11/1/2003 | 5 MINUTE READ

Flemish (car-making) Masters

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Both Opel and Volvo hope to score big in Europe with new versions of the Astra and the S40. To that end they have sunk tidy sums into upgrading their manufacturing plants in the Flanders region of Belgium and are counting on new technology to improve quality and productivity.


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Volvo Evolves to Produce the S40
Volvo Cars Gent (VCG) is poised to become the most important manufacturing site for Volvo in the world. In 2002, the Swedish maker built over 150,000 S60s and V70s at VCG, which made up 37% of its worldwide production. It has now invested 270 million euros to expand the plant’s annual capacity from 160,000 to 270,000 in preparation for building the all-new S40 and V50 small sedan and wagon.

Anti-Waggle Body Shop. Much of that money went into a new body line for the upcoming vehicles. Volvo designed the line with two goals in mind: (1) achieving high dimensional stability and better weld accuracy, and (2) maximizing the flexibility to build a variety of models. The line concept is based around the use of lightweight fixtures that hold panels in precise position as they move from one welding station to another. Volvo says this is the best method it has found to both ensure dimensional accuracy and protect parts as they move through the welding process. Since so much depends on the fixtures, each one is re-measured several times a year to make sure it has not fallen out of tolerance. If defects are found in a particular body the fixture on which it was made is pulled and checked immediately.

To improve dimensional stability in the crucial framing area where the body-in-white first comes together, VCG has merged two framing stations into one where 98 welds are applied by 10 robots in a 60-second cycle time. Volvo says that the increased rigidity the body gains by having more welds performed in one operation greatly reduces the chances of the body moving out of tolerance as it move to subsequent stations. “In some shops you can see the body waggling between the first and second framing station,” says Luc Vandenberghe, VCG’s body shop manager, “But here it’s not possible and that is a huge quality advantage for this concept.”

To check body accuracy VCG employs what may be the most rigorous in-line measuring system in the world. Every body-in-white is completely mapped four separate times on measuring stations strategically located throughout the body shop. Each station employs 120 cameras to measure pre-determined points on the bodies in the X-, Y-, and Z-axes, creating a virtual model that is simultaneously analyzed for dimensional variance.

Current plans call for the new body line to build only the S40 and V50, both of which are based on Ford’s C1 small car platform (which will also be the basis for the Mazda3 and the Ford C-Max). But Vandenberghe says that the line could easily accommodate other platforms by simply changing out fixtures and re-programming robots. Indeed, though the S60 will be built exclusively in the old body shop for the time being, the eventual goal is to build both platforms on it. And with V70 production slated to move to Sweden, VCG will no doubt be testing the flexibility of its new line with another new model soon.

Astra at Opel
Adam Opel AG in general and Opel Belgium N.V. more specifically have a lot riding on the success of the new Astra compact introduced at the Frankfurt Auto Show. Opel has invested half a billion euros in plant upgrades in its plant in Antwerp to produce the vehicle and has committed to making the launch its first-ever running model change. When the first units roll off the line next January, they will be the culmination of years of re-structuring that Opel Belgium officials say has made their plant one of most efficient in Europe.

A Decade of Preparation. In the mid-1990s Opel Belgium underwent a conversion from what it calls “brownfield to leanfield” by installing an andon system and adopting lean manufacturing techniques. The team system was introduced and the number of team and section leaders was radically increased (for example, the team leader per line worker ratio went from 1:16 to 1:5) in an effort to fix defects before they were passed down the line. The modernizing efforts paid off: defect-free deliveries rose by over 28%, warranty claims dropped by 58%, and productivity per employee shot up by 73%. But even with these improvements, Astra sales could not sustain the plant at capacity, and one of its two assembly lines was shut down. Opel Belgium went from a two-line, five-shift operation to a one-line, through-shift schedule, but through line speed increases and efficiency-up projects managed to keep the overall production decrease to only 22%. Now the plant’s equipment is running at capacity, even though activities like re-aligning tasks and fine tuning equipment have led to 10 to 30% productivity increases in some areas. Indeed, the plant may have done too much trimming to help meet GM’s goal of 100% capacity utilization in Europe in 2004, since plant manager Diana Tremblay’s chief concern seems to be a lack of capacity once demand for the new model takes hold. “Our challenge will be to make every unit we can,” she says.

Modular Press. The most striking piece of the huge investment made in the plant is the expansion of the press shop to include what’s said to be a first-of-its-kind Schuler compact crossbar press. The press is built on a modular concept that allows for easier access to each station once operations are running, and speeded installation since each module was largely assembled off-site and then quickly added to its counterparts once in the press shop. Transfer robots within the press are able to manipulate panels while in motion, eliminating idle stations and reducing the overall footprint of the press to only two-thirds the length of previous models. The new machine will give Opel Belgium the ability to stamp entire side panels and bring the number of panels it will stamp for the Astra to 56. Press shop manager Ken Wakefield says the new press should enhance the productivity of his stamping operations, but notes that Opel Belgium is already rated number one in Europe in that metric by the Harbour Report.

Wireless Andon. In the body shop Opel is using a new twist on the andon to countermeasure defects. Because the size and height of many of the welding stations occludes the andon board and keeps managers from quickly seeing where production problems arise (which is after all the chief purpose of the board in the first place), a direct wireless notification capability has been added. When a worker in the body shop notices a problem at a welding station, he pulls the andon cord which both highlights the station’s block on the andon board and sends a text message over a DECC (digital enhanced cordless communication) system directly to the section’s leader telling him the specific station that is having a problem. The andon board itself is a large flat panel display which makes it both easier to read and faster to update if stations are added or removed.



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