Things are different here at the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility factory.
Automakers typically leave service and technical training issues to the folks in the sales and marketing department. Those functions are handled at headquarters, where training directors have access to the people who routinely talk to retailers and their shops.
But that's not the way it works at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc. in Vance, Ala.
When the factory was launched two years ago, it was Daimler-Benz AG's only worldwide source for the ML320. The venture was created as an independent subsidiary of Daimler (now DaimlerChrysler AG). It had sole global responsibility not only for building and distributing the M class but also for creating the training programs to serve Mercedes-Benz sales companies around the world.
Now, as the Alabama operation begins its third year of production, the factory maintains a team of five individuals who generate training materials and technical communications in five languages to serve 135 markets around the globe.
The effort illustrates the kinds of new demands that come with building vehicles in a global environment.
The Mercedes factory has not usurped the role of training retail-level technicians from the various sales companies. Rather, the Alabama group has created a new tier of service: training the trainers at the sales companies to bring the retail-level technicians up to date.
The Alabama managers have even gone a tier beyond that: They also train the people back at DaimlerChrysler's home office in Stuttgart, Germany, who themselves will train the trainers at the various European sales companies. In that case, Vance actually is training the trainers' trainers.
'It's highly unusual to have an extension of the training activity at the manufacturing site,' acknowledges Alan Apel, assistant manager of service training at Mercedes-Benz U.S. International. 'The idea was to put the training effort in the plant with the product to give us a more intimate knowledge of the vehicle as it evolves.'
Apel and the training team occupy a set of desks and computers in the corner of the Mercedes plant's office area, not far from factory purchasing, quality and scheduling managers. The movement of sport-utilities through the plant is always within the department's sight and earshot.
'What we do is a little different from the nuts-and-bolts training that goes on at the sales company level,' Apel adds. 'Our role is to help the trainers out there get the resources and information they need and still leave them with enough flexibility to make their training specific to their particular market needs in 135 countries.'
Before Mercedes opened its first non-German auto factory, all training emanated from the central office in Stuttgart. The automaker realized that the new Vance subsidiary would be too small to handle a worldwide training program by itself, so it divided up the responsibility.
When it comes to the M-class products, Alabama is responsible for assisting the U.S. sales company, Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. in Montvale, N.J. It also serves Canada, the markets of Central and South America and the world's right-hand-drive markets, including the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore. Japan and the rest of Asia remain the responsibility of Germany, which is itself trained by Alabama. Germany also takes the lead role in Europe and the Middle East - except for Israel, which is handled by Alabama.
Regardless of who does what, when it comes to the service and technical information flow, the Alabama team is responsible. By the end of the plant's second year of operation, the small Vance group had created and distributed 27 information products, ranging from owner's manuals to videos to CD-ROMs to three-inch-thick binders. All products are published in English, German, French, Spanish and Italian.
Mercedes uses a commercial translating company in Huntsville, Ala., to translate the works and to provide the voice-overs for videos that go out to various markets. The translation work sometimes raises puzzling issues that factories typically don't face, Apel says. 'We were hearing back from some of our Spanish-speaking markets about the kind of Spanish we had on the videos,' he explains. 'Some markets prefer a Castilian Spanish like you'd hear in Spain. Others prefer not to have Castilian Spanish, it turns out.'
At the same time, he notes, dealers in the United Kingdom have yet to complain about the video's American English.
Apel emphasizes that the various sales companies around the world retain ultimate authority when it comes to training the personnel at their dealerships. The Mercedes distributor for Italy, for instance, might decide that it doesn't want to use a certain training tool at all.
On the other hand, in some cases, Alabama has a direct link to the sales company. In South Africa, for example, the sales organization requires each of its dealers to use computer-based training, with dedicated computers and personnel. The Vance group, which now is moving more toward computer-based training materials, supplies CD-ROM materials to the South African company, which in turn passes them along to retailers.
Centralized training also gives Mercedes the big picture. 'How to train' has become a major issue at the automaker. Mercedes worldwide has turned toward 'performance training' rather than 'information training.' The effort increasingly is on putting useful skills into the technicians' hands, showing them how to perform a repair and putting information at their fingertips so they can find an answer when they need it.
In the past, all too often, Apel notes, the information exchange consisted of trainers sitting in a meeting room while a factory technical official delivered a lecture, showed overhead slides of diagrams and expected the trainers to take notes.
Making sure the information connects with the people who need it is an especially critical issue at Vance because the factory does not have direct access to retailers. Its role does not include quizzing service technicians to find out how effectively they have learned the material Vance is distributing. 'We really depend on feedback from the individual markets to know whether we're getting the job done,' Apel explains.
For that reason, the Vance group is exploring new methods of distributing training and technical information. Among the new ideas is Internet-based training that would offer technicians an exclusive Web site with technical information.
Other automakers are moving aggressively into computer-based CD-ROM training. But Mercedes is skeptical of embracing a single technology. 'We view that as a mistake,' Apel says. 'How can you identify the media you're going to use before you've determined what it is you're going to teach? It's fine for some material, not so great for other jobs. You can't teach someone to align a car on a video.
'Our job,' he adds, 'is to meet the training needs of all the different markets - all 135 of them. And that will mean a lot of different solutions.'
Lindsay Chappell is an Automotive News staff reporter based in Nashville, Tenn.