If the awe-inspiring cathedrals that mark the skyline of Cologne, Germany are a symbol of the city's centuries-old history, the spires towering over the igus Inc. manufacturing plant here represent a view of the future. For one thing, they are Tweety Bird yellow, a color that is not typically associated with a factory that makes polymer bearings and power-supply chains. But these pylons represent more than an unconventional exterior design. They are an indication of the way work is taking place inside. As igus president Frank Blase says, "There's something different going on here."
What's different is the plant's flexible design and how that enables igus to operate flexibly as well. Workers buzz around the enormous space — about the size of three football fields — on shiny scooters. Little on the plant floor is welded down, so machines and modular furniture can be rearranged at a moment's notice. And there are other features that are aimed at convertibility on the fly, such as exposed overhead electrical wiring that allows for easy access and few obstructive support columns. With minimal disruption to the 24-7 production flow, igus can expand, shrink, or relocate entire departments.
"The beauty of the building is that it allows us to see where the business is growing and to react," says Blase, 41.
And igus, which makes more than 28,000 different products that are used in everything from assembly lines to the movable stage for Broadway's Beauty and the Beast, has to be able to react quickly, because of the unpredictability of its customers' needs, Blase says. Ninety percent of igus's energy-chain orders require custom specifications, for example. The company is in a state of almost constant innovation, developing up to 2,500 new products and model variations a year.
It would seem to be a prescription for chaos, but the igus factory not only copes with change — it embraces change. Since moving into the new flagship factory in 1994, the privately-held company has increased its annual revenue tenfold to about $100 million. And the worldwide staff has nearly tripled since 1996, to about 850 employees.
Of course, being agile is easier when you work in a building that actually moves. In the past five years, igus has made about 50 significant changes to the factory's configuration. Some changes have accommodated strategic shifts, such as the need for more product testing, while others have facilitated fast growth. One department is in its fourth location in two years, because its products have proven to be so popular that the division needed additional staff and space.
To help employees keep up with the pace, the staff is equipped with mobile phones and has access to scooters: motorized models on the production floor, nonmotorized ones in the office area. The playful scooters make for speedy transport and quick reaction times, but they are also another indication that igus thinks differently about the nature of work. In fact, when the company hired British architectural firm Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners to design the new plant, the chief requirement wasn't productivity, but openness. The architects responded with powerful visual metaphors: openness to the outside world through numerous windows and skylights; openness to physical changes through an unencumbered production floor; and openness among workers through a transparent work environment. Glass walls separate the office area from the factory floor, eliminating any real or perceived barriers between departments. The plant has only one cafeteria, one set of rest rooms, and one entrance. And the parking lot has no designated spaces for managers. "It's very different from where I worked before," says Gerd Linnenbrink, the factory manager for bearings. "I feel much more connected to the rest of the company." Adds Blase: "We're trying to be a different kind of company, and our building helps us tremendously in doing that. It creates a holistic system for how to behave."
Find out more about igus on the Web (www.igus.com).
Sidebar: Factory Ready
Fast, agile organizations don't occur naturally. They have to be cultivated, developed, and nurtured. Here's how Frank Blase keeps igus nimble.
Build a flexible environment. At igus, the entire factory environment is designed to be reconfigured easily. The space accommodates the business, not the other way around.
Recruit for that environment. The HR department screens job candidates carefully. One look at the scooters, pace, and lack of privacy, and people have a strong reaction — one way or the other. But just to be sure, igus gives candidates a schnuppertag, or sniffing-around day, to explore, observe, and interview whomever they choose.
Recognize speed — and speed bumps. In his weekly email newsletter, Blase lauds the team that amazed a customer by assembling energy chains in a fraction of the time it would have taken the customer to assemble them. But he also points out lost orders and the fragility of customer loyalty.
Practice being fast. The scooters set a tone and a pace that carries over into other areas of work. Department teams also conduct brief daily huddles to review what did and didn't go well the day before.
Inspire your staff. Flexibility hinges on innovation and creativity, says Blase. And how can you be creative if you aren't inspired to think differently about a problem? At igus, all employees have to do is look around: Their factory looks different for a reason.
A version of this article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.