The Die Is Cast Part 2
Part 2 Bothered
Alan arrived at Bangkok’s Don Meuang airport on Friday midday almost 24 hours after leaving Heathrow. Hirota Corporation had booked him cattle class on some obscure Asian airline which involved two changeovers, one he assumed was somewhere in the Taklimakan desert. His spirits were low, his ass felt like the flag of Japan and his body screamed out for sleep. He was met by Takashi and driven directly to the plant at Amata Nakorn three hours drive away from Bangkok. He was introduced to Makota the Plant director and given a tour of the plant by his assistant Osamu. The plant was a replica of the Hirota facility in the UK and quite interesting, but by the end of the tour Alan had developed a genuine dislike for Osama.
In his late 20’s Osama was expensively dressed; his hair spiked and heavily gelled. He was undoubtedly well educated but was arrogant and conceited. He was typical of the new breed of the vain and vacuous who had infiltrated the automotive industry. You could find them from Detroit to Nagoya and Stuttgart to Solihull. They had no knowledge or interest in how to actually make things. They had nothing constructive to offer but could chant the mantras of mammon and quote management clichés with impunity. Alan suspected his dislike for this smug young Jap would soon grow into a palpable loathing.
It was almost 8.00 pm before Osama finally drove him to book into a local hotel. By the time he got into his room Alan was so exhausted he lay on the bed still fully clothed and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
At 6.00 am he was woken by a knocking at his bedroom door. It was Osama to take him to the plant. It was Saturday and although Alan regularly worked weekends he had thought his hosts may have let him have the morning to recuperate. They apparently did not. He quickly showered and was at the plant by 7.00. Alan spent the morning walking around the plant making his own observations. The factory layout followed the Japanese model and the facility was almost identical to Hirota’s UK plant but his initial impression was there was something amiss. In all factories there is a general organisation almost a rhythm but in this factory it was decidedly absent. He could not yet put his finger on it but his overriding observation was that the Japanese management seemed to treat the Thai workers as if they were inferior coolies.
Alan spent an hour observing the areas where the charge air cooler was being tested and assembled into the climate control sub assembly that would be supplied to the vehicle manufacturer. The charge air cooler was basically a heat exchanger core with cast aluminium tanks bolted to each end. Alan watched the leak testing operation and immediately realised the scale of the problem. Every other unit tested failed the test and was rejected. At this level of rejection they were clearly in trouble. He also observed they were utilising a sophisticated air decay test rig which although fast and highly productive only indicated that the unit was leaking it gave no indication of where it was leaking.
The charge air coolers were supplied by Siam Chonburi a Thai owned company situated a five minute drive away. That afternoon Osama took Alan to see the sub contractor plant but made it clear that whenever he wanted to visit it would have to be under Osama’s supervision. Alan was exasperated at this restriction and was irritated at the clear disrespect it implied.
On arrival at the Siam Chonburi plant Osama gave Alan a tour. It was a compact plant which comprised two large modern bays. The first bay housed the machine shop and assembly area which was well laid out and equipped with CNC machining centres and sophisticated inspection facilities. Alan was disappointed that Osama has not introduced him to any of the Thai management there. He was further perturbed on entering the second bay which housed the casting facility. The layout comprised 4 casting stations and a melting unit to feed them. Alan saw the one station was an exact replica of the facility Alan had set up to produce the intercooler components back at his operation in the UK. They had copied his layout with 4 Tilt die machines and metal holding arrangement almost to the inch. He had no doubt they had also purloined the working procedures and process sheets he had developed. He suspected his friend Takashi was responsible for this; he was disappointed at this duplicity but not totally surprised.
Alan took a closer look at the casting station. Aluminium was melted in a 1000 kg furnace and transported in a transfer ladle on an overhead crane system to a smaller holding furnace on the casting station. The caster would then take molten metal from the holding furnace with a 10 kg hand ladle and pour alternatively into one of the two tilt dies. Alan could see the operator was encircled by three Japanese technicians clad in Hirota uniforms. They were carrying clipboards and a multitude of thermo couples and measuring instruments recording everything that moved.
The scene was chaotic and illustrated the typical Japanese approach to measure all the process parameters sometimes indiscriminately. He noticed one technician had a hydrogen gas determination unit and was taking samples with an alarming frequency. Another was taking die temperatures and another recording the metal temperature. The poor caster could not get any rhythm in his work and was clearly flustered. Alan feared with all these technicians’ getting in his way, with a ladle full of molten aluminium at 720 degrees Centigrade someone was going to get seriously burnt. It was clear to Alan the Japanese technicians had no idea what they were doing and merely recording everything in a robotic manner as they had been instructed. He noticed everyone was trying hard to look busy in the presence of Osama. Even with all this frenzied activity nothing was actually being achieved. Despite himself Alan could not help experience a warm feeling of schadenfreude at their misguided and futile efforts.
As Osaka drove Alan back to the Hirota plant he aggressively questioned him about how he would solve the problem. Alan had some ideas but was disinclined to enlighten this offensive young man so stayed silent. They returned to Makota’s office where the interrogation of his observations continued. Alan continued to prevaricate, he was still annoyed they had copied his process and was irritated at the way he was being treated. He had come to Thailand with the intention of helping them; he was not being paid so he was giving his own time but their attitude continued to mystify him. He told them he could see the problem was leaking castings but needed to work closely with the foundry to formulate a solution.
Alan saw the time was 6.30pm and had no intention of being kept at their office any longer particularly on a Saturday. He told them he was going back to the hotel and suggested they did not need to entertain him that evening as he intended to dine early and catch up on his sleep. He informed them he was going to take the next day off and would see them on Monday morning. He left the office and asked the receptionist to call him a taxi. At the hotel Alan took a light dinner alone in the bar and by 9.00 he was in bed fast asleep.
His slumber was broken by a loud knock on the door. He looked at his watch to see it was 5.30 am and staggered to the door to see Osaka standing there. “Jeez Osaka” he exclaimed “It Is Sunday morning I told you yesterday I was taking a day to rest”. Osama ignored him “Makota San has requested a meeting this morning to review the situation so I will wait here until you get ready”. Although Alan was exasperated at this further iniquity he acquiesced, showered dressed and within 10 minutes was in Osaka’s vehicle.
At the plant they entered the director’s office to find Makota sitting at his desk dressed for golf. It was clear as soon as he had given his obligatory sermon he was destined for the golf course. Alan was familiar with the perception that the Japanese had a superhuman capacity for work and toiling long hours. Alan knew this was mainly perpetrated by the Japanese themselves and his own experience it was a total myth. He recalled numerous long meetings with Japanese where he would always be outnumbered by their participants but found at any one time one of them would be asleep for 20 minutes or so whilst his colleagues keep the Gaijin awake and wore him down. By this technique of catnapping in relays they could extend meetings almost indefinitely.
With Osama acting as interpreter Makota explained the seriousness of their situation for what seemed to Alan the 5,000th time. This time it appeared the thinly veiled threats to him were becoming more overt. Alan could not comprehend how this was his concern; he had successfully made 3,000 charge cooler units, it was Hirota (Thailand) who were experiencing problems in producing said units not him. It appeared to Alan that they were totally devoid of ideas so to demonstrate they were doing something they had resorted to bullying him to give them an immediate answer. He felt like explaining that one catches more flies with honey than vinegar but felt it would be lost on them.
It was at this point he mentally passed the Rubicon and was now so tired of their posturing he really didn’t give a four penny fart if the Hirota corporation never gave him any business ever again. At that moment he was determined that when he returned to England he would personally put an oxy– acetylene torch through every piece of tooling that the Hirota Corporation held with him.
Alan knew he had a fiery temper, a trait he attributed to his red hair and had worked hard all his life to control it. His pragmatism prevailed and he moderated his response. He rose from his chair bowed to Makota and said “I am disappointed with the disrespect you have shown to me but starting on Monday I will spend the week examining the casting processes in more detail and will present my findings to you at the end of the week”. He paused for a moment then continued “I will then take the next weekend off but the following week I will work closely with the foundry to give you a solution. I am confident I can address your situation.” He took a deep breath before continuing” All I ask is that you leave me alone to do so without the constant supervision and pressure to report to you every five minutes”. At that Alan walked out of the office and took a taxi back to his hotel. Whether Makota received the message in translation, at that moment Alan did not care a cow’s connector.
The rest of the day Alan took some gentle exercise, had a relaxing dinner and enjoyed a long sleep. On Monday morning he woke refreshed and took a taxi to the Hirota Plant. He began by examining the pile of rejected units that had been scrapped for leaking. He confirmed that this was due to poor quality end castings. At almost 50% scrap rate the charge air coolers were probably costing someone $5,000 a week but the true cost was the 250 Climate control units Hirota could not supply each week to the car plant. The cost of this failure would be almost $200,000 every month, a situation that would become more acute when the demand increased to 1000 a week next month. Fortunately for the Hirota Corporation they had the three months supply he had made for them. However in a month’s time they would have to supply their own product. At the current rejection rates in a matter of weeks they would completely fail to supply. The penalty clause from the car manufacturer would then cost Hirota millions of dollars.
On the Tuesday Alan had a closer look at the leak testing facility and took a bottle of washing up liquid with him. He sprayed soapy liquid on the face of an aluminium end tank of the unit being tested and saw a bubble appear. This gave him an indication of the leak position which he marked with a paint pen. He repeated the process throughout the shift. At the end of the day he examined the pile of rejected units and observed there was a pattern in that the leaks occurred in two or three places where there was change of section in the casting profile. He logged the information in his notebook for future reference.
Osama continued to hound him and seemed to appear at his side every five minutes. Alan ignored him all day but eventually showed him his findings and recommended that the castings be 100% Leak tested before being assembled on the charge air cooler unit. This would entail installing another leak test unit at the foundry but would mean only leak free castings would be assembled immediately improving productivity and throughput. Osama snorted “That will mean more expense to us; Makota San will not be pleased.”
On Wednesday after several requests he was finally allowed access to the laboratory facilities at Hirota. He cut up some of the reject castings and prepared samples which he observed under a microscope. He identified the defect as shrinkage porosity and he had good idea of the cause of the problem. He would need a closer look at the casting process to confirm his assumptions. At 6.00pm he returned to the hotel and took dinner alone in the hotel restaurant. At 8.30 he retired to his room with his book for company and reflected that today was his birthday.
On Thursday he returned to the foundry at Siam Chonburi but could not work with the caster as Osama’s technicians were still crowding him. The only observation he could make was they were monitoring hydrogen levels and were attempting to remove gas from the metal perhaps to excess. He came to the conclusion Osama’s technicians were a pain in the ass but Alan’s major problem was his inability to effectively communicate with either the Japanese technicians or the Thai operatives. He was confident he could solve the problems if this communication issue could be addressed. He recognized he desperately needed a Thai English translator working with him. He asked Osama if he could arrange for a Thai or Japanese technician who spoke English to work with him. Osama curtly informed him he did not need a translator he merely had to tell him what he needed and if he agreed he would arrange it.
Thursday afternoon he reported to Makota with Osaka and Takashi present. He informed them that he felt the leaking problem was an issue of shrinkage which he felt he could eventually address. Osaka immediately jumped up and declared “No you are totally wrong, my technicians have told me the cause is hydrogen gas porosity I have myself read that aluminium easily absorbs hydrogen gas so that is what needs to be controlled.”
At this point Alan felt totally exasperated; he stood up and said to Osaka “if you know so much why is it that YOU have not solved the problem in the four or five weeks you have been looking at it?” He then turned to Takashi “if you are not going to listen to me I am not going to waste any more time so I will bid you farewell. I am returning to the UK tonight “his anger mounting he continued “And I am not travelling on that crappy airline you cheapskate bastards booked to get me here….you will be receiving an invoice for a decent flight and the time I have wasted”
As Alan walked towards the door Takashi spoke quickly to Makota and when Osaka intervened he banged the table and shouted angrily at Osaka. As the exchange was in Japanese Alan could only assume he told Osaka “shut your mouth you insolent little twat you have caused enough trouble already”. Alan heard Makota instruct Takashi who immediately followed Alan as he left the building. “Wait my friend” he said “We know we need you and I apologise for Osaka’s behaviour.” Alan was only slightly mollified by his friend’s appeasement but was willing to listen. Takashi continued “We accept we have not been completely fair to you so tonight I have suggested to Makota we visit Pattaya for dinner to show you something outside the environs of our plant.”
At 6.30pm Takashi collected Alan in his Lexus. With Osaka sitting in the front passenger seat Alan joined Makota in the rear. Within the hour they pulled up at a rather pleasant Thai restaurant opposite the Marriot Hotel in Pattaya.
To be continued.