Fuwa’s intrepid investment

Fuwa’s new production site in Taishan may be the most talked about axle manufacturing facility in the world. It is twice as big as the Vatican City State and packed full of high-technology sourced from around the globe; marking the pinnacle of China’s economic growth. And, it does not even work at full steam.

When it first entered the global trailing equipment scene in 1997 as the manufacturer of a one-piece axle beam, Chinese company, Fuwa, could have been seen as just another low-profile mass-producer. The new design was different to the industry standard; and just as with every new brand, Fuwa had to fight for attention.

However, once the forged axle beam hit the road and proved to be a viable alternative to the classic welded design, Fuwa made it onto the industry’s up-and-coming list. Ever since, it has become one of the most influential manufacturers of trailing equipment in the world, dominating the Asian transport scene and eying the world market. Between its start date and through to 2007, Fuwa’s output steadily increased to 2,500 axles per day.

But, the production process and the heavy machinery involved to forge a one-piece axle are still part of Fuwa’s corporate secret. All we know is that Fuwa found a way to forge the entire beam out of one piece, mastering the inherent vulnerability of a welded construction by adjusting the wall thickness accurate to the millimetre. A common axle beam, meanwhile, is normally constructed of two axle stubs that are welded to a hollow axle tube. Fuwa’s design is supposed to provide more stability, increased load capacity and less tare weight than the three-piece solution.

In 2007, the Fuwa board lead by Chairman Wu Zhiqiang decided to invest 5 billion RMB (€0.6 billion) to expand the company’s production capacity and tackle the world market on a grand scale. To streamline the new production, Fuwa recruited ex-ArvinMeritor, Carlisle and Federal Mogul staff and planned a 1-million m2 facility in Taishan, 140km west of Hong Kong.

In April 2009, Fuwa obtained the ISO/TS16949:2002 Quality Control Certificate, and in 2010, the mega-plant commenced operation. However, it will not replace Fuwa’s old plant in Shunde Guangdong – it will complement it.

Why? Because Fuwa is striving for global leadership. To underline the battle call, the young company entered the US market just after the Taishan facility was set up. Led for the most part by former Meritor executives, Fuwa subsidiary AXN, formerly known as Trax, can bank on a largely American team that is in charge of almost all aspects of the Chinese operation from product engineering to sourcing and manufacturing.

Overall, the Fuwa Group now employs more than 3,800 people, including a number of foreign senior management experts and PD engineers from Europe and North America. “Our talents closely collaborate with Chinese elite teams, which ensure that Fuwa accurately grasps various market demands, so Fuwa products can satisfy different countries’ technical requirements,” says Mario Camenzuli, interims manager of Fuwa’s international business. “That’s why we are growing at such a rate.”

As a result, the Taishan facility has become more than just a production plant. It is a melting pot of global axle and suspension know-how, and the new symbol of China’s claim for global market share. Global Trailer was given the opportunity to cast a glance behind the scenes of Fuwa’s high-output plant in Shunde and the 5-billion Yuan facility in Taishan – a guided tour to the heart of the Fuwa corporation.

The tour begins in Shunde, a district situated in the Pearl River Delta in southeast China. Inside the factory, lathes are lined up on a green, linoleum covered floor, and computer-aided hoes work nonstop. The bustling production line traverses the entire building, piecing together Fuwa’s patented one-piece beam axle in a smooth, unceasing motion.

Nearby, automated welding machines are sparking and the golden gleam is reflected in the polished axle stubs that will soon be hidden by a dull, olive wheel end. Countless axles are already stored outside, soon to be key components of trailing equipment somewhere around the globe.
Close by, the R&D department is examining the axles’ deformation resistance in a long-term test set-up. An armada of research personnel is gauging the product accurate to a millimetre, establishing a database including every axle ever built.

“We are committed to international quality standards,” Camenzuli explains. “We know the competition, and therefore we know that we cannot take a shortcut in the manufacturing process if we want to be a serious contender, whatever product we manufacture.” In total, the 180,000 m2 factory in Shunde can produce up to 800,000 trailer axles, 300,000 landing leg sets, 250,000 mechanical suspension sets, 100,000 air suspension sets, 100,000 fifth wheels, 50,000 king pins, 1.8 million brake chambers, 7 million brake linings and 2.5 million slack adjusters per annum. But the new sister plant will soon overshadow the Shunde base.

In 2007, Fuwa laid the foundation of the 5-billion Yuan project in Taishan to create a whole new production facility. Officially named ‘FHI Industrial Park’, it hosts both heavy-duty truck and semi-trailer part manufacturing and a new, enlarged R&D base. The new factory consists of 12 large-scale manufacturing workshops, occupying a floor area of one million m2.

It enables Fuwa to produce a vast range of truck and trailer equipment in-house, including truck steering axles, drive axles, fifth wheels, air disc brakes, actuators and slacks, drum brakes, suspensions and propeller shafts, and auxiliary axles. The trailer range comprises of axles, drum brakes, disc brakes, slack adjusters, actuators, suspensions, landing gear and king pins.

“All production processes meet a world leading level, and all our key parts, such as axle housings, gear sets, brakes and axle shafts, are made in-house to ensure a high quality standard,” Camenzuli explains. “It is hard to believe that the facility in Shunde has become too small after five years in operation. But we realised that we had to move on, and the result is the Taishan Industrial Park – one of the largest industrial facilities in the world.”

Each covering 800 x 75 metres, the six main buildings host the suspension and landing legs division, Fuwa’s trailer axle production line, a comprehensive component production line, and a new truck axle factory. The truck axle division is equipped with state-of-the-art gear cutting equipment and latest generation carburizing furnaces that meet the stringent CQI 9 requirements. In addition, one building is reserved for a newly established venture between Fuwa and German company Wabco, who will manufacture high quality, single-piston air disc brakes in China – starting with the PAN 22.5 series.

Six additional buildings, measuring 600 x 75 metres, accommodate the stamping division, the in-house friction material production, a hot forging factory and the off-highway axle production line. After acquiring US company Carlisle’s manufacturing equipment and brake dynamometer, Fuwa now has the largest brake dynamometers in China.

Only an aerial image can capture the true size of the FHI Industrial Park, which includes a staff village, a police station, an organic farm, a company hotel and restaurant, a fishpond, and a gym. A stroll along the trailer axle production line can take about ten minutes – one way – and the personnel uses motorcycles to avoid wasting time on the way to the corporate canteen. Every detail, the vitreous showroom and the representative gardening, the floating restaurant and the staff village, are designed to represent Fuwa’s claim to the throne of the global trailing equipment industry.

The machinery sourced from around the globe has only just been unpacked, but the staff is already gearing up for a production at full speed. The concrete floor is immaculate, and the production line, bordered by a vibrant red steel construction, has already begun to move as inexorably as the Shunde equivalent.

Fuwa’s Taishan Industrial Park is an iron anthill, bustling, yet organised, striving for expansion 24/7. After all, the challenge is to redeem a 5-billion Yuan investment; and Mario Camenzuli cannot see a reason to slow down the pace. “On the quest to become the world’s most influential component manufacturer, the Taishan project will boost Fuwa’s position in the global market,” he says.

In China, the company already occupies a market share of around 75 percent. At the moment, the export is generating 35 percent of the total sales volume. But according to Fuwa, there is still potential to improve, tackling the transport market in North America, South America, Australia, South East Asia and South Africa. To handle the ever-growing export volume, Fuwa has just opened an in-house wharf, handling 180,000 TEU and 1.5 million tons of bulk cargoes per annum.

“We have laid the foundation,” says Camenzuli, overlooking the vast Taishan facility from a gaunt mountain nearby. “Now there’s no turning back. We want to emerge as a worldwide leader and create value for our customers by leveraging our experience, speed, and innovativeness.”

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