Back in 1998 when I had a very and unreliable old car my approach to maintenance was hands on. I had very little money, so when the alternator broke I did what I’d grown up with. I took a punt, went down to the local scrap yard on the Isle of Wight with my tools and removed a fairly rusty one from an almost identical car.
I had no guarantee that it would function, but I bought it for a few quid, and then with a fair deal of cursing, and a few bleeding knuckles later my car was starting again. Around me were rows, piles and mountains of car. Bits of car, windscreens smashed, oil on the floor and everything from cushions, to wiring looms and even cassettes (yes, it was back in 1998) which had been left in vehicles as they took their final journey. It felt quite eerie, I imagined like a bomb site – and the noise of the huge metal crushing machine, sweeping overhead like an incredibly destructive dinosaur from another world mechanically chewing through tonnes and tonnes of discarded and unwanted mangled stuff.
But Choisy was a world apart. By the entrance sat thousands and thousands of engines, all stacked neatly in pallets. All slightly rusty and covered in road dust and oil, as, after all, every engine which arrived on site had been removed from a vehicle because it was broken. Inside however, as the engines began their re-manufacturing journey they slowly lost all clues that they may have had a previous life. As we were taken through the immaculate factory we saw skilled men and women breaking down the engines into their constituent parts, and everything from oil, to crank shafts and wiring disassembled.
Boxes, all labeled lay either side of our path, within which sat shiny parts, cogs, gear boxes and engine housings were neatly stacked. As we walked we could see parts cleaned, tested and sorted – so well that without a bar-code it was impossible to tell them apart from the new parts which lay beside them. The next phase was testing. Cogs spinning, gears being changed, all monitored on computer screens – making sure that the part was up to scratch. I felt a strange feeling of being at home in that factory. In a way it reminded me of being at home as a child in my Dad’s garage. I loved taking things apart, learning how they worked, and then putting them back together – a skill I guess which helped me at sea when I had no choice but to problem solve.
Many times in my life I have felt that feeling of joy as I have repaired something which was previously broken. Hearing the engine run again, the computer fire up or the sail slide once again up the mast. Choisy reminded me of all this… As we continued we saw fuel pumps taken apart, tested, cleaned – trained eyes watching carefully to make sure that each part was as good as the day it was originally made. I have visited several car plants, but this one felt different. The level of noise was not there – as though engines left the factory in the same way, they were not forged from scratch. There were no huge presses of several thousand tonnes to shape them from steel – but Choisy was different…
As I began my presentation to the workers of Choisy I felt full of conviction that anything was possible. Not only had I been made extremely welcome there (never before have I been presented with a fluorescent orange jacket with the Foundations name on the back!), but also I felt that I was witnessing the circular economy at real scale. When a re-manufactured gearbox leaves Choisy it contains an average of 75% pre-used, but tested parts. When an engine leaves Choisy it contains 38% pre-used, but tested parts.
For they are the people within Renault who have the most knowledge of the practical aspects of designing for disassembly. “What if”, “What if the engines were designed for disassembly from the outset” I remarked … everyone nodded… and “what if, you could re-manufacture them before they were broken”… again, everyone nodded. Seeing that business work at scale was extraordinary, but I couldn’t help but feel just how much more there was to this… How we were only just scratching the surface, and that if the Choisy plant is a €200 million business, then the possibilities are endless. Choisy just dealt with engines, but how would a factory look if we remanufactured the whole vehicle?
As we left the factory I spotted a whole pile of boxes waiting to take their remanufactured parts. “Official Renault Spares” – and at the end of the day – perhaps that’s all that matters.