A peek behind the Stihl curtain

Updated Feb 2, 2018
Stihl has 27 assembly lines at the Virginia Beach plant. Photo: Jill OdomStihl has 27 assembly lines at the Virginia Beach plant.
Photo: Jill Odom

Just like how Harley-Davidson has its loyal following of consumers, so does Stihl Inc.

Because the handheld outdoor power equipment manufacturer doesn’t provide tours to the public, we decided to share a behind the scenes look at what makes the popular brand tick.

Stihl Inc. was founded in the U.S. in 1974 and its headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, was chosen for its port. The Virginia Beach facility produced more than 12,000 units that year and now assembles more than 12,000 products a day.

There are 27 full assembly lines at the facility. These lines can be altered to build another type of machine if a certain Stihl product is moved out of production.

The Virginia Beach facility also produces all of the trimmer line for the world, and this portion of the plant runs 24 hours a day. Every year Stihl produces enough trimmer line to reach the moon and come halfway back to Earth.

Test cells run units at various rpms before the products are shipped out. Photo: Jill OdomTest cells run units at various rpms before the products are shipped out.
Photo: Jill Odom

Two of Stihl’s top priorities are quality and efficiency. In order to live up to its high standards, Stihl has a number of checks and balances to ensure that each product will perform correctly. Test cells are located along each assembly line where the units are run before they are ever boxed and shipped. Those that fail are taken to quality assurance.

Aside from this, quality assurance will also randomly select machines from each line to check that the products are functioning properly and meeting the company’s standards.

On the efficiency side of things, Stihl is constantly innovating and trying to find new ways to work smarter and faster. The company currently has around 155 robots at the Virginia Beach location, but it has yet to have to lay off any full-time employees, despite the fact it is the most automated manufacturer outside of the automotive industry.

“Automation doesn’t steal jobs from Stihl employees,” said James Adams, supervisor of business events, who led the Stihl tour. “It’s man and machine working together.”

Adams says Stihl doesn’t want to replace people with robots but provides the workers with opportunities to learn how to operate the robot or learn a new skill. Each robot in the factory features a plaque that lists when the machine was introduced, what it does and what has been the ROI since then.

Some of the robots have been given affectionate names by the workers, such as Big Bird, a large yellow robot that stacks pallets with boxed units. Others have become such an integral part they are accepted as a component of the plant. An example of this is the laser-guided vehicles (LGV), which are essentially unmanned forklifts.

Using sensors set up throughout the facility, the LGVs follow arranged paths and ensure that the parts and materials needed for each line are available. Like how a robotic mower knows when to head back to its charging station, the LGV will return to its dock when it needs to be charged. The LGVs have been running around for at least 14 years.

Stihl strives to offer its employees growth and education opportunities. Photo: Jill OdomStihl strives to offer its employees growth and education opportunities.
Photo: Jill Odom

Around 2,300 employees work at Stihl Inc. in Virginia Beach and scoreboards at each station allow the workers to see their level of efficiency. On a monthly basis, the Stihl workers have the opportunity to learn new skills. According to Adams, the company spends $1 million in employee training every year.

The company also strives not to be wasteful, so it reuses a lot of its leftover materials, such as the residual resin from injection molding. It has also cut down on the amount of cardboard it uses by creating sturdier containers that can be continually used for transporting parts around the plant.

Stihl’s headquarters is 150 acres and includes an on-site café, an on-site nurse for minor workplace injuries and illnesses and an on-site health and wellness center. In November 2017, Stihl announced its plans for a new 80,000 square-foot administration building that is a more than $25 million investment.

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