Top 100: Meet the Bosch - garden machinery operation stays at cutting edge
11:09 23 September 2014
Stowmarket is the global base for German manufacturer Bosch’s lawn and garden business. This has been a year of transition for the site, which has launched a robotic mower using technology from its hi-tech automotive arm and is about to unveil a ‘pro’ battery-powered mower for the professional and commercial market while transferring its cheap-end mower operations to Hungary and China. SARAH CHAMBERS visited the factory.
Bosch’s lawn and garden operation at Stowmarket has enjoyed considerable success over the last few years.
Overall, the multinational manufacturing giant employs 4,000 “associates” across the UK as part of its 281,000-strong workforce worldwide, including about 350 at its Stowmarket site, which is the global headquarters of its lawn and garden business.
In 2013, Bosch Group, which makes a wide range of products, from automative parts to Worcester boilers to household appliances, saw growth, and despite a long, cold winter which shortened the growing season and resulted in fewer garden tools being sold by retailers overall, Bosch Lawn and Garden, an EADT Top 100 firm, increased its sales by about 3%. A significant proportion of these sales - 35% - were generated from garden products which have been on the market for less than two years. Cordless tools accounted for 35% of sales.
Earlier this year, Peter Fouquet, president of Bosch UK and Ireland, a global manufacturer with 42 sites in the UK, visited the Stowmarket site, where almost half of the company’s entire research and development budget for the UK is spent.
He said the overall buoyancy of the company in 2013 against a tough economic backdrop was in large part down to the firm’s emphasis on the importance of forging ahead with new ideas and product improvements. “This is the source of our success: innovation, innovation, innovation,” he said. “We are proud to say that our innovative strength is the cornerstone of our success.”
Dr Fouquet visited the Stowmarket plant in June to reveal Bosch’s impressive financial results for 2013. Year-on-year globally, sales rose 3.1% in 2013, to reach £36.7billion. Within the UK, turnover growth was even more striking. It grew at a rate of 8.4% to take UK sales to £1.7bn against a UK economic growth rate of 1.9% in 2013, making it the fifth biggest market worldwide for the company.
He was also there to explain how sensor technology was opening up a new era for the German-owned company, which is majority-owned by a charitable foundation, the Robert Bosch Stiftung. Before his death in 1942, founder Robert Bosch decided to convert the business into a vehicle to support good causes. Bosch is not a publicly-listed company, and this, says its management, gives it entrepreneurial independence to develop over the long term and invest in the future.
The site at Stowmarket was the “natural choice” to highlight Bosch’s technological advances, said Dr Fouquet, “not only because it is the home of one of our most pioneeering products, the robotic lawn mower, but it is also an example of a British manufacturing plant from where a range of innovative products are designed, manufactured and distributed across the world.”
As Andreas Andorfer, managing director of Bosch Lawn & Garden explained, Bosch is the market leader in electric garden tools, and this is as a result of the site’s focus on research and development.
Bosch came to Stowmarket in 1995, when it purchased mower makers ATCO Qualcast Ltd, and since then has built up a thriving manufacturing centre which builds products to order. It first started producing its own Bosch branded lawn mower manufactured in Stowmarket in 1998. Items are turned around within hours, with factory workers normally operating in 12-strong assembly teams, based on a u-shaped system, who organise themselves. They will make 200 to 300 pieces a day within a large, 15,000sq m open-plan space. Every part of the manufacturing process is carefully evaluated, and in 2012, a large overhead conveyor belt system was installed by PCE Automation Ltd at Beccles to move products around the factory floor.
About 80% of the mowers the factory makes are exported, and most of its component suppliers are within a small radius of the site. Because the firm makes to order, and there are seasonal highs and lows, and the workforce is bolstered by agency workers when volumes pick up. At the height of demand, it will employ up to 230 or so extra staff.
“This gives flexibility and speed and I think this is the right thing to do especially in a seasonal business where sometimes customers have difficulties to forecast the weather,” said Dr Fouquet. “During the season we are also hiring some agency workers to keep with this high demand. We are manufacturing about 70% of our volume in a period of 12 weeks.”
This year, the factory has been going through a major transition, transferring the manufacture of cheap-end gardening products to Hungary and China, while moving forward with new high-end mowers which have been developed at the Suffolk plant. A small number of jobs went - around 20 - but the overall emphasis is on moving into a potentially more lucrative growth area in the market through innovative products such as the Indego robotic lawn mower and a battery-powered professional mower which should see business expand over the longer term. The site will continue to develop and improve its product range, particularly in the cordless sector.
Mr Andorfer said there would be some bridging as the new ranges are ramped up, and it remained to be seen how the new products will perform in the market over time.
“We might have some adjustment, but in general I think we’ll be quite stable,” he said.
Earlier this year, the workforce stood at 390 but now stands at 350. As well as the 20 which went as part of the restructure, there are also natural fluctuations in employment at Bosch sites around the world. These fluctuations are due to movements among its international marketing and technical project teams and graduates interns fulfilling their location experience, the firm says.
However, the Stowmarket site is currently seeking to recruit skilled staff in the areas of product development, engineering and marketing, as it develops along the new path it has set. The firm is seeing double digit growth in its robotic lawn mower sales and sees a bright future for its new products.
The firm’s Gary Rogan described the development of the Indego as “a truly international collaboration”. The machine has more than 1,000 components 80% of which are sourced in the UK.
“Four Bosch facilities have come together to make this, designing and manufacturing here in Stowmarket,” he said.
Sensor technology is playing a big part in Bosch’s plans for the future. Last year, it make more than one billion sensors and expects to increase that by about 30% this year. It sees intelligent sensors, which are fitted in its Indego robotic lawnmower, designed and made at Stowmarket, as central to its future as consumers turn more and more readily towards “smart” technology around their homes, gardens and within their cars.
Bosch is the biggest manufacturer of sensors worldwide, explained Dr Fouquet, and these products can be found in everything from mobile phones to the WAVE control system for the Worcester boiler which enables householders to remotely control their central heating, to the UK-built Nissan Qashqai with its radar sensors which analyse vehicles in front and are part of a braking system called Predictive Emergency Braking.
The Indego lawn mower is packed with a number of sensors to ensure it moves systematically over the lawn. It operates using a ‘lane by lane’ approach rather that the more common, randomised pattern used by other robotic lawn mower. This, say its makers, makes it more efficient and saves on time and energy.
This year, engineers at Stowmarket Bosch’s research and development department beat off fierce competition from engineers from Worcester Bosch, the company’s heating and hot water division, as well as a team from the business’s automotive business, which makes up 60% of the Bosch Group’s turnover, to scoop the company’s Engineering Team of the Year award.
Bosch has committed more than £5million to manufacture the next generation of high-value, hi-tech and British-made lawn and garden products in Stowmarket and the innovation shown by its engineers underlines the importance of this investment, it says.
Starting in the early part of 2012, the team was set the task of improving competitiveness, user experience and product quality of the range, and getting it ready for production by the end of 2013.
Senior development engineer Dave Reynolds and product development engineers Chris Ager, Philip Tonks and Andrew Aristidou used customer feedback from the firm’s existing product range to help them come up with design improvements, including a battery with a 50% longer running time and quick-click handles that do not require a tool to attach them to the lawnmower.
The new lawnmower range, now in the market, led to four new patents being registered by Bosch for the quick-click handles, a deflector guard plug, clip-on wheel assembly and a striping roller. Bosch Group applied for 5,000 patents in 2013, and holds about 1,000 patents on its sensors alone. Last year it put 10% of its sales, about £3.6bn, into research and development.
“Over the past few years, we have consistently invested between 8% and 9% of our total sales into research and development,” said Dr Fouquet. “We are a vast company with a diverse range of products. Today the Bosch Group is active in every continent and has approximately 350 subsidiaries and regional companies in some 60 countries.”
It’s this vast canvas which enables the 70-strong engineering team at Stowmarket to thrive, innovating through a range of products which include the first lithium-ion battery-powered lawn mower and its Isio power tools range, also powered by lithium-ion batteries, using technologies developed across the Bosch product ranges. Within the UK, DIY retail chains Homebase and B & Q are its main customers.
Mr Andorfer said he was “excited” about the future of the Stowmarket plant. with the new products coming on stream, including the new professional mower, which will cut CO2 emissions and noise while providing customers with an economic groundcare product.