ZF has certainly been in the news this past year. In addition to new products and developments, the company completed its first century by moving from the making of precision gears for airships to a major automotive industry supplier. The somewhat obvious question is: Where will ZF go from here? While some people might envision ZF as a little old man with a mustache – much like its founder – the truth is that ZF is just getting its second wind.
In transmissions, ZF just introduced the new start/stop function on its EcoLife six-speed automatic transmissions. With axles, ZF figured out that the transit bus industry was going electric and got there first. Its low-floor AVE 130 electric portal axle with electric motors built into the wheels is creating green transportation opportunities for bus builders. A major step forward in automation is ZF’s Innovation Truck that can automatically park itself and two connected trailers. Probably the biggest step forward of all is the acquisition of TRW that will combine the best of two worlds: the automotive component expertise of ZF and the computer technology of TRW. This is expected to open the door to new developments in collision avoidance technology and possibly continue on to developments in autonomous driving.
One of the more interesting recent developments is a major expansion at ZF’s facility in Vernon Hills, Illinois. This facility has two main purposes. It is the ZF parts distribution center for North America and also does the precision rebuilding of several ZF products including axles and transmissions. In addition to being a major investment for ZF, Vernon Hills serves as an obvious visible commitment to customer support and service. While many of the products do not pertain to buses, the facility does have a bus bay at the back to serve its bus customers. It may be unique in being a component facility that can actually service buses.
Vernon Hills is a far north suburb of Chicago. It is located approximately seven or eight miles west of Lake Michigan in an area that was pretty much open farmland at one time. Many years ago your editor purchased a bus from a bus company in this area and later purchased some interstate operating authority from that same company.
Vernon Hills is located just north of Half Day, Illinois, a community that got its name by being a half day’s drive from Chicago in the old days. It is also located not far from Illinois Highway 21 that Chicago people would call Milwaukee Avenue. West and north of here are several small lakes that serve as a local resort area for the Chicago metroplex.
ZF is actually located in a very modern and attractive research and business park that also provides space for several other major corporations. Their facility was recently enlarged to allow for a 53 percent increase in activity over the next three years to keep up with customer needs in the areas of parts supply and component remanufacturing. Today, the facility covers 289,000 square feet and has a staff of 284 working two and in some cases even three shifts. Certifications include TS16949, ISO 14001 and ISO 9001.
It should be noted that ZF has put in a substantial effort to minimize its environmental footprint. In addition to a water filtration system, the facility has wastewater treatment. Volatile organic compounds are maintained at proper levels to uphold air permits. The facility has a “reduce, reuse and recycle” program in place. You will find electric vehicle charging stations in the front parking lot. ZF has been a three-time winner of the Governor’s Pollution Protection Award.
Vernon Hills does no new manufacturing and is primarily dedicated to aftermarket customer service and support. A major part of the facility is dedicated to parts. This is the primary ZF parts distribution center for North America. Much of the remainder is used for the remanufacturing of components for ZF customers. This includes the remanufacturing of axles, rail gearboxes, wind gearboxes, passenger car and light truck transmissions, industrial drives and transmissions for buses, coaches and commercial vehicles.
The recently expanded parts warehouse and distribution center is impressive. It is built on a 10-inch concrete floor and has 36 rows of parts racks that are 10 levels high. Much of the picking is done by specialized lifts. There are two shifts working in this area six days each week to keep parts moving for customers.
An interesting side note is that the distribution center also includes an area for kit assembly. ZF is big on putting components, parts and related items together as “kits” to make ordering and replacement easier for customers. Hence, you can order everything you need together in one box. Kits include such items as clutches for commercial vehicles.
Remanufacturing differs by product line. On some of the smaller items there are individual stands and testing units. With the larger ones, you need special equipment to move things around and special or huge testing equipment. Bear in mind that virtually all of the ZF components being remanufactured are too heavy to lift and special stands and equipment are used for the rebuilding process.
A good place to start is with the Commercial Vehicle Rebuild Bay since this involves some bus components including automatic transmissions, manual transmissions, automated manual transmissions and axles. We can follow an incoming AS Tronic transmission with Intarder through the process. Typically, the newly arrived component is washed and tested to determine what is required for the remanufacturing process. The unit then goes to a work area equipped with a custom stand where a specially-trained technician disassembles the unit and replaces any parts that do not meet OEM specifications. Once remanufactured, each unit is inspected and tested to make sure it passes original equipment specifications.
This ability to have a major component remanufactured to OEM specifications is a major reason why manufacturers and individual customers like to specify ZF components. A similar procedure is used on axles as well as other components being remanufactured, although each has a different set of work areas, testing areas and trained technicians.
Another area is dedicated to the rebuilding of industrial drivelines and agriculture components. As with other areas, there are a number of different ZF products that are remanufactured in this area. Included are lock up and non-lock up torque converters for off-highway use. You will also find heavy duty powershift, continuously variable transmissions as well as both rigid and steering axles. Unexpected but interesting, this area also includes the rebuilding of cement mixer components.
We have all seen those big wind turbines that turn wind into electricity. Who do you think is responsible for the accurate and balanced gear system connected to the main shaft? If you said “ZF,” you are correct. This may be the most impressive area of the Vernon Hills facility since the wind power components are anything but small. They tend to come in three sizes – big, bigger and huge. Earlier versions were rated at 400 to 500 KW, but the newer ones run from one to three megawatts. Some of the gears are the size of large tires and well beyond the capability of a single person to lift.
The turbine gearboxes tend to come and go on individual trucks. The gearbox for a 1.5 megawatt wind turbine weighs in at 53,000 pounds. There is a process washer for the turbine gearboxes that is big enough to hold several people. Actual remanufacturing takes place on a unique rotator stand made especially for working on turbine gearboxes. We were told that some of the turbine gearboxes were set up to do 100 turns on the shaft for a single turn on the blades.
ZF’s test bench for the turbine gearboxes takes up a huge area and is highly specialized. It involves a test bed with tons of concrete and rebar plus a cooling tower outside. Because of vibration, the floor is made from floating T-bars. The unit at Vernon Hills can test up to 2.5 megawatts. In fact, the ZF turbine gearbox testing area is so sophisticated that they do tests for other manufacturers.
It is interesting that ZF also provides some outside repair and field services for wind turbine gearboxes. In some cases they can do repairs up-tower including main shaft repairs.
Another remanufacturing area is dedicated to rail drives. This includes drives for light rail equipment, drives for electric multiple unit trains as well as for diesel multiple unit rail cars. Beyond this are drive axles for light rail equipment. This is partnered with a wheel press operation. Some of this service supports new rail car deliveries by rail car manufacturers.
Industrial drives are remanufactured in yet another area. This includes both the ZF Duoplan and Servoplan units. The Duoplan is a two-speed planetary gearbox for use in metal cutting machine tools. It helps widen the power range of spindle motors. The Servoplan is a line of planetary gearboxes, single or double stage, with a reduction ratio from three to 100. They are widely used in automation and packaging machines to amplify the torque of serve motors without loss of precision.
In addition to all of the above, ZF also remanufacturers automobile transmissions. These are among the smallest units remanufactured at Vernon Hills but also some of the most numerous. Included are five- and six-speed manual transmissions as well as five-, six-, eight- and nine-speed automatic transmissions. Vernon Hills also remanufactures lock up torque converters for passenger car transmissions. These are rebuilt using the same procedure as the bus transmissions but the stands and testing units are smaller.
ZF also has a substantial service support staff for ZF products. Technical service support is provided for all external partners in both commercial vehicle and off-highway markets. There is an in-house technical trainer who provides training sessions on ZF applications. Knowledgeable in-house technical support and service staff includes 13 employees for commercial vehicle and automotive applications. An addition five service staff cover the wind department.
There are several reasons why bus operators are comfortable with ZF components. They include the availability of parts, support and remanufacturing. One of the most interesting reasons is located at the rear of the Vernon Hills plant. This is their bus bay large enough for two buses. When we visited, there was a bus outside that had arrived for just this purpose. It is comforting to know that if the need comes up, you can drive your bus to ZF in Vernon Hills. They will pull your bus inside and work on your ZF transmission, axles or other components. I cannot remember any other component manufacturer who offers a similar service.