Compared to the bustle of neighbouring Pune, the site of the Poonawalla Group headquarters is an oasis of orderly calm. Its perfectly maintained buildings, modern factory and spacious office interiors have the feel of a multi-national organisation, reflecting the company’s success across a wide range of diverse activities.
Perhaps best known as a UNICEF-approved manufacturer of vaccines and serums for everything from snakebites to MMR (measles, mumps & rubella), the Poonawalla Group also has a strong engineering arm comprising three separate companies that represent around 20 percent of its total turnover. One of these, Eagle Poonawalla Industry Ltd (EPIL), specialises in the manufacture of mechanical seals. With a 40 percent share of the Indian market, the company is the country’s leading mechanical seal producer.
“We have achieved market-leader status through a combination of first-class engineering, design and manufacturing,” says Mr. P. Chandran, director (works) of EPIL. “Our production facilities are among the best this industry has to offer. In fact, we have all the credentials one would associate with a world-class manufacturing setup.”
EPIL’s busy workshop contains around 70 manual machine tools and a handful of more recently acquired CNC machines, including two Haas VF-3 CNC vertical machining centres.
East meets West
Poonawalla’s first encounter with Haas technology was at a company called Sealol – based in Rhode Island, U.S. – with which it had a business collaboration until 1998, when Sealol was purchased by UK firm, John Crane. The move ended the union for Poonawalla and for Eagle, a Japanese company that had also collaborated with Sealol. However, the common technology and expertise shared by Poonawalla and Eagle meant the formation of EPIL later the same year was a natural progression.
“We had seen Haas machines in operation at Sealol, and they appeared to be very reliable,” says Mr. Chandran. “So when we next saw Haas machines at the Imtex machine tool exhibition in India in 1998, we decided to carry out further studies. We were particularly interested in replacing a CNC vertical machining centre of larger capacity that we had at the time. However, when we compared features, capability and price with machining centres from other manufacturers, we concluded that the Haas VF-3 was the one to buy.”
Five years later, in 2003, EPIL acquired a second Haas VF-3, which is now situated facing the older machine in the same manufacturing cell. Both VF-3 machines employ 5-axes: The latest machine is fitted with a Haas trunnion rotary table. Looking at the older machine, no one would be able to guess it had been working 24 hours a day, six days a week for the past seven years, such is its immaculate condition.
“We believe a little maintenance goes a long way,” says Mr. Chandran. “We insist that the operator we employ to run the two Haas machines takes good care of them.”
Today the company uses the machines to produce components for what it describes as “engineered” seals. These represent almost all of the company’s RS700 million turnover, and consist mainly of customer-specified mechanical seals for large pumps used at chemical factories, refineries, paint factories and railway companies. Key customers include TATA Chemicals, Novartis, Colgate Palmolive and Asian Paints. EPIL also supplies engineered seals to all of the major OEM pump manufacturers with a base in India, including KSB, Sulzer, Kirloskar Ibara, KBL, BHEL and Ingersoll Rand. Although the company has a strong export business, around 90 percent of its trade is with Indian customers.
A key component machined on the VF-3s is an oil seal housing: a complex part requiring considerable milling, drilling and threading operations to take place at different compound angles, as well as machining on multiple faces. Using the Haas machines, the part can be completed in just two setups – considerably fewer than the company required previously for the same part.
Typically, says Mr. Chandran, the 5-axis systems allow EPIL to machine virtually all components in a single setup. Although 60 percent of the parts passing through the Haas machines are produced in small batches, the company is managing to save time by storing a few straightforward programs that are common to a range of components. The operator can simply call up a program and use it as the basis for the part required.
Operators are far more than “button pushers” at EPIL, where the philosophy is to employ graduate engineers with a minimum of one year’s work experience to run the company’s 5-axis CNC machines. EPIL finds it is then able to place considerable responsibility with the operator, asking him to undertake programming, tool setting, inspection and maintenance tasks. It’s one of a number of strategies that has helped EPIL (still a family-owned company) grow by 26 percent in 2004, and approximately 30 percent in 2005.
Mr. Chandran claims that EPIL owes much if its success to its obsession with quality control, and investment in the latest technology and best practices. The EPIL QA department is pivotal to the company’s operations, as testified by its ISO9000:2000 and ISO14000 quality accreditations, and Kaizen and 5S deployment.
“We are very good at retaining our customers,” adds Mr. Chandran. “Our professionalism, quality and competitiveness ensure they never have a reason to look elsewhere. Our manufacturing capability is at the heart of this concept, and at the heart of our manufacturing capability are the Haas machines. We are extremely pleased with how they have performed: They are built well, easy to use and require very little maintenance. We couldn’t ask for more.”