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Company Magazine

Working in Corona Mode

In times of the rampant coronavirus, it is a completely new challenge to slowly start production in the ZF plants again. A look behind the scenes shows how this can be achieved with extended health protection for employees.
Shutdown. Hardly any other word is used more frequently in current business reporting than this one. The massive reducing of companies’ activities in response to the coronavirus has been paralyzing the economy in large parts of the world for months. ZF is also affected by it.

Since some customers recently announced that they would be resuming operations, ZF is also in the process of preparing everything for work according to the order situation or has already done so. Demand for ZF products is currently only sporadic and at a very low level - no comparison to the usual ordered quantities. Four examples from the ZF Group show how the company is on one hand starting production again under difficult conditions and on the other hand protecting its employees as best as possible.

temperature

Where the minimum distance of 1.5 meters cannot be maintained, Plexiglas panes separate the employees.

Sharp drop in production almost everywhere

After a one-month production break, four ZF locations around Lake Dümmer in Lower Saxony resumed production on a small scale in the last week of April. This was done to process urgent customer orders from Asia. In the few active production lines, markings on the floor provide the necessary safety clearance. In addition, there are partition walls made of Plexiglas panes. Where the minimum distance of 1.5 meters cannot be maintained for production reasons, employees are given face masks by the company.

Compared to the previous months, however, the capacity utilization of the five plants is currently only up to ten percent. Dr. Peter Holdmann, Head of the Car Chassis Technology Division and responsible for the locations around the Dümmer: "Customer call-offs are still modest and fluctuate greatly. However, we are set up in such a way that we are able to meet our customers' requirements flexibly, but also to manufacture and deliver at optimized costs.

Chinese ZF plants have almost overcome the Corona crisis

Compared to the situation in Lower Saxony, the 40 ZF locations in China are already significantly further along. For example, the plant in Zhangjiagang in Jiangsu Province already started up again on February 10. This is where brakes as well as seat belts and airbags are produced. In April, ZF Zhangjiagang's production volume level has recovered to more than 90 percent of the original operational planning for this month. However, it was a long way to go until then.

In addition to the central and regional corona expert teams at ZF, management at the Zhangjiagang plant established a COVID-19 task force. Members of this group, among other things, monitored the employee health status before resuming work and procured hygiene items such as face masks, disinfectants, and thermometers. The team also took care of the plant entrance control and the twice a day measurement and recording of body temperature. There is even an isolation area for employees with suspicious symptoms.

What was most difficult during the ramp-up? "The biggest challenges during the start-up phase were the labor shortage of manpower due to the COVID-19 checks, employee health protection, the procurement of face masks and disinfectants, and logistics," recalls plant manager Simon Song. Those responsible in Europe and in North and South America are now also benefiting from the experience gained in China.

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Distance and face masks protect employees during the production of safety belts, here at the Chinese ZF plant of Zhangjiagang.

Prevent infection with coronavirus at the workplace at all costs

Thus, health protection during production ramp-up also plays a central role for ZF colleagues on the other side of the world. At the Gray Court plant in South Carolina, ZF produces automatic transmissions for passenger cars. After a complete shutdown, one of the four production lines resumed operations in the last week of April. Gradually, the other lines will follow, the last one in the second half of June – at least that is the plan.

"Whenever we expand our production – we are well prepared to return to work for our customers while ensuring the best possible health protection for our employees."
— Thomas Joos, plant manager ZF Gray Court, USA

A wide range of protective measures for the employees accompany the production planning. These include the installation of Plexiglas barriers as well as the attachment of dispensers for hand disinfection or temperature measurement for employees as soon as they enter the factory premises. Gone are the days when six employees sat opposite each other at each of the long tables in the breakrooms. Now a thick green cross with the text "Designated Seating" is stuck to the end of each table on the opposite side, where seating is only permitted. "Whenever we expand our production – we are well prepared to return to work for our customers while ensuring the best possible health protection for our employees," says plant manager Thomas Joos.

Production of all gearbox variants with a reduced number of employees

ZF’s main plant for passenger car automatic transmissions in Saarbrücken is also ready for a return to normality, even if this is still a long way off. "At present, our capacity utilization is around 80 percent. But that only applies to this week, as we are pooling in production," says plant manager Alexander Wortberg, immediately dampening all too high hopes. It is simply more effective to produce larger quantities on a weekly basis and then to completely suspend production again in other weeks. Even in the current time of crisis, the Saarbrücken-based company is producing all variants of ZF’s 8-speed automatic transmission, although around 70 percent of the employees at the site are on short-time work.

Efficient and cost-effective control of tough operating conditions

Because customer call-offs fluctuate daily, the crisis response team at the plant also reacts flexibly in its planning. ZF stays in contact with its roughly 9000 employees at the Saarbrücken plant via an information system set up at a very early stage; communication is important for short-term capacity planning. As in all ZF plants that are in operation, strict rules apply here, too. And structural measures have been taken to minimize the risk of infection with the corona virus. Like many colleagues at ZF, plant manager Wortberg and his team are currently experiencing a unique situation: "It is a challenge to efficiently control production in a plant of our size and with this variance in this phase characterized by highly fluctuating call-offs and to avoid unnecessary costs. It is also a great technical challenge to shut down and restart the plant in such short intervals. The high level of technical competence and the great cohesion of the team is the reason why we succeed."