Monday 8 October 2012

Vauxhall Van Plant prepares for change

The Vauxhall Van Plant at Luton, Bedfordshire, is undergoing exciting changes in preparation for the launch of the new X82 van in second quarter 2014.

Introducing a new vehicle onto the manufacturing floor is never easy; the more so if it is a van. Unlike cars, new van models are rolled out only once every 12 years or so; the team that launched the last one is unlikely to be that which launches the next.

And so it is at the Vauxhall Van Plant, Luton where engineers are making ready for X82, scheduled for 2nd quarter 2014. According to plant director Mike Wright, it is important for the project team to be in place well ahead of launch. The X82 replaces the current X83 design.

‘We have to make sure the team we have is capable of building the vehicle. Very soon, we will be off to France with a hand-picked team of our most experienced people,’ he said. ‘They will see the vehicle for the first time. In November they will see prototypes when they go to Sandouville, near Le Havre. We expect our first build vehicles here in June 2013. We have seen computer-generated images of the new vehicle. It looks fantastic.’

The X83 Vauxhall/Opel Vivaro is a joint venture of General Motors and Renault in France. Luton currently supplies Renault with about 16,000 vehicles a year, but from 2014, the entire output will be Vauxhall and Opel only. Renault will build its own version of X82 at Sandouville. Indeed, from January 2013, Luton will be purely an Opel/Vauxhall plant.

The launch date of the new vehicle has slipped somewhat. The Luton plant expected to launch he vehicle in January 2014. But agreeing final details of the design has delayed the launch by several months and even now the design of the French version is evolving as the final design is believed to be not yet complete.

Although the base vehicle is the same for both companies, the Vauxhall/Opel vehicle will have a different front end. The UK company has a different styling strategy and its work is almost complete. Those who have seen the design have expressed great satisfaction. Meanwhile, engineers at Renault continue to work on their design; they have seen what the Vauxhall/Opel vehicle looks like.

Some 12 years ago, plant engineering at Luton was Renault’s responsibility but with X82, Vauxhall engineers have had an opportunity to refine major production areas to optimise manufacture and increase efficiency through TIP – throughput improvement process – used to achieve targets of each individual shop.

In an iterative process, various areas of manufacturing are being improved. New robot cells are being installed, new lines laid, banks and buffers changed to allow more floor space, a new seam sealing cell introduced in the paint shop, and in the press shop work on the blanking line has prepared for refurbishment.

The bodyshop is where Wright and his team had most work to do and in the summer shutdown some £4 million of new facilities and robot cells were installed.

Already, significant flooring work has been completed: an area the size of a football pitch was concreted over to make way for the new standalone bodyside and framing lines that will form part of the new X82 process route in time for Job 1. At vehicle launch, scheduled for the 2nd quarter 2014, X83 lines will be bypassed and removed and the new X82 lines opened up.

Last month, during plant shutdown, four new robots out of 22 were introduced as part of a trial on the body shop. Further robots will be installed in the bodyshop.

                                                            New robots

In total, over 100 new robots will be installed, forming part of the £95 million investment programme at the plant. Already some robots have been installed as Wright and his team work their way through their planned programme of work to update the plant ahead of launch. But the main installation will take place next year – engineers are now in the planning and trial phase.

The press shop, body shop, paint shop and general assembly are the principal recipients of investment. In the body shop, there will be new bodyside lines, new bespoke cells for X82, and a new framing line. The existing underbody line will remain.

Nearly half the planned £95 million can be accounted for by the body shop that produces van shells prior to painting. Planned investment in the paint shop is around £6 million as new robots and equipment are installed. The press shop will call for a further £4 million and the remainder will be spent in general assembly. About £1 million has already been spent in the press shop where there will be no new presses.  

Robots are sourced from Fanuc, GM’s preferred supplier, as part of its global standard. The main robot automation spend is not on individual machines but on controls, the infrastructure and time to taken to adjust the robots and make them operational. Robot welding guns, for example, can be more expensive than robots. Some robots carry tool changers and anti-collision devices to combine two functions of welding.

In the press shop, 29 new dies for X82 will be split so that two sets of panels are taken down the line. The current facility accepts only single panels. Mechanical overhaul of the blanking lines has been completed and electrical overhaul is due later this year. The majority of dies will be sourced from China and Korea.

 ‘We have our specialist die engineers from the UK going to China next month to work with the Chinese suppliers to improve the quality of the dies and reduce costs. We are supported also by the GM China organisation. This is when we really lever the full resources of GM as a global manufacturer.’ said Wright.

Although most of the main pressings are done on site, there remains a strategy to examine unused capacity and effectively ‘fill up’ the press lines to improve utilisation. It may be possible to introduce more work onto the lines.  Engineers are also looking at alternative; companies that can undertake small pressings and structural parts. These companies help generate the local economy and are long, trusted suppliers to the motor industry and Vauxhall.

                                                      Hours per van

In any plant, hours per van (HPV) and gross conversion ratios (GCR) are crucial performance yardsticks. If Luton had run at its maximum capacity of 103,000 units in 2009 it could have hit an HPV of 19.5 and a GCR of 4. Wright describes 4 as ‘fantastic’ and a benchmark performance. In 2011, Luton hit 68,103 units with a year-end workforce of 1,100. (GCR is a ratio of HPV to Basic Engineering Content (BEC) or the total added value work content to build a van.)

At present, with the current design, the gross conversion rate is running at about 4.89 or between 23 and 24 hours per van. So the new vehicle represents a significant productivity and cost improvement.

For example, general assembly of X82 will be greatly simplified as powertrain options will be reduced from nine to three. Some while ago, mention was made that diesel-only vehicles would be sold, but currently engineers are not disclosing if there will be petrol options also, though the option numbers suggest there will be a petrol version.

However, with X82 there will be greater emphasis on SVO – Special Vehicle Operations – where additional value-added can be introduced into what are effectively bespoke vehicles. SVO will have new robots and a new spray booth to give better uptimes.

‘We will be able to put the main line colours in the SVO booth,’ added Wright. ‘That will increase our throughput in the shops. We will be spraying SVOs much more efficiently.’

For X82 introduction, Luton is edging towards 1,013 employees with contract staff also well under the previous level of 400. The Luton workforce may tip below 1,000 for the first time.

Luton is not a highly automated plant but it is nevertheless small and efficient. Space is at a premium and several decisions regarding the location of vendors on site have yet to be resolved, including for example manufacture of longitudinals and cross members, tyre and wheel, and small structural parts.

As launch date approaches there will be pressure on the sales teams to balance run-out sales of X83 while generating new business for X82. Luton builds only to order, thus minimising inventory; it does not build for stock. Those days are long gone.

Ironically, Luton will play an important role in helping Renault introduce its vehicle. In the past, Renault has not built the Trafic but relied on Nissan in Barcelona and Opel/Vauxhall in Luton to meet its requirements. Nissan currently builds about 900 high-roof versions of the van for Vauxhall/Opel and this arrangement is likely to continue.

So Renault’s engineers at Sandouville have no experience of building vans of the size of Trafic; clearly they are anxious to learn as much as they can from the British company, a point not lost on Wright and his team. Renault’s engineers will want all the help they can get. Just how much of Luton’s shop floor performance data they will reveal to their French colleagues remains to be seen.