I’ve been at MANN+HUMMEL for a good 20 years now and worked in the Filter Elements Business Unit during that time. There, I coordinated the worldwide production of oil and fuel filter elements. ‘There’ being a bit misleading. My focus was on Asia so I spent my time less in Lower Bavaria and more in China, Korea, India or Thailand, and for 18 years I was always on the move. I’ve travelled to China alone more than 70 times now, sometimes for a few days but often for months or years. Although I was very inspired in my work and enjoyed the culture, the people and my time there (I met my wife there; she is from the Philippines), when our second child was born a year ago I wanted to become more settled. In other words, to stay in Marklkofen with my wife, our daughter and our baby.

However, a very particular kind of request came up which put these plans to the test: as is well known, MANN+HUMMEL has strengthened its expertise and market presence in micro-, ultra- and nanofiltration through its gradual takeover of MICRODYN-NADIR. A key location of the subsidiary is in California – Goleta/Santa Barbara, to be precise. I was asked if I wanted to optimise the plant there and make it ready to become a global manufacturing plant. Did I want to?

My family as a driving force

The requirements were very ambitious. I, who had worked solely in automotive filtration for 20 years, would not only be moving to a new business unit with entirely different filtering methods. The job also meant moving to the USA for two years. I decided to take a look at the site for myself first and went on a reconnaissance mission to California. I accompanied two projects there to get a feel for the upcoming work. It was a strange experience: I saw quite clearly in front of me what had to be done and I had the plans and solutions needed in my head, because I had implemented a lot of them before in China. I must admit, I really wanted to accept the offer. But what about my family? They didn’t need any persuading – they immediately wanted to go to the USA. Of course, it was helpful that my wife spoke English in addition to German and her native language, Tagalog, and our daughter had also learnt all three languages. Our youngest is just learning to speak now, so that was it: we were off.

Cycling in california

Beautiful region, hard work

On 1 February this year, we moved to Santa Barbara, possibly one of the most beautiful regions of the USA. The ocean on your doorstep, mountains in the background, 360 days of sunshine a year and I barely caught a glimpse of them in the first three or four months. The problem wasn’t that I was working in a new business unit, where filtration is undertaken down to nano level. And we’re not talking about fuels or oils, but drinking water, protein production and dialysis. The expertise at the site was outstanding, but various workflows, the production quality and even employee motivation had a lot of room for improvement. That meant a lot of work, a lot of stress and very little free time.

Production before soil decontamination

First of all, I frankly explained to the employees what the purpose was of me being there. There were a lot of filter providers in the automotive sector 20 years ago. There is a still a good handful today. In MICRODYN-NADIR’s business segment, there are still hundreds of providers today, but their numbers will shrink greatly too in the next few years. Things had to change to make sure we didn’t become one of the companies that will disappear from the market. That meant discipline, but also motivation and care. So we cleaned things up, set up bonus programmes – and a warning system too. We ensured everything was clean and orderly, improved the team spirit and in doing so grew closer and closer together. The fact that I am a team player through and through was certainly useful here too. For example, when we painted the hall floor recently and put markings on the floor, I was right there in the middle of it all.

Production after soil decontamination

In addition, I started up extra team activities outside work. For example, we ran the Santa Barbara Half Marathon with our colleagues and got a team together with MICRODYN-NADIR for the National Bike Challenge – we even came first! We are holding a family party for all employees and their families in September. Already, 95 percent of employees have confirmed they will be attending with their families. As my wife was a singer for more than ten years and we still played music as a hobby in Germany, we are going to get a Production staff band together for the party to provide a musical backdrop.

Quality doesn’t happen automatically

Another significant challenge was to improve production quality. If an oil filter ends up being scrapped, it costs one or two dollars. If a spiral water filter is produced defectively, the damage amounts to several hundred dollars. So we organised training sessions and workshops, scrutinised workflows and production methods and started daily ‘Red Table Meetings’ where problems were discussed with employees and remedial action was defined. In addition, we affixed visual work instructions to the machines, set up planning boards to give employees an overview of the orders and output and improved much more besides. As a result, we can already see substantial quality improvements and significantly lower scrap rates just half a year later, and production rates have increased too.

Workshop Activity

To optimise these even more, we are replacing manual activities with semi- and fully automatic machines. However, that will not come at the expense of jobs, as firstly we want to produce new products at the site and are going to create new production areas for them. Secondly, we also need to expand the logistics significantly as a priority. Both need motivated employees. And we have those now.

Andras Muehlbauer and his family

Of course, I still have plenty of work ahead of me and am planning to stay in the USA for another year and a half. But I now have time to enjoy this fantastic region at weekends. And more importantly, I have time for my family, with whom I am discovering the fascination with California bit by bit.