DaimlerChrysler's manufacturing philosophy for body-shop efficiency has come full circle in a generation of the Mercedes-Benz E class.
When a new-generation E class was introduced in 1994, the giant Sindelfingen plant was converted to a single, highly flexible body shop producing all C-, E- and S-class body variations.
When a further generation of the E class arrived last year, Sindelfingen created separate body shops for each platform and reduced body configurations from 25,000 possible body combinations to just 12.
DaimlerChrysler discovered that the ability to produce precisely the right mix of models to meet demand was not worth the extra capital expense and increased difficulties in controlling quality, said Detlef Denker, Sindelfingen body shop manager.
A flexible body shop "can produce whatever mix of bodies is needed to satisfy the market at any moment," he said. "The big disadvantage is the expense and the quality."
Denker estimated the capital cost of tooling and other expenses for three separate single-model body shops at about 30 percent less than outfitting one large body shop. His calculation assumes both configurations have the same total capacity.
Flexible production machinery is more expensive than single-purpose production tooling, even though flexible tooling manufacturers have become more cost-competitive in the past decade, he said.
But maintaining quality is an even bigger issue, Denker said.
"With a flexible body shop, quality is a compromise for all the models," he said. "It is simply not the best for all."
Sindelfingen's experiment with a single flexible body shop only lasted a little more than two years starting with the launch of the E class in 1994.
In 1996, a new-generation S class was given its own body shop. And when the C class was replaced with a new design in 1999, the combined E-class and C-class body shop was separated.