O-I’s recent furnace 3 project at its Gironcourt, France facility was its largest in nearly two decades.
Greg Morris spoke to Jean-Pierre François, the man tasked with leading the project, to discuss how communication and teamwork were key to its success – and how O-I overcame the final hurdle of Covid.
There was a small tear in Jean-Pierre François’ eye when furnace 3 at O-I’s Gironcourt plant was ignited in August this year.
The furnace lighting ceremony at the north-east France facility was the culmination of nearly two years of project planning and hard work by the entire team.
The €60 million investment in the facility was one of O-I’s largest in nearly two decades and at its peak, nearly 350 people were working on site.
Mr François, O-I’s South West Europe Engineering Lead, was in charge of the project and, at its culmination, he admits he felt emotional.
He said: “When we heated the furnace and gob loaded the machine after two years on site I had a high level of emotion, and if I remember well a small tear in my eye. It was like a baby was finally here.
“To shepherd the project from A to Z was a great feeling and I will never forget it.”
Furnace 3 was part of a €60 million investment from O-I at Gironcourt.
The Gironcourt expansion was first outlined towards the end of 2018 as a result of increased demand for more bottles from O-I’s customers.
They had reported an increase in enquires and therefore wanted to grow their businesses, as well as increase the appreciation of glass.
The Gironcourt facility, which specialises in beer bottle production and is strategically located close to the German border, was the ideal location to invest in.
Mr François, who has worked for the company for 22 years, was chosen to lead the project.
He said: “I was surprised at first and quickly recognised what a privilege it was to be chosen. The organisation had placed their confidence in me so I had to demonstrate that they had made a good decision.
“With our team, we wanted to do something that would be dedicated to what was needed and, above all, that would produce the right bottles to satisfy customer and consumer requirements.”
While Mr François had worked on manufacturing projects before, nothing was on the same scale as the Gironcourt investment.
His first task was to draw up a communication structure which would ensure all stakeholders were kept informed of developments at each stage of the programme.
Its purpose was to ensure that everyone was aligned in order to drive the build of the furnace.
All dimensions were covered in the communication plan and included health and safety, quality, customers, engineering, manufacturing, legal, technical, HR, communications and supply chain.
The communication structure was created in January 2019 and was only dropped in autumn this year.
“It was an important project, quite long, that required good lines of communication so everyone was clear on their responsibilities.
“This structure of roles and responsibilities was crucial to the success of the project.
"If we did not have a structure where everyone understood what had to be done and what their counterparts were doing, it could have been a failure.”
Meanwhile the internal communication continued throughout the duration of the assignment.
An internal newsletter was launched which informed existing staff at the plant of all progress on the new furnace.
The facility’s two other furnaces continued to produce glass while construction work took place and it was important for staff to know of milestones and updates from the building site.
Lastly from a communication perspective, every two weeks Mr François would meet O-I’s then European President Vitaliano Torno to update him on progress.
Gironcourt-sur-Vraine is located in a rural area of France and the next challenge was to hire 60 new employees and to train them in glass manufacturing.
It was then that O-I’s Human Resources department became key. In conjunction with the regional authorities, it held a series of job fairs to source new members of staff.
The local authorities and mayors remained key to the project throughout, with a steering committee meeting every two months to provide regional governments with progress updates.
The world’s largest container glassmaker received more than 800 resumes for the 60 positions at the new furnace. It had a dedicated organisation to filter the applicants.
Once the new workers were hired they received more than 50,000 man hours of training about the glass manufacturing process and the different specialities they would work in.
They received training in a classroom as well as on the shop floor, shadowing staff on the site’s furnaces 4 and 5 to ensure they reached the requiste level of know-how required.
A typical furnace rebuild would have approximately 200 people on site but such was the scale of this investment that, at its peak, there were 340 people on site.
These were divided throughout the facility, from the batch plant to the palletiser.
The project was running on schedule when, in March this year, the Covid pandemic struck and France went into lockdown.
The installation had reached a critical stage of construction, with the erection of the furnace and the chambers within the oven.
Team members discussed how to stop the construction in a manner that it would be able to restart easily and without jeopardising anything.
Mr François admits it was heartbreaking to be so close to their end goal when the lockdown rules came into play.
He said: “The project was a rollercoaster of emotion and this moment was a big one. But it was the same all over the globe, we didn’t complain and we discussed what we had to do.”
After a long discussion, the group implemented specific procedures to stop and restart the furnace without jeopardising construction, and which would also be carried out in a safe way.
Despite the hurdle caused by Covid, the furnace was successfully ignited on August 27 this year during a lighting ceremony attended by local dignitaries and senior O-I executives.
Mr François said he felt tremendous gratitude when the furnace was ignited. One was as a result of the feedback from the people who were working on the new furnace.
He said: “The main satisfaction has been the positive feedback from our key customers. We engaged them throughout the project and finally had the chance to deliver the first bottle to them.
“It was exactly the bottle we expected to have so there was great satisfaction in that, not just for me but for the company, because we built the furnace exactly for them.”
Despite his experience in manufacturing, Mr François still learnt a lot from the two-year operation. He will deploy those skills gained on this project on any future assignment, even if it is of smaller scale to this one.
“If we want to be successful in such a project there is a simple recipe: people, teamwork and passion. I met extraordinary women and men within O-I and externally and I think we learned from each other and we are much stronger for the next project.
“People are key in our business. Alone you can fail but you cannot succeed. As a team we always find solutions, always innovate and are always able to move forward.
“I can also say that nothing is possible without passion. I can tell you the glass industry has a singular thing and that is passion. For me, if you have passion, teamwork, and good people, you can succeed in every project.”