Spanish carmaker Seat boosts efficiency at its Martorell plant by incorporating small but significant improvements into each new product it builds there.
For the new Ibiza supermini produced at the plant near Barcelona, the latest innovations are designed to save weight.
By using more laser welding, Seat has reduced the car's weight by 100kg. The new Ibiza's body is larger and stronger than the old model's, even though it uses thinner metal.
'The main benefit of laser welding is that it increases rigidity and cuts weight because material thickness can be reduced,' said Josef Anton Habla, Seat executive vice president for production. 'The body of the new Ibiza weighs 1050kg compared with 1150kg for the old model.'
Seat, which is part of the Volkswagen group, invested 250 million in new facilities and tooling at Martorell for the Ibiza. Production is still ramping up and full Ibiza capacity will be 950 units a day.
Even during the ramp up, Martorell added a Saturday shift in March and April to meet rising demand. The plant will continue to build the old Ibiza for the Mexican market until the end of the year.
The laser welding of car roofs to body sides is becoming commonplace, but the Ibiza's body sides are also laser welded to the underbody. Specialists at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany, developed and built the laser welding systems for Martorell. Similar equipment has been supplied for VW Polo assembly at Pamplona, Spain. Both the Ibiza and Polo use VW group's new O platform for small cars.
All Seat models except the Alhambra full-size minivan are now built at Martorell, which is widely regarded as the most flexible plant within the VW group. The Leon and Toledo, previously made at VW's Brussels plant, were transferred to Martorell in 2001. The same year, Martorell stopped building the VW Polo but continues to make the VW Caddy light commercial vehicle.
The Alhambra is built alongside the VW Sharan and Ford Galaxy at Palmela, Portugal.
Together with the Seat Inca, Arosa, Cordoba and Cordoba Vario, Martorell builds eight models with a total capacity of 2,300 units a day. The plant was originally designed in 1993 to produce just two models at 1,500 units a day.
'We did not invest much to get to this capacity. Rather, many small adjustments and bright ideas enabled us to reach this stage,' Habla said.
Martorell's growth came despite efforts to outsource some work.
For example, the new Ibiza's outer body panel is a single stamping for rigidity and safety reasons. Seat looked for an outside stamping supplier but didn't find one. It finally added a new, extra-large press at Martorell.
'In Europe, suppliers with the ability to produce big stampings better than we do in-house do not exist,' Habla said.
Carmakers such as Porsche that do outsource this work tend to use the spare capacity of other automakers.
So Martorell's stamping facility produces all outer panels for the vehicles assembled there.
'If we outsourced production, we would also face the risk of [the outer panels] being damaged in transport,' Habla said. 'Plus there would be the added costs of packaging and logistics.'
But parts under the skin largely come from nearby Zona Franca - Seat's original assembly plant where it began producing Fiats under license in 1953. Zona Franca supplies a total of 216,000 parts and 53,000 assemblies to Martorell every day.
Zona Franca also handles seat frame production, cable harness assembly and some logistics activities. For example, engines produced in Mexico are shipped in bulk to Zona Franca and then delivered in sequence to Martorell.
In addition, a supplier park 2km from Martorell is home to 35 companies that deliver major modules such as cockpits, seats, front ends, rear and front axles, fuel tanks and windows on a just-in-time basis, plus another 50 smaller modules.
Other suppliers deliver parts to a center on the Martorell site managed by Danzas, which sequences parts for the assembly line.
Habla's immediate goals at Martorell are to improve quality, raise productivity, reduce costs and cut the time between customer order and delivery.
'We are aiming to reduce the [order-to-delivery] cycle from about four weeks to two weeks,' he said.
The problem is not in the assembly plant, but in purchasing and logistics, Habla said. Seat is relying on a major business-to-business initiative throughout the VW group to cut order-to-delivery times.
In the long term, Habla expects more outsourcing, particularly in maintenance and logistics. New technology is driving the outsourcing of maintenance work.
'With new technology, it is more efficient to buy the maintenance services that go with it,' he said.
For example, Seat will not develop the expertise to maintain the new laser welding system. Instead, it will use outside help.
'There will be more black boxes of automation in the factory of the future, and it does not make any sense to maintain them ourselves,' Habla said.
Already, Seat subcontracts 60 percent of its logistics activity. This will increase steadily in the future because Seat considers its core business is making cars and not carrying out logistics exercises.
'There are still a lot of logistics people working in the factory, but as they leave and retire they will not be replaced,' Habla said. 'Other companies are better than we are at doing this.'