The metamorphosis of a WWII bomber plant for truck brakes

On an exclusive Meritor press trip to Europe, I had the opportunity to tour the company's truck brake plant in Cwmbran, United Kingdom - a city in the region of Torfaen, Wales. The plant began producing vehicle brakes in 1954 and air disc brakes for commercial vehicles in 1988, but its history dates back to 1942 when it was built by brake manufacturer Lucas' military division to build ball turrets for English Lancaster bombers.

Following World War II, Lucas transferred its brakes division from Birmingham, UK, to Cwmbran. Then, in 1999, the Cwmbran brakes business was sold to Meritor - a leading global supplier of drivetrain, mobility, braking and aftermarket solutions for commercial vehicle and industrial markets (www.meritor.com).

The plant's 330 shop personnel have an average weekly production of nearly 9,100 air disc brakes (ADBs), 2,800 drum brakes and 2,000 brake related products. In addition to manufacturing brake carriers and operating shafts, the plants assembles disc and drum brakes for truck and trailer OEMs and other Meritor facilities.

The products are sold throughout Europe, the United States, Brazil, China, Korea, Japan, Australia, India, Canada and Turkey. (Meritor has an ADB plant in the York, S.C.) All Meritor brakes are a modular family to reduce parts count complexity.

Meritor's share of the European ADB market is currently 20 percent, said Dr. Laszlo Straub, senior director sales & strategy, Meritor heavy vehicle braking systems, Europe. The company believes it can double that market share by 2017.

Major manufacturers are moving European technology to global territories, including North and South America, both of which are experiencing a slow but steady transition to ADBs and Asia for some applications, but there is no clear trend, he noted and added that Europe is center of excellence for air disc brake technology.

Interior improvements

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the plant is its transformation from a typical old-time manufacturing plant - dark, dirty and noisy - to one that is quiet, well-lit (through new lighting and natural lighting), clean and safe - there have been no lost time incidents over the past two years.

Meritor has made a $58 million investment in updating the plant, Gwyn Gardiner, the plant manager told me. Plant size is being reduced from 500,000 square feet to 300,000 feet, while production is increasing with the use of new, more modern, automated manufacturing equipment and a new layout that enhances collaboration between groups and allows shop personnel to be more efficient.

By way of example, Gardiner showed me how, with a new equipment arrangement, two people can now operate five machines rather than just one, as had been the case.

With regard to improved safety, the number of forklifts used in the plant has been reduced from 42 to 19, and forklifts will eventually be eliminated from the manufacturing area replaced by just tugs. Forklifts had been a main cause of accidents, he said.

At the same time, material movements within the plant have been minimized, simplified and optimized. Heavy vehicle traffic at the plant is all one-way, virtually eliminating the need for vehicle maneuvering.

In addition, plant officials have taken a holistic approach to external and internal logistics, with a smooth flow of materials for a reduced lead time.

Capabilities

The testing, engineering and R&D competencies at Cwmbran have been updated as well, with advanced technical capabilities and equipment so more can be accomplished in less time, I was told by Dietmar Knoop, head of research & development, Meritor heavy vehicle braking systems, United Kingdom.

He noted that the test laboratory has a drive-through garage that allows for very fast vehicle checks and release of field data capture. The garage's layout has been optimized for efficiency.

New investments in equipment have included a $1.5 million NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) dynamometer and a $1 million three-axis shaker.

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