MANUFACTURING is now in full flow at Vossloh Locomotives’ new factory at Kiel-Suchdorf with the plant on course to produce its full quota of 40 locomotives this year, and according to managing director, Mr Thomas Schwichtenberg, it is well-placed to serve the Western European diesel locomotive market for the foreseeable future.
The new factory is set to produce a further 44 locomotives in 2019 and Schwichtenberg says it is well-placed for 2020. “We now have lots orders in our order book and this is why we were able to increase the workforce here in Kiel by 15% to around 450 employees,” he says.
Full production began on January 2, two-and-a-half years after the company announced plans to invest €30m in the brand-new facility. Manufacturing was gradually shifted to the new site from July 2017, to avoid what Schwichtenberg describes as a “Big Bang” as production concluded on projects that were already underway.
Vossloh proudly proclaims that the factory is the most modern locomotive production facility in Western Europe. It is certainly a step-change from its previous facility in Kiel, which produced its first locomotive shortly after World War I, and where manufacturing was spread across 12 separate buildings, some of which date from the 19th century.
The new 18,000m² factory keeps production all under one roof, eliminating the need to transfer components and locomotive parts outside between separate manufacturing sites, which was often a problem at the old facility, particularly in Kiel's wet climate. It is also more energy efficient that the old factory with up to 70% less energy used to power the facility’s heating system, although Schwichtenberg said it is too early to say what the efficiency gains will be from the new manufacturing process.
The entire site is designed to minimise the distance between work sites as manufacturing progresses, with cranes positioned to shift components to tracks which run between different manufacturing zones. Among these is sound blasting, the first step before painting which takes place in a specially-developed facility, one of the more expensive investments. Bogies are also manufactured on site while the company has invested €10m in new machinery. Among the most impressive is a new laser system, which is positioned above the work sites and can pinpoint the precise location of individual components, speeding up the work process. Dynamic testing also takes place on site, including for the bogies, as well as auxiliary systems, while the facility has storage for five locomotives and is connected to the main line via an 800m-long track.
The complete manufacturing process for a single unit in the new factory takes 15 weeks, with delivery taking 14 months due to the time it takes to receive components, particularly diesel engines. The objective is for a new locomotive to leave the factory every five days.
Schwichtenberg says Vossloh Locomotives typically receives orders for two to three units from customers which range from leasing, construction and private rail operators and major state railways. Its modular platforms provide the flexibility to meet customer demands. It also offers its own service and leasing agreements.
“Having multiple customers rather than relying on a single state-owned operator is less risky and means that I sleep well at night,” Schwichtenberg says. He adds that the while the facility is focused on the diesel locomotive market, with its diesel-electric variants particularly popular, due to its flexibility to adapt to different operating conditions. The company is also focused on research and development to ensure it keeps up with demand, whether this is for hybrid or natural gas locomotives.
“Currently there is not much demand for hybrid versions but we do expect demand to increase,” Schwichtenberg says. “This isn't the only solution, there might be demand for gas engines, or for locomotives to use a pantograph to connect with the catenary. This would require expensive investments on our part and we aren’t ready to do that right now while demand remains strong for our current portfolio. But diesel isn’t going to be here forever, we understand that, and that is why we are working on new developments.”
One of the biggest challenges facing Vossloh Locomotives is securing sufficiently skilled employees. Schwichtenberg says the company is currently engaged in apprenticeship schemes, which it has doubled in the past four years, and expects to increase by 50% again in the next two years. The company is also working with local universities and engaging with local politicians to make its case and to promote it as a viable employer in the community.
“People are getting older and older and finding new people to replace our current employees is becoming more of a concern," Schwichtenberg says. “We are actively involved in discussions with the mayor and state of Schleswig-Holstein. We also have a close relationship with other companies in Kiel, and we often look to pick up employees laid off elsewhere. Kiel is a small city and has a close community, which has advantages for us.”
While Vossloh's name is firmly above the door in Kiel at present, ownership of the new plant is set to change. In its 2017 annual results announcement on February 16, Vossloh confirmed that with a sale close, Locomotives is classed as discontinued operations. Schwichtenberg says he expects an announcement at some point in 2018 but said it was too early to say when exactly this will go through, and the identity of the prospective buyer.
Whether the deal is confirmed before InnoTrans remains to be seen, but Vossloh Locomotives is set to have a significant presence. Schwichtenberg revealed that among its highlight exhibits will one of the 44 DE18 locomotives it is supplying to Akiem, one of the first to be entirely built at the new factory.
“It is an important show for us and preparations are underway,” he says.