Whirlpool Plant Profile: Shunde

Dec. 21, 2004
Microwaves For The World

Whirlpool's appliance factory in Shunde makes 2 million microwaves per year for various Asian markets and export to North America and Europe. From Hong Kong the factory is 1.5 hours by hydrofoil to Nansha Port, a brief wait to pass through immigration and customs, and another straight one-hour drive up a four-lane highway. Arriving at the port's traditional, squat tile-roofed building, the ferry passes by the soaring metallic lines of a new terminal under construction. People begin lining up at the exit doors of the ferry more than 30 minutes before it reaches the dock. "This is China," offers Plant Director Andrew Yu by way of explanation as he taps out a message on his mobile phone. Yu most recently worked for Philips making MP3 players and spent eight years in Birmingham, U.K., where he studied at university before working for Rover. All but one member of his nine-person management team make the commute from Hong Kong every Monday morning. Whirlpool signed on as a joint-venture partner here in 1995, and bought the operation outright in 1998. Part of the company's global microwave business unit, the Shunde facility produces countertop and overhead models sold under the Whirlpool and Kitchenaid brands, its European Bauknecht brand, as well as models for Sears' and even some units for the Swedish home retailer IKEA (tiny microwaves that feature kid-friendly, one-touch buttons for popping popcorn and the like). Because of cost advantages, Whirlpool is currently transferring additional production here from facilities in Sweden. The business unit is also performing an increasing amount of engineering work for projects worldwide at its cooking tech center in Shenzhen, a large metropolitan area just over the border from Hong Kong with about 5 million people and the highest population density in the country. Recent product innovations are evident in new microwave models with heating elements to brown food as it is heated (ideal for reheating yesterday's pizza), and a space-saving rounded back microwave that fits snugly into corners. Ramped up for the peak holiday sales season, the plant floor in late July is crowded with rolling carts packed with plastic and powder-painted metal parts waiting to be pulled into assembly. They don't sit still for long at such high production volumes. A vertically integrated operation, coiled steel thumps through a series of punch presses that form the internal and external metal enclosures. All high-visibility plastic parts are injection molded on site. In total the three-story factory houses nine separate assembly lines. "If I were to build a greenfield plant, the layout would obviously be very different," says Yu as he weaves between workstations and bins of parts. About 1,600 people work across two shifts in the factory, about 200 fewer people than a few years ago, even though output has increased. An award hanging in the conference room presented by the regional government recognizes the Shunde operation for paying its taxes -- over 10,000,000 RMB ($1,250,000) last year. Here, thousands of miles from Whirlpool corporate headquarters, the pursuit of customer loyalty takes the form of a new 200 square meter "customer-experience center" at the microwave plant. When construction is completed by the end of the year, the center will have three new kitchens, one European and two American, completely outfitted with various models of the company's appliances. "This will be the American one," says Yu, showing a mock up. "It's bigger." The idea, he says, is to build brand familiarization, pride and loyalty among employees. They will be able to try out the latest Whirlpool appliances and take cooking lessons, learning how to use a microwave to prepare Chinese food. "It's difficult to imagine what a customer in the U.S. is asking for without seeing it," says Yu.

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