“TT,” as in Audi TT, officially stands for “Tourist Trophy.” According to Audi, this is an homage to the like-titled European auto and motorcycle race that was first run in 1900. Although its marketing people undoubtedly love this sexy explanation, the aforementioned acronym might just as well stand for “Train Tracks.” While those same marketing people probably don’t want to admit it, each and every one of those 50,000 beautiful sports cars made each year begins its life by riding 600 km on a freight train, all the way from Ingolstadt, Germany, to Györ, Hungary. That’s where this story begins . . .
Fully painted TT bodies, with doors, are shipped via rail from the body/paint shop in Ingolstadt to Audi Hungaria in Györ (this takes 12 hours). Special rail cars were developed to carry the bodies without damage (and while this arrangement may seem somewhat odd, it’s not nearly as bizarre as flying bodies from Pininfarina to GM Hamtramck to build the Cadillac Allanté). 90% of the materials delivered to Audi Hungaria are delivered via rail, most of which come from a consolidation center in Germany that receives shipments from Audi’s suppliers and then distributes them, as needed, to various facilities throughout Europe.
While some might question the sanity of having body and paint in another country, Audi Hungaria executive director Jürgen Hoffmann doesn’t particularly mind. To him, there’s a distinct advantage to being far from Germany—he’s also far from headquarters. Which means he’s free to use the lean management ideas he wants. Which is particularly relevant to the next step in the life of the TT, which, unfortunately, I can’t describe to you. See, when I visited the plant, I had an appointment with Audi. But Audi has nothing to do with unloading the train cars or moving the bodies into the plant. Nor do Audi personnel have anything to do with moving anything around the plant—a subcontracted material handling and logistics firm does it all. Since I had no appointment with the material handling company, I couldn’t go into the areas of the plant that were strictly their domain, including the rail yard. (They were nice enough to give me a photo, however.) This farming-out of material handling is just one of many things that Hoffman and his management team have done to try and eliminate waste and concentrate on their core mission: building great sports cars. (Audi Hungaria’s lean production system is actually so well regarded that it formed the basis for the worldwide implementation of the Audi Production System in 1999.)
The car bodies are wheeled into the plant on carts, thus beginning their 65-station trip down the 240-m U-shaped assembly line. The carts are used for the initial staging of the vehicles, however an overhead gantry system scoops the bodies up soon after the doors are removed and carries the bodies down most of the rest of the line. The line loops back on itself so that it begins and ends at the same shipping/receiving area. Both coupe and roadster models travel down this same line.
The first step is removing the doors, which are placed on stands resembling garment racks, then wheeled down a perpendicular subassembly line. On this line, they are outfitted with trim and accessories before they rejoin the body on the main line. All of the subassembly lines at Audi Hungaria operate similarly; they run perpendicular to the main line so that subassembly build ends immediately at the point where the part goes into the vehicle. The next major subassembly, the instrument panel, is assembled and installed in this way, as well.
Much of the assembly of the TT is done manually, including the installation of rear window glass in the coupe and the cockpit brace and roll bars in the roadster. This may be partly related to relatively inexpensive labor costs in Hungary; however, there’s a very lean principle behind it. Without a whole lot of automation, adapting to the differences between the coupe and roadster is relatively easy.
Production line workers at Audi Hungaria are both responsible for developing their own procedures and organizing their own workplaces, in tandem with process engineers. This is keeping with the empowerment philosophy that all workers in the plant make their own decisions and continually improve on their own processes. As a matter of fact, Audi Hungaria only has two reporting levels in its hierarchy. As Hoffman explains, this makes it nearly impossible to pass the buck; with no bureaucracy to absorb inefficiency, slackers would be very quickly discovered. (Of course, he denies ever having any slackers…) This management style seems to go over quite well with the employees, perhaps not coincidentally because their average age is only 28.
As the car (it looks a lot more like a car now) continues down the line and approaches the bend, workers take parts from line-side storage to perform many more assembly operations throughout the inside of the vehicle. At the same time on a subassembly line located around the bend, another group of workers performs the precision work of assembling the powertrain and chassis pieces. The TT has fairly complicated variations here, as the car is available in both front-wheel and four-wheel drive versions which have different rear suspensions. The powertrain/chassis assembly happens on a set of fixtures that move down a chest-high assembly line. This keeps workers from having to stoop or reach overhead. Once the parts are in the fixtures, workers move them atop an automated guided vehicle (AGV) by means of an overhead lift-assist. The AGV moves about 8 m across an aisle to the main assembly line, where the car is now elevated in the gantry. The AGV slides in underneath the car and the powertrain/chassis is bolted into the body. The AGV then returns, with fixtures, to the subassembly line.
Now that the vehicle has an engine, assembly work on underhood components begins and the battery and airbox are added. Fascia’s are attached, both front and rear; lights, fender liners and wheels and tires are installed. All of these components are supplied in small stocks by the logistics company.
This brings up an interesting question: What happens if the material handlers aren’t doing their job and the line runs out of supply? The answer: it just doesn’t happen. First of all, Audi Hungaria’s management philosophy is that within the plant, everyone is both a supplier and a customer. Fundamentally, this means that a customer doesn’t accept defective parts, so high assembly quality is maintained. But it also means that a customer evaluates the performance of its supplier. Therefore, the logistics company is audited every quarter by the departments that are directly affected by logistics and material handling. (Each and every department, including administration, is evaluated similarly, always by the departments that it is supplying.) Not only are management staffs employed in these reviews, but line workers participate directly. In other words, almost everyone on the shop floor has a say in the review. (Or think of it this way: If you leave that one guy waiting around for parts, he’ll be the same one who will cause you to lose your job—and perhaps your company to lose its contract.)
Once the car has its wheels, it‘s set down on a four-pedestal conveyor for the seats to be installed. These are wheeled in on racks and immediately followed by the racks with the doors. This completes the assembly process and the cars are driven off the conveyor through a wash and inspection before they’re bagged and prepped for shipment back to Ingolstadt.
One final note: Audi Hungaria’s main business is actually producing engines, not building cars. It’s the only remaining Audi engine plant and produces 4-, 6-, and 8-cylinder engines for all of the Volkswagen Group divisions—1 million engines in total each year. It’s been in operation since October 1994, but vehicle assembly didn’t start until the TT launch in April 1998.