Vladimir Smychnikov, head of the subsidiary LLC GEA Refrigeration RUS, talks about how to succeed at making sophisticated equipment for both the food industry and the petroleum industry and why it is important to stay in touch with colleagues all over the world.
— Vladimir, how did you end up at GEA and in charge of the site?
— I've been with the company for about 13 years, starting out as a project manager. By training, I'm an engineer - a refrigeration mechanic; I graduated from the Moscow Ecological Engineering University and used to design refrigeration systems.
At GEA, my colleagues and I were invited to join major projects in a variety of fields: the construction and assembly of a water-cooling tower at the Krasnodar TETs, bobsleigh/luge track in Sochi, and Miratorg's chicken and beef processing plants in Bryansk. A project team gradually took shape at our company.
In March 2015, GEA signed a contract to manufacture seven booster compressor units for the Vyngapurovskoye oil and gas field. To implement the project, the company decided to set up in-house production in Klimovsk. This was essentially the next step in our efforts to re-engineer equipment assembly to meet the Russian requirements.
— How did such diverse and versatile experience help the team during the site development?
— According to Oliver Cescotti, President GEA, Russia: “Each project is a journey of exploration for us. We always go over the technological processes afresh, studying all the ins and outs of the construction project. This gives extra impetus to growth and becomes an exciting and fun experience each and every time.”
Before starting the site development in Klimovsk, we spent 1.5 months touring the GEA factories in Germany and Italy that make similar equipment. When reviewing the assembly of compressor and refrigeration units, we joined forces with our colleagues from South Africa to do a time-motion study of the assembly processes. The knowledge gained by us and the experience of our colleagues came in very useful later on. Access to expert advice from various countries is a major advantage of our group.
— Why did you choose to site your project in Klimovsk rather than anywhere else?
— That was one of the best locations to reach by car - a mere 25 km from Moscow. We are neighbours with Podolsk — an industrial hub of Moscow Oblast. Our decision five years ago has also been validated by the fact that all the surrounding area is being developed as logistics or distribution centres. Not far off are two railway stations, the Vnukovo and Domodedovo airports, which is also convenient for our customers, who often visit the site.
— How quickly did you manage to start up production?
— We had the site up and running in short order and, importantly, at a low cost — for less than 500 thou. euros, though that was a greenfield project. We moved into the rented premises in early May, and a fortnight later we started up the assembly of refrigeration equipment for a chemical factory. We did that in parallel with the installation of power supply systems and air lines within the site. As early as late July, we were ready for our first big order — the assembly of booster compressor units.
— How did you do on your first order? And what was your first major challenge?
— That's what it was for us: a challenge; ours is a construction, not a manufacturing team. So we learned nearly from scratch how to do things
Our first project was no walk in the park. A gas booster station is a container that houses process equipment and utility systems: heating, fire suppression, gas detection, CCTV, remote access etc. And here we had to feel the difference, as it were: when you install refrigeration equipment, you have a safety margin of half a metre. In the container, on the other hand, every centimetre counts; you need accurate drawings: a miss by 2-3 mm can take you back to the drawing board. Our designers did a hell of a good job. When assembling the equipment, we were helped in a big way by our colleagues from Italy, who assisted us with advice on in-process quality control. We felt a part of GEA's big international family!
The upshot is that our units have been in field service in Western Siberia for four years now, being taken through their paces 24/7, and give no cause for complaints.
— Coming back to the food industry: what can you say about equipment assembly for food manufacturers?
— In February 2016, we received an order to make five pasteurizing units for beverage manufacture and milk processing. And that was our first attempt at assembling stainless products. We set up a separate section — it had to have no contacts with the carbon steel workshops to prevent cathodic corrosion. Such equipment has strict specifications in terms of weld quality; the seams must be smooth and free from cold shuts because the smooth inner surface of walls reduces hydraulic friction in the pipe, with no product deposits left on the seams, and enables thorough flushing.
To achieve this, we bought appropriate equipment, asked our process engineers for a lot of advice; to begin with, we had an on-site supervisor, who made sure that everything was done as per specs and shared his experience and insights with us.
In 2018 it become necessary to assemble ten refrigeration units for cooling milk after milking at farms. The line has been greatly expanded since then; in Klimovsk, we make refrigeration units 50 to 360 kW in capacity.
By and large, the output of our site is 75% food manufacturing equipment and 25% oil and gas equipment.
— How does the 75 per cent break down and how is your product family formed?
— We have a broad product range: our core line is refrigeration equipment for dairy businesses and farms, meat-packing factories and breweries. We also supply the dairy and brewing industries with our stainless pasteurizers, cream heaters, carbonizers, carboblenders, milk collection stations, distribution headers and flow switch panels.
For the oil and gas industry we make: booster compressor stations, gas treatment and cooling units and separation units based on separators and decanters in modular and mobile versions.
A separate line is the manufacture of electrical control units for all applications within our group. Over the five years of Klimovsk operations, we have made nearly 200 pieces of various equipment and shipped more than 600 electrical enclosures made in-house. And our product range keeps expanding. To date, the industrial site successfully makes some 25 items. In 2019, e.g., the output was up 40% on the previous year.
— Yet, each project is a custom solution?
— Yes, we do not mass-produce; every new project is modular assembly as per customer specifications to a bespoke design produced by our engineers in Russia.
Also, in Klimovsk we make in-house all metal structures, metal frames and pipeline assemblies. Major components, such as compressors, decanters, separators and heat exchangers, we source from our GEA factories in other countries, but we also utilize Russian-made components.
The site provides weld quality control, fault detection, pipeline integrity testing and utility serviceability assurance. Incidentally, the customer can inspect any stage — acceptance of structures, pneumatic testing and outgoing inspection. We often undergo audits, too, both by our GEA colleagues (a recent audit of separation equipment was conducted by technicians from a factory in Germany) and by customers. For instance, Rosneft brings in independent experts even before the work starts, and they monitor all assembly stages and, to be sure, provide quality management. Far from any company can provide such an opportunity, particularly if based outside Russia.
Also, the programmers who write the code are in a position to beta-test their software on-site with us before the equipment is shipped to the customer. This slashes the time needed to put the equipment into service. E.g., it took a mere fortnight to commission our latest booster, and we got an order for another three units as a bonus!
— What does the Klimovsk site look like today? How many people does it employ?
— We have some 3 thou. sq. metres of manufacturing space, including offices, a storage and batching area for materials and components, a blanking section, a spray booth, a pattress assembly section, a stainless product assembly section, welding stations and an assembly shop.
Because ours is a multi-assembly operation, the entire team, that is, about 50 people, is made up of professionals who are not only high-calibre experts but also jacks of all trades. Our people can do virtually anything and everything, and this gives the team a huge edge and enables it to respond to changes and produce bespoke solutions for any customer.
— How has the pandemic affected your operations?
— Let me begin by saying that we have been connected to GEA's IT network from day one and have been receiving recommendations from colleagues who encountered the virus before us, including at the factories in China.
We kept operating during the pandemic because the bulk of our customers are food manufacturers, who did not halt production during that period. This being the case, we adhered strictly to all hygiene and sanitation regulations in our operations.
The epidemiological situation in and around the capital was difficult, but we have so far succeeded in keeping our staff free from the coronavirus. We put in place commuting arrangements for the workers to avoid using the public transport, we set up separate eating areas for the shifts and organized additional space cleaning, as well as raising awareness. And our efforts paid off: the people took a very responsible attitude to the predicament and cooperated.
Also, the pandemic helped streamline our processes. The company provided tutorials on how to streamline and improve performance. We have a multi-purpose site, and this gives us confidence that we are equal to any challenge. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger!
— What are the site's growth areas?
— Plans abound. We currently make equipment for four out of the group's five divisions and expect to meet all demand soon. Our equipment is supplied to businesses in Russia and other CIS countries, but we are looking into exporting as well.
Our short-term plans include moving stainless product assembly to a separate shop in order to meet the requirements not only of the food industry but also of the chemical and pharmaceutical companies.
Our output grows year on year in terms of the quantity and range of equipment made. Efforts are in progress to assemble valve stations for refrigeration systems for the Damate food manufacturers in Penza and AgroEko-YUG in Voronezh Oblast.
The company is implementing a project to introduce a new ERP-system, SAP S/4 Hana, which will go a long way towards improving our performance. We are part of Global Production GEA, which comprises 50-plus factories of the company all over the world. If any location is overloaded, we are willing to implement projects at our industrial site. To be sure, assembly workmanship and professional expertise must, as always, be high — standard for all GEA factories, wherever the equipment may be made and assembled — in Germany, China or Russia.