Meritor's Cwmbran, Wales, brake manufacturing plant.

Meritor's Cwmbran, Wales, brake manufacturing plant.

Meritor is making a $42 million investment to position its air disc brake manufacturing facility in Cwmbran, Wales, for expected increased demand in North American, European and emerging commercial vehicle markets. The company expects to nearly double its share in the global ADB market from 20% in 2011 to 39% by 2017, and the improvements to its Cwmbran facility are key to facilitating that growth.

North American trade press journalists got a first-hand look at the progress Meritor is making while visiting the Cwmbran plant [pronounced "kum-braun"], located near Cardiff, Wales, in the U.K. last week.   

Dietrich Zaps, general manager of Meritor’s European heavy-duty brake business, told journalists that the global "total addressable market" for air disc brakes in 2012 was more than $3 billion; $1.2 billion in North America, $1.2 billion in Europe and $1.1 billion in the Asia-Pacific region.

"We will be ready for expected increases in heavy-duty vehicle production in the European market in the next three to four years," Zaps said. "That, coupled with increasing acceptance of air disc brakes in the Americas and emerging markets like China and India, require that we produce the best brake possible at the best possible cost."

In its current redevelopment of the 76-year-old Cwmbran facility, Meritor has committed $58 million toward new facilities and equipment. The upgrades and improvements include reducing the overall size of the facility by streamlining production activities and improving engineering labs and testing facilities.

Zaps said that by 2016 the company will have invested almost $7 million in testing and research efforts alone. Those research efforts include electronic controllers for the brake actuators as well as what Zaps called a "zero-drag" brake that will measurably reduce fuel consumption by eliminating parasitic brake drag.

Efficient Manufacturing

Meritor has been producing air disc brakes as well as drum brakes at the Cwmbran plant since April 2000, but it has been a brake production facility under other names since 1945. The first ADB for heavy trucks came off the Cwmbran production line in 1988.

By increasing the use of robotics, Meritor has improved production efficiency and lowered plant operating costs.

By increasing the use of robotics, Meritor has improved production efficiency and lowered plant operating costs.

Meritor is in the process of reducing the required production space from 520,000 square feet to about 300,000 square feet, which Gwyn Gardiner, manager of the Cwmbran plant, says will reduce manufacturing costs for both drum and disc systems while freeing capital for additional testing and engineering as well as increasing production capacity.

"When the transformation is complete in 2016, we will double our capacity from 600,000 to 1.2 million brakes per year," he says.

A significant portion of the old facility has already been sold off and redeveloped as a supermarket.

Current and future work will see an intelligent lighting system installed, with much of the old gabled steel roof of the plant redesigned to allow more natural light into the plant. The walls, floor and ceilings are painted white to help reduce lighting costs.

Gardiner says he will eliminate about 75% of the forklift trucks currently in use and replace them with tugs, by redesigning the manufacturing sequence and through the use of robotics.

The only warehousing on site is vendor-managed inventory, which Meritor "gives" its vendors at no cost, in order to maintain a two- to four-week parts supply at very little cost.

“We are striving for the lowest possible manufacturing cost through leaner and more efficient processes," Gardiner said. "We have to remain competitive, and the savings allows us to redirect capital towards product improvement."

Engineering and Testing

While Meritor operates extensive lab and testing facilities in Troy, Mich., the Cwmbran plant is the site of all its European engineering operations, led by Dietmar Knoop, director of engineering for European brake operations.

Knoop says the expansion and refinement of the Cwmbran facility will expand its testing capabilities.

Meritor's state-of-the-art NVH dynamometer is the first of its kind in the world.

Meritor's state-of-the-art NVH dynamometer is the first of its kind in the world.

"Our tool box will soon be a great deal larger and more effective," he said. "When this project is complete, we will have one of the most unique brake labs in the world, equipped with the most advanced dynamometers on earth."

Knoop says Meritor just spent $300,000 on a brake-adjuster test rig that can do validation and wear and endurance testing on brake adjusters that are expected to last 10-12 years and operate 5 million cycles. 

"The testing landscape has changed," Knoop said. "It's no longer enough to test our own product to our standards. We do much of our testing based on OE requests and we share data with Troy as well as engineering centers in India and other sites around the globe."

By the time the current expansion is complete, Meritor's Cwmbran plant will operate 14 separate testing clusters for structural integrity, function, performance, friction, environmental and other factors.

Current plans include a drive-through truck garage for faster and safer vehicle checks during field data capture activities. Several new testing machines have been added recently, including what Knoop called the most advanced NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) dynamometer in the world, along with a one-of-a-kind three-axis brake shaker.

Even with the engineering and manufacturing facilities only partially completed, work is already under way on two new air disc brake systems targeted at the medium and light-duty commercial vehicle segments, the ELSA 195S and 175S. They have a two- to three-year development window, and could be brought to market in the 2015-2016 timeframe.