TUSCALOOSA, Alabama, USA - Mercedes-Benz is improving the quality of its Alabama body shop by raising automation levels and reducing the role of suppliers.
Changing supplier roles is in addition to the $600 million (E512 million) expansion now under way.
Set up almost 10 years ago to build the M class sport-utility, production at the Tuscaloosa assembly plant in Alabama reached 88,000 units last year even though it was originally designed for 65,000. When the expansion is complete by 2005, capacity will be 160,000 units per year, with the work force doubled to 4,000.
The plant will then produce two different models: a new-generation M class and the brand new Mercedes-Benz GST crossover vehicle. Merc-edes showed it as a concept at the Detroit auto show in 2002.
The expansion adds a second paint shop, a second final assembly shop, and a bigger and better body shop to replace the original one.
The new body shop will assemble both models, but mostly on separate lines, said Jim Leyhew, body shop manager.
Quality will be a major focus, he added. The current body shop assembles a body from 25 large sub-assemblies supplied by external companies, Ogihara and Mayflower. But the new body shop will perform more assembly operations internally.
"Because all the sub-assembly work was outsourced, when there was a quality problem, we had to go back to the suppliers to sort it out," Leyhew said. "We want to maintain more control of the assembly process so we are going to bring in stampings, only some of which are partly assembled. These will mostly be the geometry-critical parts."
Mercedes-Benz will dramatically increase the number of robots in the Tuscaloosa body shop. The 70 robots currently in use will be returned to robot maker Fanuc.
Mercedes will replace them with 600 new robots supplied by Kuka, the German robot builder that supplies Mercedes-Benz plants in Germany. Having the same robots as its German counterparts helps the US plant adopt the same technology for quality control and for the introduction of adhesive, Leyhew said.
Automation levels in the new body shop could be as high as 90 percent, he estimated, compared with 32 percent for the existing operation.
Mercedes selected Pico, a Comau company, to engineer and build the complete new body shop. It will use Perceptron laser sensing for measuring body-in-white geometry in the new body shop to raise production precision.
The M-class body is currently inspected at a single Perceptron station where 44 cameras measure 76 points on the body in 10 seconds.
Leyhew is currently assessing how best to increase applications of the Pico technology.
The current Tuscaloosa body shop takes about three hours to produce each body, and approximately 24 hours to build a complete vehicle. The initiatives to reduce cycle times that the Tuscaloosa employees took won them a new award given by the Mercedes car group for the best overall implementation of the Mercedes-Benz Production System.
During the first quarter last year, each team member at the plant offered suggestions that reduced the takt - or cycle - time by six seconds. By implementing 1,000 suggestions in a single month, team members extended their morning and afternoon breaks by five minutes, cut the number of 10-hour shifts, reduced Saturday work, and built more cars per hour. With 88,271 units, 2002 production was 10 percent higher than in 2001.
The plant expansion includes initiatives to improve quality internally and externally. For the last two years, 15 engineers at Tuscaloosa were dedicated to design and concept issues on the current M class. The team is now working on the manufacturing area with German development function groups to make the new vehicles easier to build. The plant also initiated a pilot program that selects a Mercedes engineer as a full-time liaison with key suppliers on quality issues.
Since Mercedes set up the plant in Tuscaloosa, 20 Tier 1 suppliers have located in Alabama. Several deliver parts to the assembly line on a just-in-time basis.
Johnson Controls, for example, delivers seats, headliners and door panels from a facility that is 15 minutes away. Delphi delivers cockpits, interior trim and wiring harnesses from another local facility.