With the future of the country still very much in question, it is reassuring to hear that there is likely to be life in UK manufacturing beyond the Brexit deadline. FUCHS Lubricants has taken a different route to many of its contemporaries by deciding to invest heavily in its Stoke-on-Trent manufacturing facility. The company invited CVW to the plant to see what it has planned.
FUCHS Lubricants takes great pride in claiming that it is the ‘number one independent lubricant manufacturer in the world’. Although this refers to the larger FUCHS Group, a multi-billion pound business spread across the globe, this mentality is perfectly represented in the UK facility that resides in the town of Hanley, just north of Stoke-on-Trent.
Lubricant production, in various guises, has been at the site for some time. However, over the past two years, FUCHS has made some noticeable developments, starting with new offices modelled on the company’s Mannheim headquarters. This construction marked the start of an investment plan that would see £10 million injected into the FUCHS Group’s UK facility, thus building on what was already a thriving area of the business.
The modern way
On arrival, it became immediately apparent that the company is looking to modernise. The glass walls of the new office buildings certainly fit the claim made by our tour guide for the day, Andy Brown, Automotive Technical Manager: “As it stands, this is the most modern lubricant production facility in the UK. I can say this because we are one of the few companies that actually manufacture lubricants here on UK soil. There are big names within the industry that distribute from and in the UK, but only a handful import the raw materials to blend on site.”
Andy continued, “As you might expect, manufacturing requires a great deal of space and, up until now, we had enough to get by. This has changed. Given the success of the European market, the guys in Germany decided to invest in what we have here. We have the capacity to manufacture 120 million litres per year on a single shift, and currently we are operating at about three quarters of that. This generates a huge amount of stock, and we need the necessary systems in place to allow us to deal with these figures. Now, we will see exactly how this is done.” Introduction complete, we donned the appropriate safety gear and headed out.
It’s all about packaging
First stop was the packaging plant. Lined with barrels, the warehouse currently has enough space to hold 5,000 pallet locations, with this set to increase once the new raw materials storage is finished. However, it was another investment entirely that really stood out as we walked through the building. Drifting along the aisles were fully automated forklifts, transporting the many litres of lubricant produced within the plant each day. Added to this, and a little further down the production line were automated robotic arms, designed purely to aid with packing the product ready for distribution.
Andy explained, “Our forklifts and production lines always receive a lot of attention from visitors, but they are by no means a PR stunt. Automation is a crucial part of manufacturing. The option of having this technology has meant we have been able to respond to an increase in customer demands, especially when it comes to the Lube Cube.”
Staying in control
Having efficient and suitable packaging is one thing, but having a high quality lubricant that can stand up to the rigours of commercial vehicle life is another thing entirely. You got the impression that quality control (QC) was a crucial link in the production chain for FUCHS. The company had recently invested in new equipment for its QC laboratory, including a number of complicated machines, called automatic viscometers.
Andy provided insight into exactly what such an investment can do for the rest of the enterprise: “I understand from our QC technicians that these machines save a huge amount of time on every job that comes through. They form an integral part in the process of ensuring our products do exactly what they say on the packaging. Every single batch that is blended here is tested to ensure it conforms to the required specifications demanded by the vehicle manufacturers. We even keep a sample so that we have full traceability should a problem be reported further down the line.
“QC rules the roost really. If they find even the most miniscule of flaws within a lubricant batch, they stop the production process until they find out what’s wrong. Because this area of FUCHS is so important, we have decided to double the size of the lab, in order to speed up our production capabilities even more.”
A combined approach
Leaving the QC laboratory behind, we entered the control room. From this area, overlooking the packaging facility, the whole production process is carefully monitored. The team here tracks exactly how much of each raw material goes into each batch, what the required ratio needs to be and lastly, how much of the final product is produced. The size of the batch is dictated by predictive sales figures that have been derived from previous years, and brings the lubricant production process full circle.
Andy elaborated on this point as he led us through the last stop of the tour, the company’s extensive Research & Development laboratories: “FUCHS understands that every stage of the production process is crucial to the ‘bigger picture’. One of the greatest threats to independent lubricant manufacturers in the UK at the moment is the increasing variety of specifications coming through from the VMs. These days, it is very difficult for smaller outfits to keep up with these demands, with the one-size-fits-all solution no longer working.
“In steadfast response, FUCHS has taken the bold approach of investing in and backing itself during difficult times. Brexit is of course the word on everyone’s lips, but even that shouldn’t have too much of an effect on our business – tariffs on raw materials will likely be far less prohibitive than those on finished products that require importing. Despite these challenges, FUCHS is in a great position to continue its upward trajectory with the rest of the incoming investment plan, providing further justification to the claim that we are the ‘number one independent lubricant manufacturer in the world’.”
FUCHS’ Lube Cube is a new recyclable packaging solution that is not only better for the environment than traditional plastic packaging, but is also more cost effective. Essentially, the outer shell is a cardboard box, which inside, holds a plastic, vacuum-sealed bag filled with the lubricant of choice. A tap is incorporated into the bag to ensure that when it is used, the lubricant within the bag remains under vacuum, prolonging shelf life. Thanks to the Lube Cube’s shape, users reduce the amount of storage space required for lubricant stock, whilst the materials used mean waste disposal costs are reduced by a reported 98% and 100% if the internal bag is washed with a mild detergent.