Jtekt Torsen innovates to counter consequences diesel crisis
The plant in Strépy was built 30 years ago by American company Gleason. The Japanese conglomerate, Jtekt, took over in 2006. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the plant saw its turnover drop. The Japanese decided to restructure and fully automate. While in 2006 only one simple robot was used, today 33 highly technological robots do almost everything.
The plant runs day and night, and hardly any people are to be seen. “Only human control is not enough. Because of the wage cost in Belgium, we can’t use people for jobs with low added value. Robots take over the unqualified work and help increase quality,” says plant director Etienne Merlin (39).
Because of the automatization, Jtekt Torsen has shown substantial growth for years. Recently, it was named ‘Factory of the Future’ by technology federation Agoria.
Not fewer but different jobs
The introduction of robots also created jobs in the plant. While it employed 110 people after restructuring ten years ago, today 190 employees work there.
“When I hear people talk about robots, I often hear anxiousness,” Merlin says. “But the opposite is true. The further development goes, the more staff is needed. Countries with the highest grade of robotics, like Japan, South-Korea, and Germany hardly have any unemployment.”
The plant director is not afraid of job losses. “The work here used to be very repetitive and not humane. Our staff has increased, but we now need other competencies, like maintenance technicians and programmers.”
And yet, the Jtekt Torsen plant has had a rough couple of years, feeling the backlash of the VW dieselgate crisis. Limited-slip differentials are useful in high-torque models, often diesel-powered. In 2018, turnover in Strépy dropped by 15% to 33 million euros. Slow sales of Audi models, accounting for three-quarters of the plant’s volume, lead to a 3,5 million euros decrease. The plant’s 2,7 million euros profit in 2016 turned into a million-dollar loss last year.
For the time being, the plant continues to focus on parts for diesel cars, although it is uncertain which cars consumers will buy in the future. “Today, 1% of the European car park is electric, while 99% has a combustion engine. Our strategy is to cater to the 99%,” says Merlin.
However, Jtekt wants to diversify its offer faster than expected. The development center on the site is developing a differential for electric cars. It should be available from 2021. “Our know-how is centered around mechanics with high precision, which are also needed in electric cars. They can accelerate fast from a standstill. If the electric car becomes a success, our differentials have a lot more potential.”