receive."

– Marion Tourneur, quality engineer responsible for project suppliers

"It's important to me that the team finds innovative solutions – with creativity, pragmatism and a healthy dose of common sense."

– Fabrice Porteboeuf, Project Manager Industrialisation

Restructuring while remaining operational

It was not always the case. Before 2017 the factory looked much like any other tractor factory: it was darker and more enclosed, almost like a giant car repair shop. The equipment which CLAAS inherited when the company acquired the factory from another manufacturer in 2003 also needed updating.

The CLAAS Forth project was designed to modernise the site. Its stated aim was to assemble tractors "right first time", in other words with the smallest possible error rate. The three-year restructuring programme, which cost 40 million euros, involved not only replacing the technical equipment, but reconfiguring the entire set-up – from the internal logistics system to the equipment for filling the machines with various fluids.

The challenge was to carry out the restructuring while remaining operational. Major alterations could only be undertaken once a year without having to allow for production – during the four-week summer shutdown. This meant that most of the refurbishment had to be integrated into the day-to-day life of the factory.

The fact that the factory does not have a traditional large-scale production line, despite assembling 50 tractors per day, made this particularly difficult. You see, each tractor is made to order – from a product range of five different series with an output range of 72 to 460 hp. The number of possible configurations is so vast that no more than two identical tractors are produced in any given quarter.

Digital planning and driverless transport vehicles

Three factors were key to the successful rolll-out of the project. Firstly, the modernisation was digitally planned. "Our first step was to map the factory and all the associated buildings in a 3D software program", explains Aldric Pavec, Head of Process Engineering in Le Mans. The 57-year-old was responsible for the CLAAS Forth planning phase. "This allowed us to model the entire restructuring – and then use 3D animations and VR headsets to test live on site whether specific processes could be made even more efficient."

The second factor that enabled us to restructure the factory was the removal of the previous tow conveyor and introduction of driverless transport vehicles, known as automated guided vehicles or AGVs. These robots can transport tractors weighing up to 20 t along the 1.2 km assembly line from the first station to the last – fully automatically and with flexibly timed sequences.

Sensors on the front cause the machines to brake automatically when obstacles are detected, allowing staff to move safely between the AGVs without risk of injury.

The removal of the tow conveyor freed up open spaces on the factory floor for other restructuring work. At the same time, the AGVs made the production process more flexible, which also benefitted the CLAAS Forth project.

Involvement of the workforce

The third and perhaps most important factor in the project's success was the involvement of the workforce. "We really wanted the restructuring to relieve the burden of day-to-day work for the staff", says Aldric Pavec, Head of Process Engineering. "At the same time, they know the assembly process better than anyone, so it was essential for us to involve them closely in the project."

This is why there were virtually no external consultants working on the project. The core team consisted of 50 employees, including engineers, fitters and apprentices. Representative from Controlling, HR, Purchasing, Logistics and R&D were also involved.

The workforce participated in all phases of the project. Even the name CLAAS Forth was chosen by them. A CLAAS Forth Forum open to all took place once a week in Le Mans, where staff were informed of changes and the reasoning behind them. In addition, staff were regularly shown how to operate the new systems.

I have often seen fitters in the factory taking selfies.

A multitude of Industry 4.0 elements

Romane Niepceron agrees that the involvement of the workforce has been worthwhile. She is in charge of filling the trolleys which attach magnetically to the AGVs and carry all the bolts and small components required to assemble a specific tractor.

Before the restructuring, Romane Niepceron needed a long list to pick the right parts for the trolley. Now she finds them by scanning the barcodes on the shelves with her gloves. When a light appears in a compartment, she knows that this is where she'll find the part or machine element she needs for the trolley.

This system is just one example of the multitude of Industry 4.0 elements in this state-of-the-art factory. Networked tools support operators in a wide range of tasks, from receiving jobs to ticking off checklists. The massive warehousing system has been replaced with a space-saving automated small-parts storage system.

The digital assistants are making an impact. The number of cases where a minor assembly error has to be corrected downstream has dramatically reduced: from 200 times to less than once a day. And that's with tens of thousands of parts assembled daily in Le Mans.

The site's technical equipment and installations have also impressed the French city, which presented the tractor factory with the "Vitrine Industrie Du Futur" award as an example of an "Industry of the Future”.

“A mixture of pride and faith.”

In an interview, site manager Etienne Bourasseau explains how the tractor factory in Le Mans has evolved.

Interview with Etienne Bourasseau

250 tonnes of new paint

The new, welcoming working environment is also the result of staff suggestions: all walls and ceiling have been repainted with around 250 tonnes of white paint and the floors are pale grey. Together with the LED lighting, this gives the impression of daylight.

Various measures have been employed to curb noise levels in the factory as well. For instance, the flooring was treated to reduce the noise of logistics vehicles – and quieter electric screwdrivers are now used instead of pneumatic ones. “We recently had a visit from a manager in the semi-conductor industry”, explains Aldric Pavec. “She could scarcely believe that tractors could be built in such a clean and quiet environment.”

The changes have gone down very well with the workforce too. “The staff are very proud of the modernised factory", says site manager Etienne Bourasseau. “We often hear that they now feel really welcome, and that has improved the workplace culture even further. I have often seen fitters in the factory taking selfies.”

Aldric Pavec can confirm this. “We recently conducted interviews to find new fitters”, he explains. “Several candidates had already worked in many other factories in Le Mans. They told us that our factory is now considered to be the best pace to work in the city.”

A day in the life of the Le Mans factory

CLAAS Forth set to continue

The fact that CLAAS Forth has now been extended to other areas of the factory shows how popular it is with the workforce. Refurbishment of the assembly hall for tractor cabs has been underway since February 2021 – at the initiative of the staff.

The "Cabin Optimization Project" is led by Gilles Drouyer. "This project is closely aligned with CLAAS Forth principles”, says the 30-year-old engineer, who has worked for CLAAS for five years. “Involving the workforce in the planning is paramount."

That's why two skilled workers are permanent members of the project team. Jeremy Legendre is one of them. The 30-year-old works in Production and likes his new role. “It's interesting to see daily operations from another perspective”, he says.

The "Cabin Optimization Project" will be completed in March 2023. "I'm looking forward to seeing the upgrades to our part of the factory', says Jeremy Legendre.

Like the CLAAS Forth initiative, Gilles Drouyer and Jeremy Legendre's project aims to prepare the factory for the future. In the next few years, the company plans to expand production in Le Mans – from the current 10,000 to 13,000 tractors a year.

Romane Niepceron is looking forward to the new developments too. The 27-year-old has been working at the Le Mans factory for five years and was recently promoted to parts commissioning specialist. “The factory is a good place to develop your career”, she says – another reason why she likes it here.

Five facts about Le Mans

1.

Le Mans is the capital of Sarthe, a department in the Pays de Loire region of North Western France – it lies about 200 km south west of Paris. With 146,000 inhabitants in the city itself and 201,000 in the metropolitan area as a whole, Le Mans is ranked the 20th largest city in France.

2.

Le Mans is twinned with Paderborn – where CLAAS Industrietechnik has its headquarters. Europe's oldest known city partnership dates back to 836 when Aldrich, Bishop of Le Mans, and Badurad, Bishop of Paderborn, formed a “union of eternal brotherhood” between their dioceses. It came about when in 836 the bones of a saint were transported in solemn procession from Le Mans to Paderborn, which had no relics at the time.

3.

The city is known throughout the world for the 24-hour endurance race. This competition has been held in mid-June every year since 1923 – on public roads which are closed for this purpose. The Drivers’ Parade takes place on the eve of the race, when spectators have a chance to meet the drivers and their cars.

4.

The FFSA Academy is Le Mans’ training centre for racing drivers. It has produced three winners of the 24-hour race: Romain Dumas, Benoît Tréluyer and Marcel Fässler.

5.

Agriculture is the largest employer in Sarthe. The whole spectrum of this sector is represented, from livestock and the food industry to winegrowing, tree nurseries and market gardens. The second largest employer is the automotive industry.

Impressions