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For all its long history–it celebrates its centenary next year–it is all too easy to dismiss Vauxhall as a bit player in the General Motors empire. The brand is, after all, only to be found in the UK–even the right-hand cars bound for the Republic of Ireland are Opels–and it seems to be on the fringes when it comes to GM Europe. And with the recent closure of its Luton plant–its principal one in the UK–it looks as if it could be in terminal decline. Such perceptions, though, are well out of tune with the reality of the situation. The trouble is that it has been the Luton plant that has always been the center of attention. Understandable, perhaps, since it has been the site of Vauxhall production since 1905 and it is also where the headquarters are located, so when the car plant there was closed down earlier this year, it looked as if it could be the end of the line for Vauxhall.
However, there is more to Vauxhall than just one car plant. For example, it is responsible for the IBC plant, also in Luton, that produces the Vauxhall Vivaro and Renault Trafic trucks, it has a small but dedicated engineering center at the Millbrook Proving Ground, and it has a large warehouse and headquarters staff. And it has the Ellesmere Port factory. This plant, which has been an important contributor to Vauxhall's output for 40 years, is now entering the limelight following a recent multi-million dollar boost that now sees it producing the Vectra alongside the Astra. However, there is more to it than just that, for it is blazing a trail by becoming one of the first so-called "flex" plants in which two platforms and several model variants can be produced off the same line.
It was in 1997 that this plant received a $470-million investment–its largest ever–when it was uprated to produce the new Astra. An advanced automation body shop, major changes to the general assembly area operations, and an increase in the number of robots from just under 300 to 460 made it one of the most advanced production facilities in Europe. It also pioneered the Supplied In Line Sequence (SILS) concept that was operated by Delphi. Particular attention was paid to reducing turnaround times, cutting down cost-intensive material banking and lowering storage and transport costs. The radiator module, the fuel and brake systems, the entire front suspension with pre-assembled steering, as well as the door, cockpit and engine modules, were built up at the assembly line installation point, working at the same frequency.
Following the decision in February 2001 to produce the new Vectra at Ellesmere Port, the plant received a further $315-million investment to upgrade its facilities. This included modifications to the paint shop to accept the larger cars, uprating the general assembly area to accept two different platforms and a completely new body shop with 380 employees, 660 new robots installed across 120 sub-assembly stations and 3.5 km of production line.
Taking just 12 months to build from scratch, the new body shop, covering an area of 50,000 m2, has been designed to accept any future GM model of similar proportions with minimum additional investment. Once fully ramped up, it will be able to produce around 170,000 units a year. It has seen the introduction of new processes, including the inner and outer body sides being built up separately from the skeleton of the car before all being welded together by eight robots at a framing station. Because "zero error" build quality has long been a goal at Ellesmere Port, there are control procedures at every point on the line. Once the body leaves the framing station, for example, they are measured by Perceptron laser measuring machines.
When introduced in 1997, the Ellesmere Port plant was one of the first GM Europe plants to introduce the Andon system, one that enables an operator to receive expert assistance whenever a build problem is encountered. This has been retained and refined for the new body shop to the extent that when working around it in mid-July, there was the constant chime of chords drawing attention to problems. The body also undergoes an expanded ultrasonic weld quality-testing program that was pioneered in the Astra body unit. Probes send sound signals to the metal to measure the condition, depth and dimensions of 28,800 Vectra weld spots a day, to guarantee absolute accuracy in body construction.
Impressive though the new body shop is with its multi-story activities and miles of conveyors allowing the different sections of the car to snake their way around the building at different levels and at different speeds, it is the general assembly area that is the more revolutionary. It is here that the "flex" process has been introduced. Being fed with models from both the Astra and Vectra body shops, it has the capability of not only receiving different model variations down the line, but also the different platforms. As it so happens, on the day of our visit, there were only Vectras, but it was stressed that even batches of one were possible, meaning that a 4-door Vectra might be followed by a 5-door Astra followed by 5-door Vectra. However, there were a number of challenges in the "flex" process that had to be addressed before production ramp up. This included training the employees, who needed to know how to adapt to so many variants coming down the line, the build process itself, which is unique to each model, and the logistics.
In preparation for the new Vectra production, a huge training program of 170,000 man-hours and $5-million in wages was undertaken with hands-on experience gained from assembling and then stripping both hatchbacks and saloon models. Having regular production employees instead of dedicated pilot engineers carry out the pilot production stage also increased plant readiness to receive the new model.
The build process and logistics have been invariably entwined. "While the Astra cockpit has been designed around the crash part, that of the Vectra has been designed around the magnesium alloy cross member," says Adrian Tatton, manager, manufacturing engineering at the plant. "This means that as they are not built in the same way the operator has to work in different ways for each car."
Other factors that had to be taken into account were the Vectra taking one hour longer to build than the Astra and requiring more line-side storage space for parts. Because of the room for errors, over 300 new error-proofing stations have been installed to assist employees with the correct selection of numerous varieties of often identical-looking parts, so a greater focus can be given for quality fitting. New racks fitted with flashing lights signal which part the car needs as it comes into the station, recognizing via a sensor if the part has been taken.
Another issue with the two models coming down the same line was in standardizing as many items as possible. Where, for example, the heater box for the two models came from different suppliers, they are now sourced from the same company, as are the bumpers. This has had a knock-on effect in the supplier park and on the SILS process. The 40,000-m2 supplier park alongside the plant was established by Vauxhall in 1997 to provide efficient logistics support. Initially there were three suppliers located there: Delphi Automotive Systems, Plastic Omnium Automotive and Mackie Automotive Systems, but these have either been replaced or joined by Ryder, TDS and Peguform.
It is Delphi, though, which has the lead role, supplying 33 different product groups with products coming in from 85 manufacturing locations around Europe, making it the largest and most complex sequencing operation in Europe. What has complicated matters significantly since the SILS system was introduced five years ago is an increase in the number of parts being sequenced. Where there were just 18 parts on the Astra, there are now 125 for the combined Astra and Vectra ranges. Products supplied include batteries, generators, suspension modules, electro-hydraulic power steering systems, wiring sub-systems, brake caliper assemblies, exhaust systems/converters, encapsulated glass and HVAC modules, engine control modules and alarm systems.
Everything is done on a just-in-time basis, with the SILS center being given anything between 73 and 450 minutes to source the part and either prepare a sub-assembly or sequence it in the correct build order and deliver it to the point of installation. It follows the car's unique barcode being scanned as its passes from the paint shop to the assembly hall and the relevant information being sent to each company in the supplier park. However, it is not quite so knee-jerk as Vauxhall provides some forward information 10 days in advance by electronic data interchange (EDI).
The introduction of the new Vectra entailed some reorganization at the Delphi site, including a new assembly line and the modification of three existing lines while $1.8 million has been spent on high-precision rear axle assembly that allows laser-guided calibration or toe-in and camber. "The flexibility of our manufacturing systems allowed integration of the Vectra without substantial re-engineering," says Stan Chadwick," Delphi's plant manager. "We held a series of DMS [Delphi Manufacturing Systems] workshops to brainstorm every aspect of the new product introduction, helping us identify a further round of efficiency gains, quality improvements and reductions in waste."
Vauxhall has high hopes for its Ellesmere Port plant. With its important "flex" approach, it has created what it hopes is as flexible a manufacturing operation as you can get, one that can react quickly to market demands. It has also seen total capacity at the plant increased from 170,000 to around 210,000 on a 24-hour, three-shift basis with 60% being exported. The plant at Luton may well have gone, but the Vauxhall manufacturing capability is alive and well.