FLINS, France - The last of the original Clios came off the line at Renault's Flins plant 25 miles west of Paris last Dec. 23. Production swung over to the new model after the holidays, and the countdown started to the public launch in March.
The quick production turnaround was not the only novelty at Flins. In preparation for the new Clio, Renault spent 1.1 billion francs ($183 million) on all-new body and final assembly lines and new stamping plant technology.
The investment is paying off. Renault says it has cut costs 12 percent below the target set at the beginning of the project.
'For the first time at Renault, a new vehicle will be produced cheaper than the car it replaces from job one,' said Andre Massias, in charge of manufacturing on the Clio project team.
The changes at Flins are only a first step in the process of making Renault's largest plant more efficient. The focus is on improved worker productivity. Last year, Flins' workers built 52 cars each, including the old Clio and Twingo. In 2000, the target is 65 cars.
'We will gain 20 percent by switching from Clio 1 to Clio 2 within 18 months,' said Gerard Leclercq, Flins plant manager. 'Most of the improvement comes from new parts designs that bring substantial gains during assembly.'
Using the International Motor Vehicle Program standard, Deputy Plant Manager Alain Gabillet said Renault took 25.6 hours to make one car in Flins in 1992. Last year, it took only 19.6 hours. He said Renault targets 17 hours in 1998 and 15 hours in 2000.
Flins built 337,500 cars with 7,200 employees in 1997. Gabillet said the goal in 2000 is to make 400,000 to 450,000 cars per year with 5,000 people on two shifts. Flins now builds 1,900 cars a day - 1,100 Twingos and 800 Clios.
The Clio is also made in Valladolid, Spain, and production starts this month in Novo Mesto, Slovenia. Altogether, daily output will be 2,300 units.
Renault engineers have concentrated on simplifying process flow. That has been a special problem at the Flins complex, which stretches over 9.9 million square feet.
Manufacturing efficiency suffered as a result. The body shop was located in a separate building several hundred yards from the main plant. After welding, bodies were brought along an aerial tunnel to the paint shop.
The problem is now fixed. The new $149.7 million body shop is located next to the stamping plant. The former body shop will be used by suppliers.
The Twingo and the Clio still have separate body shops. But the new Clio's flexible body assembly plant can accept other models of similar size, including the Twingo replacement, Gabillet said.
Bodies will stop at extra work stations along the assembly line for model-specific parts and welding. The basic shape and size of the line will not change. Philippe Ventre, head of Renault's engineering division, said the Sandouville plant that makes the Safrane and the Laguna will be the first to use a new body shop design in 1999.
In the Flins stamping plant, two new stations with laser-welding machines allow high-speed, edge-to-edge welding of steel sheets of different thickness and materials. The so-called laser-joining technology is being used by Renault for the first time to make the body sides of the new Clio.
The number of dies in the stamping plant has been reduced by a third. The total number of bolt sizes has been reduced from 120 to 20, and attachments from 1,284 to 914. The number of components used in final assembly has dropped from 3,200 to 2,300.
The old final assembly line at Flins was spread over two floors. It is now on the ground floor only. The line has also been reduced in length from 3,056 feet to 2,485 feet.
The new line moves forward like a conveyor belt, freeing workers from the need to walk alongside. It has three programmable heights to make certain operations easier.
Changes to the final assembly line were implemented in September 1996, long before the new Clio. 'By the time we started making the preproduction Clio 2 in June 1997, everything was OK,' said Leclercq.
Testing of facilities before new cars go into production is considered crucial.
Leclercq said that is why the Clio ramp-up took only three months compared with seven months on the previous model. Full production of 800 cars per day in Flins was reached in April.
'Originally, we had targeted five months,' he said. 'Two years after the introduction of the first Clio in 1990, we were still spending time to fix problems in the plant.'