Perfect visibility. This is the challenge that Robert Bosch Produktie N.V., based at Tienen, sets itself on a daily basis as it produces windscreen wipers and wiper arms for both OEM customers and the aftermarket. The sustained effort it has put into meeting this objective over the past five years, with an enormous investment of approx. 24 million euros in transforming its site into a modern production plant, earned it a Factory of the Future Award at the beginning of 2019. The strategy of change adopted by the market leader in developing rubber and windscreen wipers is based on a desire to boost its competitiveness, and in particular, has resulted in an optimal in-line/in-flow production system with minimal waste.

It’s all thanks to ultra-modern production lines and innovative IT applications

Article published in  Motion Control

Strategic transformation

From a conventional windscreen wiper with a “coat hanger design” to a monobeam with a rubber profile on the inside. Over the past 45 years – and it’s a euphemism to say so – the windscreen wiper has undergone a genuine transformation. With the arrival of the jetwiper, this transformation embarked on a new chapter and Tienen-based Robert Bosch Produktie N.V. is now engaged in cutting edge development.

Vice-President Wim Elsen comments: “Bosch Tienen has a tried-and-tested method for adopting new technologies, via an innovation funnel and phase-gate processes. Here, we rely on ultramodern simulations using our own design models and we employ 3D printing to produce rapid prototypes.

We work mainly with multidisciplinary teams, developing processes and products simultaneously, and in the case of new innovation concepts, we also always make sure that we have a concept for both a highly automated line and a manual line, so as to permit production in different regions.”

Factory of the Future

Thanks to its unique development process, Bosch Tienen has managed to implement strategic transformations that have delivered magnificent results, such as the development of new production lines and innovative IT applications. Receiving a Factory of the Future Award represented confirmation of these achievements, and the main effects are apparent in end-to-end customer-focused engineering, advanced manufacturing technologies and the deployment of a digital factory.

Production Strategy

At Tienen, many production processes and stages are carried out in-house. Each time, it all begins with rubber raw materials, and extrusion compounds and profiles are assembled on site. Steel plate leaf springs and stamped parts for wiper arms are also manufactured here. The Belgian production division is also a ‘Centre of Competence’ for a number of processes. New processes are developed on site, and are then extended to other Bosch Group subsidiaries. For competitiveness reasons, the company’s production strategy relies heavily on simultaneous engineering, whereby processes and products are developed simultaneously.

In-line/in-flow production

Thanks to close collaboration between the development and production functions, Robert Bosch Produktie N.V. at Tienen is able to develop products and technologies as processes. Automation, digitalisation and the in-line/in-flow philosophy have played a key role in transforming the company into a manufacturer operating at the cutting edge of technology.

In the case of rubber production, the company has developed its own coating and an associated application process, allowing its in-line application.

Expertise in the field of rubber is being further boosted with investments in new technology (new coating and extrusion technologies), with a view to achieving higher levels of precision in profiles and other materials, together with energy savings and a lower environmental impact. Furthermore, thanks to the latest technologies and production lines, a wide variety of products can be retained for the assembly process. The entire production system has also been equipped with sensors and data capture, to ensure that any anomalies are detected in a timely manner and that the right parts are assembled.

Industry 4.0

As well as collaboration between the development and production functions, connected machines also offer huge potential in the Tienen Factory of the Future. By monitoring data fed from automatic lines in real time, oriented analysis really can initiate an improvement. Thanks to a powerful manufacturing execution system (MES), the Tienen machines generate data that is easy to understand, and monitoring it is child’s play. Mario Dusart, Bosch Production System & Continuous Improvement Manager, says: “Connecting up the MES to our machinery offers a vast range of possibilities. Whereas in the past, a production line stoppage had to be logged by hand, the necessary data is now immediately transmitted to us ‘live’. You also know immediately which sensor is posing a problem and whereabouts in the machine any intervention is needed. Data of this kind enables us to initiate and define improvement activities in a more targeted way, and also permits predictive maintenance over the course of time. Production is also monitored entirely via performance dashboards. This is an extremely practical tool that helps employees with their everyday tasks.”

Smart production

By converting the existing production systems into flexible systems, with self-learning and adaptive learning, Bosch Tienen is banking on demand significantly changing the market. Processes and algorithms are instructed using the available technology and data, and for each order placed, the company manages to deliver a highly specific and bespoke product.

Mario Dusart: “Much of the complexity lies in the very first stage of our production process. This means that flexible and intelligent systems are needed to guarantee a rapid flow of materials. During the leaf spring forming process, algorithms are used, which automatically load the basic settings for the next batch. ‘Bin picking’ has also been adapted in order to optimise the process.

Given that the windscreen wipers come in a variety of lengths, spoilers are now purchased in bulk. Thanks to ‘intelligent cameras’, our machines now know exactly which spoiler is in the correct selection position, and they can then import it rapidly and efficiently into the production process, without any interruption.”

The process of applying coating to the rubber also adopts an ‘intelligent’ approach. By measuring the amount of coating on the rubber at fixed points along the production process, the latter can be adapted in a timely manner if necessary.

Expanding into new markets

Thanks to recent investments and developments, Bosch Tienen is now also able to develop new products and offer new services. Its sound knowledge of materials, its expertise in the fields of compounding, extrusion, lacquering and stamping, its knowledge of automation and its expertise in R&D are all contributory factors.

For example, Bosch Tienen recently developed a battery-powered window cleaner. Here, the rubber used for the scrapers fitted to this window cleaner employs the same technology as that used to produce car windscreen wipers. Bosch Tienen is also open to collaboration with third parties, and here, it focuses on the potential benefits created for the customer using the available skills.

Standing still means falling behind

Lastly, in seeking continuous improvement in the value chain, Bosch Tienen devotes a great deal of attention to its deployment policy and to training. Business cases are defined three times a year and the whole team considers what the next stages should be in improving the process, how operational KPI can be improved and precisely what the value flow should look like.

Moreover, to ensure that this special ‘improvement wheel’ keeps on turning, fixed times are scheduled each week for project work and for process confirmation.