Quality in the face of a crisis – a Turkish success story

Reading time: approx. 4 minutes
Text: Kerstin Kloss, Juliane Gringer
Photos: Kerstin Kloss, BPW Otomotiv

The Turkish commercial vehicle industry is struggling with declining sales, but quality remains in demand, particularly in difficult economic times – more than 20,000 BPW axles and air suspension systems were assembled in BPW Otomotiv’s plant near Istanbul in 2018, and the company’s production output has tripled in the past five years.

When you enter the building, you immediately notice how bright it is – the sun shines so intensely in Gebze on the Turkish Sea of Marmara that BPW Otomotiv’s 6,000-square-metre assembly and storage hall gets by without artificial light almost all day long. Even without lamps, employees can see every detail of the modular ECO Air running gear and AIRLIGHT II air suspension. And when it comes to their work, the details are of paramount importance – the standards by which BPW manufactures and markets its high-quality products are both high and the same worldwide.

BPW Bergische Achsen has been active in the Turkish market for over 30 years. It’s subsidiary BPW Otomotiv had long operated purely as a trading company, selling axles manufactured in Germany to vehicle manufacturers in Turkey. In 2005, the country adopted the EU directives applicable to trailers and thus also the corresponding EU standards, resulting in changes to the weight and dimensions of the country’s transport vehicles. This led to many old, overloaded vehicles being replaced by modern trailers, and the demand for BPW running gear increased rapidly. In the meantime, one out of every two commercial vehicles in Turkey is equipped with BPW running gear: ‘Our market share today is over 60 per cent,’ reports Hüseyin Akbaş, managing director of BPW Otomotiv.

Axle assembly in the near vicinity

Production in Gebze began in 2012, initially in a rented facility, before the company opened its own plant in August 2015. ‘We can manufacture 90 per cent of all standard axle models for the Turkish market here at the factory and deliver call-off orders within just one week,’ explains Akbaş. ‘Both suspension types Airlight II and ECO Air can be produced in modular design on the production lines. This results in a capacity of more than 20,000 running gears with air suspension per year.’

Plant Manager Gülsüm Çıǧın explains the process: ‘When a customer orders an AIRLIGHT II running gear from us, for example, we first assemble the wheel hubs. As the main component, the tapered roller bearing is then installed, which reduces frictional resistance and thus ensures that the wheel always runs smoothly.’ The parts for this are sourced from the headquarters in Wiehl or from external suppliers. Despite their lightweight construction, trailer axles and their components are still heavyweights – to lift fully assembled components from the pallet onto the assembly line, the employees use a special lifting device. Up to 120 wheel hubs are assembled per day. Like his colleagues, 28-year-old Tolga Kizilkus works on all the assembly lines in rotation. This makes axle production more flexible and the job more interesting. All employees undergo on-the-job training and receive written instructions: ‘After just one month, I was able to do everything on my own,’ he reports.

Focus on employees

Nearly 50 employees work at BPW Otomotiv. In order to remain attractive as an employer, the company pays close attention to the needs of its employees. Every Friday, a shuttle bus takes them to a nearby mosque; and flexible working hours make the long break needed for this possible. Twice a day, all of the employees get together to drink tea – an important ritual for sharing ideas. In Turkey, it is also common for employers to organise transportation to the workplace, which is why BPW Otomotiv has its employees picked up at various gathering points. The employer also provides meals free of charge.

Interaction with colleagues in Germany

The plant manager walks over to the axle assembly. Here, an axle beam is fused with a wheel hub connection and a disc brake calliper to form one axle. Then an employee pushes the assembled components further to the air suspension assembly. In contrast to the German BPW headquarters, production in Gebze still relies heavily on conveying processes with manual trollies: ‘For the volume we produce here, this is more efficient than with autonomously moving transport racks, ’ explains Çıǧın.

She now stands at the end of the assembly line. As soon as there are three axles on the pallet, a forklift truck takes them to the shipping area next door. All of the production data is saved digitally in special software. ‘This ERP system allows us to trace back how all of the parts were assembled,’ explains Çıǧın. She speaks with colleagues from the Wiehl plant almost every day: ‘This interaction is extremely important to us. Our co-workers there can connect to our system online at any time so that we can discuss questions quickly and directly. This is extremely helpful.’

Managing Director Akbaş demonstrates another intelligent function and uses his smartphone to photograph the QR code that is attached to each finished axle. The product’s ‘digital DNA’ immediately appears on the mobile phone’s display, showing exactly which parts have been installed in exactly this axle, as well as suitable spare parts and service documents. Similarly, garages and vehicle operators can also access this information within seconds.

Weathering the crisis through exports

Logistics is one of the fastest growing industries in Turkey. Among other benefits, the new Silk Road is opening up growth opportunities and the region has already become a kind of hub to the East. If political conflicts there were to be resolved in the future, much more traffic could pass through Turkey. However, the economy is currently weakened – according to the Automobile Manufacturers Association (Otomotiv Sanayii Dernegi, OSD), the commercial vehicle market fell by 42 percent in the first ten months of 2019. ‘Our customers have had a tough time over the past two years as a result,’ explains Hüseyin Akbaş. However, many of them increasingly relied on exports, and BPW Otomotiv was able to benefit from this. This is because demand for high-quality products is particularly high in the export business. ‘We are weathering the crisis in Turkey primarily thanks to BPW’s global strategy of working with both vehicle manufacturers and operators,’ adds Akbaş. He thinks a recovery is already on the horizon. ‘But 2020 will certainly be another difficult year.’

Significantly expanding production

He himself is investing in the expansion of his business, and since 2018 products from BPW’s subsidiary Hestal have also been produced in Gebze. Hestal is synonymous with high-quality fasteners and superstructure technology and, in addition to pillars, fasteners and hinges, offers easy-to-install superstructure kits for curtainsider and flatbed vehicles as well as security doors and load securing systems. Hüseyin Akbaş wants to further expand production and soon install 20 percent more shelves in the hall and space for assembly work for these components only. He is determined to use ‘every available millimetre’ for expansion.
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