When Mercedes-Benz pulls the wraps off its redesigned M-class SUV this week in Detroit, what onlookers won't see is the company's push for automated factory precision.
Mercedes in Vance, Ala., has invested $600 million in a more technologically advanced plant than the one that turned out the previous M class. That version ended production in December.
The M class debuted in 1997. Although it was a sales success, the SUV has been stung by periodic reports of quality glitches in J.D. Power and Associates initial quality studies. Mercedes officials vow that that won't happen again.
The final old-generation M class that rolled out of the plant near Tuscaloosa, Ala., had help from fewer than 80 production robots. The first new-generation M class that came along in its place last month had the benefit of nearly 800 robots.
The plant's new body shop uses nearly 600 of the robots, which can validate vehicle specs during assembly.
Mercedes designers and production engineers also worked together to make the vehicle's components easier to assemble. Its taillights, for example, can be installed as a complete unit in one motion.
The factory's role has changed since Mercedes launched production there in 1997. It was designed to produce 70,000 truck-based M-class
SUVs annually, but now will now turn out up to 160,000 units of a unibody M class and a sport wagon, the Grand Sports Tourer.
To step up the plant's technology, Mercedes built a second plant adjacent to the original one. In the past three years Mercedes has sent about 400 of its employees to train in Germany on the new production equipment, says Bill Taylor, CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International Inc.
Some of the trainees spent as much as a year in Germany. They trained not only in assembly and problem-solving, but also in maintaining the robots now working next to them.
Taylor says his team has spent much of its time working with suppliers for the changes. He estimates that since mid-2002 he has spent half of his time visiting suppliers and monitoring their efforts to meet staffing plans.
In December, when the older M class completed its run, Mercedes sent in construction crews to gut the original factory.
In the next few months, contractors will convert that building into new production space to build the Grand Sports Tourer, which Mercedes will introduce in mid-2005.
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