Saturday 25 January 2014

Solihull revs up for 2015 aluminium Jaguar

 This year, JaguarLandRover’s UK Solihull manufacturing site will be the scene of much activity as advances are introduced in the aluminium process of building body-in-white (BIW).

Up until now, JLR’s two main centres of excellence for aluminium vehicle BIW manufacture have centred primarily on the company’s Castle Bromwich site and Solihull. Castle Bromwich, in particular, has seen a previously substantial investment (by Ford Motor Company) in equipment to stamp and handle aluminium body panels, primarily using a line of Schuler presses, provided the bedrock for the technology.

This technology, coupled with that of the introduction at Castle Bromwich of the pioneering self-piercing rivet (SPR) technology from Henrob Ltd, opened the door to new levels of BIW manufacture that side-stepped noisey conventional spot welding guns normally associated with the joining of steel body panels. In contrast, SPR joining is relatively quiet.

Over subsequent years Henrob has grown in stature and its technology has evolved.  Now known throughout the world, Henrob Ltd has a six-year contract with JLR for the application of its SPR technology to its manufacturing lines, including new lines at Solihull.

Other lines that benefit from Henrob technology can be found in Castle Bromwich of course, Halewood and in China. Jaguar’s XJ model acted as the proving ground for this self-piercing technology, a technology that has been found to be attractive for other models in the Jaguar range since.

So this year JLR will introduce at Solihull manufacturing facilities to support the new technically-advanced aluminium vehicle architecture the company will apply to an enhanced range of models. These are being designed for new segments and markets around the world. As time goes by, these vehicles will embrace the new Hotfire diesel and gasoline engines being developed for manufacture at the company’s new site at Wolverhampton.

Last September, at the Frankfurt Motor Show, Jaguar lifted the lid on its future intentions as it announced its first sports crossover concept vehicle.

The C-X17 was created as a design study to introduce Jaguar's all-new advanced aluminium architecture. The company claimed the modular, scalable architecture will allow Jaguar to grow its product portfolio and target high-growth areas of the premium market, beginning with a new mid-sized C/D segment sedan in 2015.

The C-X17 concept is one example of the diversity of vehicles that could be produced using the new architecture. As a sports crossover, the Jaguar C-X17 stretches the design possibilities of the segment by combining the character and driving experience of a sports car with increased presence and flexibility - all imbued with the sleek lines, sporting design and luxurious sophistication for which Jaguar is renowned.

At the time of the announcement of an investment at the plant, which could lead to some 1,700 extra jobs, Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite union, said: "JLR is a great British success story, and this new investment in jobs and skills ought to maintain its global reputation for world-class vehicles.”

"The UK workforce, with their skills and dedication, are at the heart of this success. This investment is their due reward and we are delighted that JLR has committed further to Britain."

And so it is that the Solihull plant, which witnessed the arrival of the first 4x4 Land Rover, will see the arrival of other ‘new’ technologies. The original 1948 Land Rover was ingeniously designed and engineered for ‘extreme capability and strength’. Using robust construction and with characteristics such as short front and rear overhangs, it was driven off the production line ready to take on some of the world’s toughest terrain. It proved to be the forerunner of a new breed of vehicles.

It is likely that ‘new technology’ will once again play as significant a part in the new ‘Solihull’ as the arrival of the first Land Rover vehicle over 65 years ago. Even then, work had been under way for some years previously as World War 2 raged around the Solihull works.

It will also be recalled that for a time, Solihull was at the heart of Britain’s automotive gas turbine technology. This provided the heart of the Rover-BRM project which gained laurels for Britain of another kind at home and abroad. Later attempts were made to introduce it into commercial vehicles, but sadly these failed. That distant link with gas turbines however still exists today through the Bladon Jets micro gas turbines connection JLR is backing.

Aside from these, some may forget that Rover was originally famous for passenger cars, like the P6, or the Rover 2000 as it became known, and later the SD1, work on which began in 1971 when the company was part of British Leyland. The SD1 is described by some as ‘the last true Rover car’.

                                     Beacon of technology

Likewise, just as pioneering work on 4x4 Land Rover vehicles began in secret, so project work on the new Jaguar destined to emerge from Solihull has been the focus of design engineers’ and manufacturing staffs’ attention at the Gaydon and Whitely technology centres for several years.

It will be the culmination of all the hard work that has been directed over the years from the Jaguar XJ of yesteryear to the latest Jaguar F-Type, as well as input from Range Rover vehicles. Even then the new vehicle will push out the boundaries in a number of directions, and not all connected with information technology.

It is clear that JLT is determined to extend its application of aluminium across its product range and this provides new challenges for manufacturing staff, not only in terms of joining technology but in various other aspects such as fit and finish and plant cleanliness.

For some employees at Solihull it will be their first experience of aluminium and its use no doubt will require extensive training techniques for them as new process equipment is introduced to the manufacturing hall.

German equipment is likely to dominate the new hardware, though JLR is familiar with ABB robots from Sweden – Solihull as a whole is familiar with German technology, it having been for a time ‘under the thumb’ of German engineers and managers when the company was bought by BMW in 1994.

That period led to the introduction of many practices and processes, many of which are visible today. Most visible of all is the Müller-Weingarten press line, again courtesy of the foresight of BMW in Munich. For when BMW sold on Rover, it also left behind a jewel in the crown.

It was in 2000 that BMW sold Land Rover to Ford Motor Company which used it to create its new Premier Automotive Group (PAG) that also included Jaguar Cars, Volvo and Aston Martin. In 2008, Ford sold Land Rover and Jaguar to Tata Group. Seemingly only Tata has been able to reawaken the sleeping giant and restore it back to life.

Since its acquisition, Tata Motors through JLR, has invested over £370 million in its Solihull manufacturing site to support the introduction of the new Range Rover and Range Rover Sport vehicles. This included installation of a state-of-the-art aluminium body shop.

The 'new' Solihull is likelt to incorporate some of the latest SPR technology from Henrob Ltd, based in Flint, and which forms part of the company's 'roadmap' for the future, something too confdential to disclose at this juncture. 

SPR joining relies completely on robotic technology for the precise location and application of the rivets, either with the robots handing the heavy SPR 'guns' or with the robots manipulating the workpieces beneath a fixture-mounted gun. ABB, with a base in Milton Keynes has experience of applying its robots to SPR technology at Castle Bromwich. 

Meanwhile, since 2011, JLR has directed at least £230 million towards Halewood (a former Ford car plant) to support production of Evoque (the former LRX) with its aluminium roof and bonnet and composites tailgate.

Now the latest move is launched. This year, as part of an additional £1.5 billion investment, the Solihull site will introduce manufacturing facilities to support the new aluminium vehicle architecture and the first model to use this innovative architecture will be the all-new mid-sized sports sedan from Jaguar that will be launched in 2015.

So although aluminium is not new to Land Rover engineers or to the Solihull site, its use on a far wider scale will require new levels of working and the plant will surely become another new beacon of technology both for JLR in Britain as well as Tata Motors worldwide.

All told, JLR has three vehicle manufacturing facilities in the UK that have been transformed under the inspiration of Tata Motors - Solihull and Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands, and Halewood on Merseyside. Soon they will be joined by a fourth, the first ‘all-new from the ground up’ facility since Tata’s ownership began.

JLR’s advanced engine manufacturing plant at Wolverhampton could well become an industry benchmark in its own right following major investments in engine plants in the UK by BMW, Ford, Honda, Nissan and Toyota. The i54 production site will offer the company (as the trend to down-sizing continues) the potential to become independent of Ford Motor Company, with capacity to make well over 300,000 engines a year.

It is easy to see the direction in which the i54 facility is travelling. In 2013 alone JLR sold a record 425,000 vehicles worldwide.

The 1,700 new jobs announced last September at the Solihull site will bring the total number of UK manufacturing roles announced by the firm in last three years to over 11,000.
For many of these new arrivals, the coming years will be an exciting period and one from which they will be able establish a new chapter in their lives, even possibly forging a senior management career.

One only has to see some of the senior people now running Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK today in Sunderland, in the north-east of England, to be aware that 20 years ago they were just starting out on the shop floor.                           

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