Stihl's operation that makes trimmer mowing heads — the part you tap on the ground to advance the string — requires just one operator to run 27 all-electric injection molding machines.
The vertically integrated manufacturing complex, which also includes assembly lines and metalworking jobs for parts such as crankshafts and pistons, employs a total of 1,900 people, and by the end of this year will use 151 robots. That's four times the level of automation, per worker, than a typical U.S. factory, and a higher robot penetration than Germany, Japan or South Korea, according to Christian Koestler, vice president of operations at Stihl Inc.
“Employees are trained at a very high level, because if you have automation, we organize it in such a way that the employees are still involved. So you can run at high rates,” Koestler said. “There's always a material handling component to it, so instead of running one station, you might be running four stations.”
Stihl molds and assembles components to feed Stihl assembly lines in the 2.4 million-square-foot Virginia Beach campus, and for the company's factories around the world. That means Stihl's 400-employee plastics operation is a captive molder of everything from engine housings to fuel tanks to decorative shrouds in the signature Stihl orange.
A captive molder is rarely well-known outside of its own company. That's about to change: Stihl Inc. is the newest Plastics News' Processor of the Year Award. Plastics News presented Stihl executives with the award and honored all the finalists Feb. 5 at its Executive Forum in Las Vegas.
Stihl earned high marks from the judges — who are Plastics News reporters and editors — for the categories of technological innovation, employee relations, quality, environmental performance and industry and public service.
Stihl won Processor of the Year over the three other finalists: Evco Plastics Inc., Prism Plastics Inc. and Nicolet Plastics Inc. Those three companies are custom injection molders
Although a captive molder, Stihl USA has to compete against — and is measured against — other Stihl factories in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and China, and that includes custom molders that serve them, according to Benjamin Hoffmann, manager of polymer technologies. Stihl USA has reported the highest scores in a key quality metric for the entire Stihl Group for the last seven years, according to the submission for the award. The operation also leads all locations for the least number of defective parts per million.
All Stihl's global plastics operations benchmark against each other. They hold monthly video conference to exchange technology. U.S. employees also can swap jobs with their German colleagues.
Hoffmann nominated his plastics operation for Processor of the Year. His submission gave an outstanding level of detail and quantification, to paint a picture of a leading U.S. plastics factory where management and employees constantly embrace automation and are not afraid to make changes to improve.
Stihl's submission for the award does a good job of breaking out the plastics operations from the total Stihl USA, which generates sales of more than $1 billion and manufacturers more than 50 percent of Stihl products sold worldwide: including chainsaws, string trimmers, leaf blowers and hedge trimmers for the sectors of forestry, landscape maintenance and construction.
The United States is the company's largest market. But Hoffmann points out that plenty of Virginia Beach-built components and power tools get shipped to other countries.
“Overall half of the finished goods are exported,” Hoffmann said.
Stihl sells power tools through a network of 40,000 full service Stihl dealers in more than 160 countries. You can't buy anything Stihl in a big-box retailer.
“And about 15 to 20 percent of the parts production is exported to other Stihl facilities. When you look at production volumes, we also are the largest producer here in the group,” Hoffmann said.
Stihl runs 89 injection molding machines in two factories in Virginia Beach:
• The 85,000-square-foot main molding plant, dubbed Polymers, has 62 presses — 53 Engels, eight all-electric Milacrons and one Boy, with clamping forces ranging from 10-660 tons. Seventeen of the presses are integrated into complete cells, using six-axis robots. Polymers also runs four Bekum blow molders that turn out fuel talks, oil tanks and tubes for leaf blowers. A welding department operates seven vibration welding cells, five of them automated with six-axis robots.
• The second plastics plant, called Accessories, measuring 40,000 square feet, makes string trimmer components on 27 all-electric Milacron/Fanuc Roboshot presses. Four Davis-Standard extruders make the line, bundled on high-speed spools.