Marion Kohlmeier: ‘Expansion in our global footprint has been a big step’

Nine questions about the topics on the supply chain agenda of a supply chain professional. In this edition: Marion Kohlmeier, Head of supply chain planning and project purchasing at Weidmann Plastics Technology.

A new car needs a stunning new look and at the same time the components need to be durable, functional and lightweight. Plastics can be combined with aluminum, chrome and stainless steel to provide the finishing touch and reflect the carmaker’s corporate identity. But getting it just right, scaling up production and ensuring that the supply chain will be in place to meet demand for a new car launch can take a couple of years. Swiss company, Weidmann Plastics Technology has more than 70 years experience in injection molding and has a range of unique and innovative technologies that allow plastic materials with different flexibility, elasticity and strength to be joined in one process step. Supply chain planning is an integrated and essential aspect of each new development and the department is involved from the prototype stage. Marion Kohlmeier is responsible for the supply chain design of new projects.

By Helen Armstong (Supply Chain Movement)

What is your responsibility regarding the supply chain?

Weidmann Plastics Technology is part of the Techniplas Group and I am responsible for three teams: Logistics planning; pre-series scheduling; and project purchasing.

Our logistics planning team consists of four people and is responsible for creating a supply chain concept for our new products. These are mostly for the automotive industry so project lead-time, between nomination and the start of series production is usually about two years. During this time we have to develop a flow concept, establish new supply chain processes, realise EDI set-up and value flow. We analyse what needs to be done in terms of customs and material flow. We also negotiate and develop packaging concepts together with our customers and suppliers.

I am also responsible for two people who take care of pre-series scheduling. This team is available throughout the project to ensure that all customer demands are considered, keeping track on production requirements and purchase orders placed at suppliers.

The third team is project purchasing. It is responsible for the procurement of raw materials and components for the production plants all over the globe and the negotiations with our production cooperations. Before a project begins we go through a calculation phase to cost the logistics processes, packaging and procurement of new parts. My team is deeply involved in this process, also to offer the most competitive pricing for our customers.

The start of a project can be anything from a conceptual vision to a well-defined product program. Last year we launched about 300 new injection moulds world-wide and we often have more than just one part from one mould.

 What is the strategy of the company: Operational excellence; product leadership; or customer intimacy?

Short term we focus on operational excellence and this brings us the opportunity to come up with more innovations so product leadership improves which in turn helps us achieve customer intimacy. In my supply chain management department the focus is certainly on operational excellence but for the company as a whole we focus on product leadership. We strongly focus on our selected key accounts. In automotive, these are well-known Original Equipment Manufacturers  (OEMs): Daimler, BMW, Audi, GM and PSA. The industrial sector is also a part of our portfolio and we develop and supply valves, kitchen sprays and shower heads, mainly to KWC and Grohe.

We have about 60 strategic/A suppliers and in total about 800 suppliers. We run a supplier management approach to screen suppliers for their suitability for orders and escalation processes.

What are the main business challenges that drive supply chain projects at the moment?

Two years ago we opened production cooperations in South Africa and China and we are currently building another cooperation in North America. We already had plants in Europe and the United States and so we now have production capacity on four continents.  This expansion is certainly driving us at the moment because the processes have to be in place, we need to keep track of communication and ensure that all supply chain parties are aware of all the requirements. For all the production cooperations, the customer has one point of contact, that is Weidmann, and we communicate with the production partners and they ship parts based on our orders. We decided to follow our customers’ needs for local content production which led to the cooperations in South Africa and China. It also enabled us to be closer to the customer.

This expansion in our global footprint has been a big step for us. We had to expand our knowledge and improve our negotiation skills. For example, Chinese people negotiate in a different way to Europeans so it was a steep learning curve.

Another issue at the moment is supply chain visibility. We have a production plant here in Switzerland as well as in Germany and as wages increase further we need greater efficiency. Previously our strategy was to carry out the injecting moulding, pack and ship. A few years ago, our strategic approach was reviewed and refined. We are moving more and more towards mechatronic devices so instead of supplying parts we are supplying systems. This means there is a lot more assembly which creates many challenges for project purchasing and logistic planning, also in terms of packaging complexity and ultimately satisfying our clients. Therefore we are focusing very strongly on supply chain visibility to enable us to trace the parts at all times. We are using ERP all over the world and right now we are incorporating new tools, for instance to improve our tendering and SRM processes.

Which supply chain challenges keep you awake at night?

High-pressure projects keep me thinking but because I work in the project phase we don’t have the stress of just-in-time series production and are working with rather small quantities of parts to be shipped. For these, trouble-shooting is easier than in a just-in-time series production scenario.

Last year our pre-scheduling department had some problems because we found some processes weren’t clearly defined and therefore weren’t 100% accurate. However, I mostly stay awake when I have an idea for an improvement. Now I jot down the ideas and convince myself it can wait until the morning.

What do you about these challenges?

I am a mathematician so I always try to analyse the problem. Depending on the severity, we can solve it with a one-to-one discussion or we hold a workshop. A workshop usually involves people from all departments affected and may only take 30 minutes. We discuss what needs to be revised and make the changes. That is the advantage of a small team and company. We have the ability to take decisions and revise things in a fast way.

Who do you like to meet for exchange of knowledge?

I like to go to congresses to meet and talk to people from similar sized companies, or slightly bigger. In my experience it’s not possible for us to compare our processes to those of the really big players on the market. I also like to meet people doing a similar job to me because we often face similar problems or challenges. When we exchange experiences it often turns out that one person has a better approach to one issue and we may have a better approach to something else so it’s a win-win-situation for both parties.

Which book has inspired you the most and why?

A very inspiring book for my managerial development was Good to Great by Jim Collins. It shows how companies can transform from good performance to great performance, with respect to the competition.  I read this just before I took over a team for the first time so in terms of leadership it was very interesting.

Recently, I started reading Change-friendly Leadership by Rodger Dean Duncan. He draws your attention back to things you should consider when you need to implement change. We make changes every day and it’s important that I can support my team so that they can perform their best. Without my team I can’t operate.

Where do you expect to be professionally in five years?

I would like to rise further up the career ladder. I have been with Weidmann for close to seven years, formerly as project manager and since 2012 in my current position.

I am now responsible for implementing new projects and processes but I would like to take over more supply chain responsibility such as global strategy. I would certainly like to pursue a role that covers everything from suppliers to customer. I feel it is important that you look at total cost of ownership and not just at parts of the supply chain, so I’ll be looking to do this even more in the future.

What do you use for an agenda?

I handle everything through my iPhone and email account.