HAMBACH, France -- Daimler-Chrysler is exploring how to transfer some innovative production techniques from its Smart car factory here to its plants in North America.
Smartville, the Smart production facility in Hambach, is unusual in the auto industry because components suppliers share assembly responsibility on site.
Smart is a unit of Daimler-Chrysler's Mercedes Car Group. D/C plant managers from the USA have been regular visitors to Smartville.
D/C production chiefs had been looking at using some of Smart's techniques for a greenfield Jeep factory in North America.
That plan has apparently been shelved. But some Hambach methods will now be used at the current Jeep plant in Toledo, Ohio.
Suppliers are on-site
Smartville differs from other auto plants because the site's 14 buildings are also shared with systems suppliers.
Supplier Dynamit Nobel individually paints all body panels on site and Krupp Hoesch provides the rear powertrain. Other on-site systems suppliers include Magna Chassis & Uniport, Bosch, Surtemal/
Eisenmann, Siemens VDO, Cubic Europe and ThyssenKrupp.
Klaus Fischinger, Smartville plant manager, said: "Because our production system is so different we get regular visits, particularly from other DaimlerChrysler plants. Jeep has been very interested."
When the plant opened in 1998 it produced just one model, the City Coupe (now called the ForTwo) with 250 part numbers and a choice of four colors for the plastic body panels.
The plant now produces four models -- the Smart ForTwo and the ForTwo Cabrio plus the Roadster and Roadster-Coupe. There are 2,000 part numbers and much more complexity in the number of specifications.
"We have grown up very quickly," said Fischinger."We have now got used to working with our supplier partners and have refined and optimized the manufacturing process."
Doubts at the start
Fischinger said the idea of sharing assembly responsibility with supplier partners was revolutionary and has ultimately worked successfully, but there were doubts in the beginning.
"Each company has its own philosophy and each was worried as to how that would correspond," he said. "We meet every month to discuss how we have been doing and how we plan to work in the following month."
The production system is known as Smart-Plus.
The components companies pre-construct their modules in the plant and supply them directly to the production line.
This substantially improves the efficiency of the production process and reduces inventory to almost zero.
Only 4.5 hours are required for the final assembly of a Smart.
Smartville employs about 2,200 people. A total of 123,500 vehicles were built at the plant last year.
The Hambach location was chosen because DaimlerChrysler wanted the plant located in the middle of western Europe.
The plant is 10km from the German border and 95 percent of the staff are French, but most also speak German.
Total investment in the plant stands at more than $650 million (currently E520 million), including all systems suppliers.