From a distance it appears to be like any other modern city center office block: a seemingly glass construction that looks airy and spacious. As you get nearer, though, you notice that it is slightly different, that there's something not quite right about it. A modern art gallery perhaps, or maybe an ultra-modern apartment block? Even when you get much closer to it, it is still shrouded in mystery, although a look at the circular glass tower might give a clue, as there seems to be a number of cars parked on dif-ferent levels. However, all thoughts that it might be a car park are banished when you realise that all the cars are the same.
In fact, this stunning modern creation in the heart of the ancient city of Dresden is actually a car plant churning out Volkswagen's new range-topping Phaeton, which is set to take on none other than the Mercedes S-Class and BMW 7 Series. Dresden is a beautiful city located on the banks of the Elbe, some 100 miles south east of Berlin. Often referred to as "the Florence of the North," this historic city–which is celebrating its 800th jubilee in 2006–is emerging into the sunlight after years of neglect and abuse. Firstly, it was virtually obliterated in the Second World War followed by almost half a century of being just another grim Socialist city in the former East Germany. It was therefore with a mixture of relief and angst that it greeted the news that Volkswagen was to establish a car plant there–relief as it would bring jobs and capital but angst because the plant was being set up in the city center of all places.
Volkswagen has not been heavy handed at all, and, in fact, has done an admirable job. Rather than erect a concrete block with a supplier park alongside–with all the implications that means for local traffic with the delivery and collection of products–it has been very sensitive to local feeling.
Oddly enough, despite the "transparent" factory being so ultra-modern, it is not at odds with the rest of the city that has some of the most beautiful buildings in Germany. Perhaps this is because the plant is set well away from anything else, so the contrast is not apparent. In fact, the location is on Strassburger Platz that was home to the city's exhibition palace and the famous Kugelhaus that was taken apart during the Third Reich. It is set above the banks of the river in its own attractively landscaped parkland. In fact, VW was so sensitive to the neighborhood that special sodium vapour lights were installed in the exterior grounds because the yellow spectral range does not disturb the insects in the botanical gardens some 100 metres away. It also spent over $50,000 planting 350 trees on the 8.3-hectare site.
Different though this plant is to any other from the outside, the impact is nothing compared to what greets one on the inside. It is as if Ikea had been given the task of furnishing a car plant. There is light wood everywhere–the desks, the chairs and flooring not just in the reception, but also in the extensive customer service area and even the large dining room. However, the parquet flooring does not stop there–it continues everywhere throughout the plant. In fact, while the window area accounts for 27,500 m2 on three levels, the total parquet surface accounts for 29,000 m2–24,000 on the shop floor and 5,000 on the slatted conveyor–and it is here that there is another profound difference about this plant. In place of the traditional conveyor belts, the cars are moved along on a slatted conveyor via multiple-adjustable elevating platforms.
At the heart of the system is the Driverless Transportation System (DTS). These are driverless buggies that scoot around the place picking and carrying, moving and bustling about like overgrown beetles. Each bodyshell is accompanied by "its" own one, dispensing with the need for shelves along the production line. The buggies even marry the running gear, including the transmission, engine and exhaust system, to the bodyshell, beetling off to fetch the unit weighing 1,100 kg and bringing it to the line via a lift to the second level. Once finished, the cars are tested and then taken to the sales department and either despatched on their way or else sent to the "Kugelhaus tower"–the 40-metre high glass car park–for collection by their proud owners.
Another notable element at the plant is the noise level–or rather lack of it. Admittedly, the plant is still in ramp-up stage, so the line is crawling along at a snail's pace, but there is a church-like hush in the building. There is not one pneumatic screwdriver to be found, only cordless and electric ones are allowed. There are also just three robots–painted in silver and black, incidentally, to blend in rather than the more usual garish orange–on the assembly line: one for the spare wheel and two for the front and rear screens. Along with the quietness is the light. Not only does it flood in through the windows, but also the illumination system consists of spotlights for better quality.
One of the principal concerns when the plant was being planned was the delivery of goods inwards. No matter how picturesque the plant might be, the 24/7 file of trucks coming and going would destroy the tranquillity and disrupt the traffic. Volkswagen, though, came up with a novel solution–just-in-time trams! Specially developed 60 metre-long trams travel back and forth on Dresden's tram network carrying pre-manufactured parts between the logistics centre at Friedrichstadt on the city outskirts and the plant itself. The only items that come into the plant direct are the bodyshells that come on trucks from Volkswagen's plant in Mosel.
Currently, just 15 to 20 cars a day are coming off the line on a 2-shift system, but the plan is to ramp it up to 150 units a day on a three shift system. By this time, the number of employees will have increased from the current 280 people to around 800. Up to 3,000 more jobs will also be created in the supply chain and service providers in the local vicinity. According to Volkswagen's own figures, from the $200-million or so it has invested in the plant since the foundation stone was laid in 1999, Dresden should benefit to the tune of around $500-million a year with another $20-million a year in additional tax revenue.
There is no question that this new plant has set new standards in every aspect and will unquestionably become a benchmark for future factories in the future. The only question that remains is whether the new Phaeton is worthy enough to match its birthplace.