GOHFELD, GERMANY - ContiTech Formpolster GmbH may not have found a silver lining in the black clouds over its burning Gohfeld polyurethane foam plant in 1994, but it discovered how to turn the misfortune into a springboard for a more efficient operation. The firm, a flexible polyether PU foam processor for the furniture, automotive and other speciality applications, took advantage of having a ``clean sheet of paper'' in the foam processing area of the plant and redesigned the work flow, improving efficiency and flexibility, said Dietmar Hermann, managing director of the unit.
A measurable part of the 10 million deutsche marks (US$7 million) invested in the unit to rebuild and re-equip was spent on automating the confectioning processes and broadening the unit's capabilities in response to increasing demand for specialty cuts, shorter runs and just-in-time delivery schedules. Satisfying the latter demand has meant setting up a satellite unit at a furniture customer's factory, where the foam components are cut and sized in a room adjacent to the customer's assembly lines and delivered through a door connecting the two.
Such arrangements are likely to become more common in the future, as part of foamers' efforts to help their customers retain manufacturing/assembly in Germany, Hermann said.
``There's been a noticeable exodus of furniture-making capacity to Poland, the Czech Republic or other Eastern European sites from where they re-import back to Germany and other western European markets,'' he said.
This loss of customer capacity, combined with increased competition from foamers in Italy, Denmark or other neighboring countries, is a double-barreled barrier for a company rebuilding from a major fire.
``Our goal after the fire was to not lose a single customer,'' Hermann said. ``And we're proud to say we achieved this goal.''
The July 19, 1994, fire - caused by an electrical defect in a machine in the confectioning area - interrupted production only temporarily. The actual foaming line was not damaged, and ContiTech was able to shift post-foam processing to satellite facilities. Insurance covered the damages.
The fire caused other problems, said Hans Engelbrecht, factory manager. The firm was awaiting delivery of a new FoamMax unit from Laader-Berg Ltd. at the time of the fire. The cleanup from the blaze delayed delivery and installation of the equipment, Engelbrecht said, but more serious delays came in the form of a review of the building and operating permits already issued, as well as stricter fire prevention and safety measures.
Among the enhanced measures at the plant are fire-extinguishing systems through-out the plant, and an encap-sulated, 40-ton capture basin at the raw materials delivery port.