Knorr-Bremse signalled its intention to become a major player in remanufacturing a few years ago – and with its new facility in the Czech Republic up and running, those plans are coming to fruition, with everything geared towards ensuring customers get the best-value whole-life costs.
Knorr-Bremse has long been known for manufacturing braking systems for commercial vehicles but, until recently at least, was not a major player in remanufacturing. That began to change when the company signalled its interest in the market a few years ago. “We have a clear aftermarket strategy looking at the total cost of ownership for the truck and trailer,” explains Knorr-Bremse reman director Daniel Koehler. “Remanufacturing fits seamlessly with Knorr-Bremse’s general approach in respect of sustainability, customer service and environmental awareness. Remanufacturing is a complete match for the strategy.”
This is easy to say – but the company has put its money where its mouth is. A 12,000 sq m remanufacturing facility in Liberec, a town near the border between the Czech Republic and Germany, was built from scratch and opened in 2015. It combines administrative offices, production hall and warehousing facilities, and Knorr-Bremse cites the central location - giving the company easy access to European markets – as well as a flexible and skilled workforce as the reasons for choosing the region. Around 100 people are employed at the site, making this a significant reman operation. “Disassembly is still quite labour-intensive,” points out Koehler. “We invested several million euros and we are still ramping up. Expansion will happen but not in the near future – we have enough capacity to grow at the existing site.” Liberec is going to figure very significantly in Knorr-Bremse’s future plans: the company thinks it will be nothing less than a European base for a range of remanufacturing operations that will establish the group as a leader in this industry. Peter Laier, member of the executive board of Knorr-Bremse, has indicated how serious the company is about reman. “Our new plant offers enough space and capacity to continuously extend the portfolio and integrate new product lines. This reflects our aim to become a major player in the remanufacturing business.” Certainly, everything in the company’s reman portfolio will be handled there: from calipers for trucks and trailers to electronic braking system modules and air controls right through to oil separator cartridges. For Koehler, having a dedicated facility for reman makes perfect sense. “Core sorting, disassembly, cleaning and so on – these are specialisms and you need the mindset, people and technologies to achieve this. The strategic decision taken some years ago is clearly visible in our aftermarket strategy for truck services. For every strategic product, we plan to have a reman version in future. Reman is quite accepted – it is not a new message in the European market.” When it comes to reman braking systems, customers might once have been more reluctant to dip their toes into the water, but this is changing as cost pressures force companies to look seriously at cheaper alternatives. “Every euro counts,” he says. “We want to keep them running for the vehicle owner or operator. And now we have reman version to offer customers, aiming especially at older vehicles. The trucks are getting older because the quality is increasing.”
Koehler has a strong pedigree in reman: he worked as an engineering scientist under Rolf Steinhilper, ReMaTec’s current Remanufacturer of the Year, and the University of Bayreuth’s outgoing chair of Manufacturing and Remanufacturing. In fact, Steinhilper was his ‘doctor-father’, the supervising professor for his PhD, which looked at regenerative supply chains, and this influence is clear. “It was great working with Rolf,” he enthuses. “There was always that vision to be one step ahead, with a scientific engineering approach that was also pragmatic.” Koehler then spent a year in China, ramping up the reman business of a large recycling company in Guangdong - a reman pilot enterprise of the Chinese government. He was headhunted by Knorr-Bremse after his stint in the Far East and began work in the company’s remanufacturing department in 2014, becoming a major driving force behind both the expansion of the Liberec plant and of Knorr-Bremse’s reman strategy more generally. Managing director Matthias Sander has been in charge of the operational development of Knorr-Bremse in the Czech Republic and Liberec since the beginning. This has been a complicated, wide-reaching task which has included the transfer and upgrading of machinery and tools from different Knorr-Bremse operations in Europe. Alongside this has been the installation of additional new machinery, workshop design and installations, workforce recruitment and training, the release of over 100 new remanufactured components and organising more than five dozen new remanufacturing production processes and value streams. “A lot of customers visiting us tell us, that we have one of Europe’s most modern, most efficient as well as largest reman facilities,” Sander says. “With our central position, we enjoy easy access to most of Europe. The local workforce is skilled and motivated and Liberec is not far from other Knorr-Bremse facilities which means that we can easily draw on their expertise and experience.”
Challenges and opportunities
Integrating a whole new workforce into an existing corporate structure – and into a skills-oriented industry like reman – poses challenges as well as opportunities. In both respects the team in Liberec has proved up to the task. They have been met by detailed application of Knorr-Bremse’s corporate standards and existing technical procedures and specifications. Under the theme of ‘quality first’, countless hours have been invested in carrying out risk and process analyses and fine-tuning investment plans. Further efforts are directed towards familiarising operators with Knorr-Bremse’s culture, discussing process audits and identifying improvement potential. As part of this, regular meetings for all product groups and business units include knowledge of and compliance with Knorr-Bremse’s five core values. “These are ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘passion’, ‘technical excellence’, ‘reliability’ and ‘responsibility’,” Sander explains. “As is the case with the rest of the Knorr-Bremse organization, this applies to us, too. Over just two years I think we have been rather good at complying with the core values. I have no doubt that they will serve us well as we build up remanufacturing as an important factor in the European commercial vehicle industry.” Knorr-Bremse already has a long reach: the group has reman operations in North America and Mexico via its subsidiary Bendix (ReMaTecNews, October/November 2016), for example. “As is the case with many others of the world’s large parts suppliers, we want to help our customers extend their vehicles’ lifetime as long as possible,” Koehler says. “That means that we must be ready to supply them with the right parts at the right price at the right time. Remanufacturing is therefore one pillar of our aftermarket strategy to provide lifetime efficiency – reliable products and services adjusted to the vehicle value and its lifetime cycle.”
To further underscore its commitment to reman, Knorr-Bremse recently launched its new reman program EconX as part of its TruckServices aftermarket brand. Being an OEM is clearly a big help to Knorr-Bremse’s reman activities. “Of course!” Koehler continues. “We have the product know-how, the complete design history. It is challenging or impossible for the independent remanufacturer to handle those details. We developed these products and we know from our testing how much durability is still there. All off this helps to find an approach to reman on a high level – what we call ‘genuine’ reman.” This is increasingly important when dealing with mechatronics, he believes. “When the product operates in a software system, you have data and compliance issues, compatibility issues, emergency signals that an independent remanufacturer might not know. We don’t have these €1 million testing benches for fun!” That is not all. Knorr-Bremse, like many other OEMs which are moving into reman, is considering expanding its reach outside of its own products. “Definitely, it’s an open secret,” laughs Koehler. “We have a dedicated reman facility, with dedicated industrial engineering – customers are asking for it. For everyone who is seriously looking at reman, it’s on the agenda. The question for everybody is ‘when’, not ‘if’.”
Knorr-Bremse’s Commercial Vehicle Systems division supplies braking systems for trucks, buses, trailers and agricultural vehicles as well as powertrain-related solutions, including torsional vibration dampers for diesel engines. It has more than 9,600 staff and is active in more than 20 countries around the globe. Last year the division generated sales revenues of €2.52 billion.