Manufacturing News

American workers train in China for CRRC plant in US

It was just the beginning of an incredible journey that transformed China into a major player in high-speed rail technology.

Back in the 19th century, 30 pupils from the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) traveled to the United States as part of an educational mission.

One of them was 12-year-old Zhan Tianyou, who would later be known as the "Father of China's Railways", after he was selected to learn the business in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Nearly 150 years later, that small city in the US will be home to a factory that builds rail coaches and is part of China Railway Rolling Stock Corp's subsidiary in Massachusetts.

To complete the circle, 33 employees from the Springfield operation arrived at CRRC's manufacturing plant in Changchun, northeastern China's Jilin province, in April for a three-month training course.

"China has demonstrated its competitive edge in high-speed rail technology over the last few years," said Wang Mengshu, an academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Beijing.

It is this "competitive edge" that has fast-tracked CRRC into a global company with a subsidiary in Springfield, a traditional railway hub.

The city is home to 154,000 people and will become a manufacturing center for assembling CRRC rail coaches by 2018.

The $95 million factory is part of a $566.6 million deal with Boston's transit authority, signed in October 2014, to build 284 rail cars.

These are due to replace the aging fleet connecting Cambridge to downtown Boston by 2023.

"Economically, I think it (the plant) will have a large impact, not just on Springfield but Boston itself," said Tammi Vancini, one of the 33 US employees undergoing training in Changchun.

China has come a long way at bullet-speed since revamping its rail network at the beginning of the 21st century. And CRRC has been leading the way.

Before entering the global market, the world rail engine and coach industry was dominated by big names such as Japan's Hitachi Ltd and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, Siemens AG of Germany or Bombardier Inc from Canada.

But now China is a leading exporter of railway engines, including bullet trains and electric multiple units, as well as coaches.

CRRC's total value of orders from abroad surged by 40 percent year-on-year to $8.1 billion in 2016. About 83 percent of countries with railroads are using CRRC products.

"In the global context, China's high-speed trains come in at competitive prices," said Wang Mengshu at the Chinese Academy of Engineering. "China's bullet trains also run in various climates, ranging from tropical to alpine, as well as across various geological conditions."

CRRC has built a global network of 75 subsidiaries from Malaysia to as far as South Africa, including 13 research and development centers located in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany.

At the Changchun plant, the 33 US employees underwent a one-month classroom course in theory training when they arrived.

"After that, they will spend two months working in the assembly section and will be involved in the rail cars for the Boston project at the CRRC Changchun plant," said Sun Gang, a training specialist for the Boston project at the CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Co, a subsidiary of the parent company CRRC.

Once up and running, the Springfield plant is expected to create around 150 local jobs, according to the company.

For Vancini and her colleagues, the training program offers opportunities for career development. Delighted to be involved in the company, she revealed that production will start after the Springfield group returns home.

"The better we do, the better the company does, and at this point it means more industries coming back here," said Vancini, who is an electrical assembler at the plant after previously working as a telecommunication installation technician.

"It means people in our neighborhoods are going to be getting jobs, people will get the chance to go back into manufacturing."

Richard Hernandez, a supervisor with the assembly team, knows the Springfield investment will be a big boost for the city's economy and a welcome return to rail production.

"The company is bringing more work to the area," he said. "And we are also building great designed products."

Sun said he felt that a new era is dawning in cooperation as he worked alongside the US employees.

Once they have finished their training, they will be able to pass on their knowledge to new workers at the Springfield factory, where car production is to go full steam in April 2018, with cars entering service between 2019 and 2023.

"Our US staff will become workforce pioneers for the plant," Sun said. "They will be able to manufacture rail cars for the US market as well as train other employees at the Springfield factory in the future."

Yu Weiping, CRRC's vice-president, also has a vision when it comes to this high-profile venture.

He pointed out that the Chinese group was keen to be involved in a new high-speed rail culture in the US after investments in Springfield and also Chicago.

In 2016, CRRC Sifang, a CRRC unit, was awarded a $1.3 billion contract by the Chicago Transit Authority to supply more than 840 new railcars to replace approximately half the agency's fleet. As part of the contract, the company agreed to make the railcars in Chicago.

The plant will be on 45 acres in the Hegewisch neighborhood and will employ around 170 people, the majority of them being skilled sheet metal and electrical workers. It will also create nearly 200 construction jobs.

CRRC Sifang America will spend $7 million to train the factory workers, according to a statement from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office. Production will begin in early 2019 and after testing the rail cars they are expected to be on the rails by 2020.

"With high-speed trains traveling at more than 300 kilometers per hour, it will help the US to change its commuting system, which has long been dominated by cars," said Yu.

New techniques such as "smart manufacturing" will also help cut down costs at the Springfield plant. This use of high-end technology will improve efficiency in rail car production.

"Workers will be able to view all the materials on screens and report any problems during the daily production process via a full wireless network coverage in the plant," said Liu Zongmin, vice-general manager at CRRC's Springfield operation.

"By collecting fundamental data during the manufacturing process, we can better balance production." Liu added. "We will embrace new technologies, creating a manufacturing hub for the North America market."

Luo Zhaoqiang, chief operator at the CRRC Changchun center, took the training group through the debugging procedures in the manufacturing equipment in case of major problems or breakdowns.

"I've never seen such a debugging machine before," said Michael Dee, a test technician and part of the US group. "With the help of the new device, we can easily simulate a real problem and then learn to repair it on the machine."

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