The boss is coming! Has something gone wrong?—In the past, it’s probable that the appearance of plant management in production triggered a queasy feeling in some. Today, however, there is no sign of this when Peter Knieknecht strides through the hightech production hall of one of the largest MAHLE plants in Europe. On the contrary: the employees encounter the Head of the Mühlacker plant without reservations. They greet each other openly with a handshake, briefly exchange words—sometimes on private matters, too. And if something is not running as it should, the “boss” gets to hear about it directly during his regular rounds. “Our open approach is one of the most important changes here at the location and is definitely part of our success,” explains Knieknecht, who has been working at Mühlacker, located roughly 30 kilometers west of Stuttgart, since 2001.


Changes are part of everyday life here. In MAHLE’s leading thermal management plant, around 1,300 employees manufacture a wide variety of products—from cooling components through to complete modules. Components from Mühlacker are installed by vehicle manufacturers all over the world. Mühlacker is a location where labor costs are high, which means it needs to offer efficiency and flexibility in order to hold its own in the top league of the automotive industry. It simply can’t afford to stand still. So it’s not surprising that the focus here is more on implementing complex ideas in an innovative way to create maximum added value for the automotive industry and internal customers.

Powerful production technologies, lean processes, and a production system that is being continuously refined over the years have long been a matter of course at Mühlacker, forming the basis for high quality and delivery reliability. At the end of the day, however, it’s not the technologies and processes that are pivotal, but the people behind them who, through their committed teamwork and ongoing exchange of knowledge and experience, are contributing to our success story on a daily basis.

“The cost pressure is tremendous. If we don’t constantly improve, then we’re out of the race,” Production Supervisor Patrick Lachnit says, putting it in a nutshell, and points at a man-high structure with glittering aluminum fins and two tubes at the top corners. What looks like an oversized heater blower with ram horns, is in reality an impressive cooling module for a DAF truck.


Production and assembly is done on one level. “The shortest possible distances save time and space,” explains Production Manager Vincenzo Sabetta. Over the last few years, production has been constantly optimized according to the basic “one-pieceflow” principle—just one of many modifications. After final assembly, the finished giant coolers thus only need to be brought through one single gate before they stand in the courtyard, ready for shipment. The preparation of such optimizations is meanwhile done using 3D scanners—just one example of how Industry 4.0 has since been adopted in everyday plant life.

However, competitive advantage is not created by low-cost production alone. “The individual folded tubes on the cooler have a totally new shape,” Sabetta points out a detail. This saves up to 25 percent in weight. The cooling capacity is also greater, which in turn improves the performance of the engine and ensures the strict Euro VI emission standard is met. A cooler is much more than just a frame with a few flat tubes to cool down the temperatures of the hot fluids from the engine area. This becomes apparent when you look over Dieter Essig’s shoulder. The experienced machine setter carefully examines a metal strip bent in the shape of a concertina. “The height must be exact and the gills need to have a clean form,” he says, explaining the purpose of the inspection. Gills? Sure enough, each metal strip consists of a delicate structure with fine incisions—just like gills. This improves the air permeability and increases the cooling capacity.


A lot has changed for Essig since his first day at the plant way back in April 1980. Back then, masters behaved more like patriarchs. Discussions were the exception. “Today, I am specifically asked for my opinion,” says Essig, describing the culture change, and adds: “This also means, however, that each of us has considerably more responsibility.” Patrick Lachnit — a Supervisor who is responsible for 35 employees — also appreciates this open dialog: “I would have had problems with the former type of interaction,” he admits. What’s more, this leadership style would no longer lead to the desired result. On the contrary: “We can only improve ourselves and save costs if we all pull together and everyone fully participates,” Lachnit stresses.

The change in Mühlacker is also impacting training manager Rüdiger Weik’s training workshop. Industry 4.0 is already included in the young people’s curriculum. “While they are still using the filing vice as before, the young people are simultaneously learning how handle a robot, among other things,” explains Weik. Yet, not only the curriculum, but also the tone or attitude toward the young people have changed. Nowadays, instructors treat the trainees differently. “Today, it’s more about coaching the youngsters find the right path to the solution, rather than just defining what’s right and what’s wrong. We therefore see ourselves more as learning partners than as master teachers,” states Weik. Saying that, the instructors still need to establish a few basic rules: “We make it quite clear that they are not allowed to play around on their smartphones while working,” Weik grins about this newfangled fad, which is banned from his training workshop.


To ensure team thinking benefits the entire plant, Peter Knieknecht and his management colleagues have redefined the nature of teamwork and have even imposed appropriate rules of late. “That was quite an adjustment,” the manager admits. No phones or laptops during meetings is just one example of how these rules are implemented in everyday working life. The change goes much deeper, however. “Today, entrepreneurial thinking encompasses all areas and concerns every single one of us,” notes Knieknecht. “We can only deal with the market pressure if we all pitch in.” Speed and versatility define everyday life in Mühlacker today. “In 1980, we had two products in our range. Today, there are a good 80”, machine setter Essig says, describing the change. “What’s more, not only are the products becoming increasingly more complex, but the work is getting more intricate because the raw materials are not only expensive but also difficult to process,” clarifies Knieknecht. “Vehicle manufacturers expect Mühlacker to deliver solutions that are as easy and cost-effective as possible.”


Nadine Michels, Quality Manager in the area of exhaust gas heat exchangers and vacuum brazing, has been observing the growing pressure for more than ten years. “The requirements have increased significantly,” she notes in retrospect. What’s more, flexibility and the ability to quickly adapt to market changes are more in demand than ever. Nadine Michels underpins this with the example of a palm-sized aluminum part, behind which an exciting development is concealed. “The demand for such battery coolers has increased considerably within a short period of time,” she explains. These new MAHLE products, which are to be used in small electric vehicles in China, are brazed under special conditions, i.e., in a vacuum. Top precision is called for here. “If something goes wrong, a whole batch is affected at the same time—with correspondingly high costs,” notes Michels in explaining the challenge.

Such complex products and production processes are created together with the developers in Stuttgart using state-of-the art CAD technology. The requirements for new products: high mechanical strength, low material usage, and the lowest possible production costs. Innovative approaches are being simultaneously sought to give the customer a technical advantage. All of the divisions are involved: from development to production planning, to quality control, and logistics. The optimized processes now also mean that the machine setters can record the latest data from the machines on site using a tablet. They are thus able to detect wear and tear and any deviations at an early stage and react quickly.

And the next change for Mühlacker is already starting to materialize. Following the move of the MAHLE location from nearby Pforzheim, the plant in Kornwestheim is now due to follow. This recent merger will lead to further reorganization in Mühlacker. The facade is already covered with scaffolding, and the cranes have been set up. Dozens of workers dressed in orange are scurrying in and around a construction pit: a clear sign that MAHLE in Mühlacker is once more in the process of reinventing itself. Yet one thing will remain constant behind the old and new walls: only the team wins.

Video: MAHLE Mühlacker

Video is loading