When Volkswagen bought Rolls-Royce Motor Cars on 3 July, it marked the end of an era in the 94-year life of the world’s most prestigious saloon car maker. Transfer of the assets of the British company which claims 3% of the £145,000-£250,000-plus luxury car market to the German ‘people’s car’ manufacturer caused deep consternation in conservative circles.
For Rolls-Royce’s 250 suppliers the decision ends months of uncertainty. It was welcome news, too, for the 2,500 Crewe workforce. They once talked of a management buyout, before stating their preference to be owned by a ‘big automotive manufacturer’, says director of engineering Tony Gott, who has been with the company for 15 years. The alternative could have been closure of the Crewe works.
The sale marks a turning point in the way the company operates, moving from machining and heavy engineering to becoming a car manufacturer in line with modern business practices.
It has introduced just-in-time lean manufacturing methods as well as teamworking, with cells of workers feeding the new moving assembly line. Layers of middle management have been stripped out.
What would Mr Rolls and Mr Royce, the company’s founders, have made of developments? Charles Rolls, the aristocratic entrepreneur, may have been persuaded by the economic argument, but Henry Royce, the brilliant engineer of the partnership, would most likely have opposed abandoning the famous Royce engine and its derivatives in favour of the product of another engine maker.
When the present-day directors debated the £450m cost of developing engines for the new Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph and Bentley Arnage four-door saloons, the arguments must have been heated.
Under chief executive Graham Morris, a former VW director, the board took the difficult decision to close the machine shop where Rolls-Royce engines had been made for nearly a century. Instead of new engine development, the £450m earmarked by parent company Vickers was spent on equipping a rebuilt assembly hall with a moving assembly line.
Launched this year, the Silver Seraph and Arnage the first new models for nearly 20 years use V12 and V8 engines developed by BMW. The German firm supplies around 30% by value of the new cars, including the transmission, air conditioning and seat belts.
The new assembly line starts at high level, with cars transported in overhead slings where all the body, mechanical and electrical work is carried out. The second half of the process takes place on a moving-floor slat conveyor where the final sub-assemblies and interior trim are fitted. The move from high to low level occurs at the point where the body and engine meet.
The line travels extremely slowly, at about 200mm (the width of one conveyor slat) a minute, but, says Gott, ‘the effect of the movement on our business, working culture and practices has been enormous’.
While there is now far greater control over every aspect of the business, not everyone is happy with the change. Coachbuilders Paul Johnson, who has been with the company 23 years, and Jay Humphrey, who joined as an apprentice eight years ago, say they prefer the old manual system.
‘We spent time before getting the job done properly, but now we are rushed,’ says Humphrey.
Automation, most notably the moving assembly line and the disciplines it imposes, has brought assembly time down from an average of 700 hours for the Silver Spirit, which went out of production in December, to 400 hours (compared with 26 hours for a Ford).
Before automation, body shells from the paint shop were pushed on trolleys around the old assembly hall between workstations. A snake-like maze of walls sectioned off different areas of the old hall, making progress slow.
‘The significance of the moving assembly line is that we now have controlled parts, controlled inventory and controlled delivery,’ says director of production Mike Flewitt, who joined Rolls Royce three years ago from Ford, where he ran the body shop at Halewood.
While Ford’s Halewood plant might produce 11,000 cars a day, up to 12 Silver Seraph and Arnage motor cars come off the new assembly line in a 37.5-hour week, with single-shift working. ‘Our build rate is more akin to the aerospace industry,’ says Flewitt.
Internal walls of the assembly hall have been pulled down to make room for the modern facilities. Stretching away for a third of a mile down the hall, the uninterrupted vista is impressive.
One short-term effect of the reorganisation has been a halving of the workforce from its 1991 peak to 2,500. In some areas, however, staffing levels have increased. In the woodworking shop, for example, the numbers have gone up by a third to 101, reflecting the emphasis the company places on traditional craft skills.
About 60% of the 850-strong production workforce are time-served tradesmen, compared with a 5% average for the rest of the industry.
In the woodshop, investment in a Reichenbacher 5-axis CNC milling machine enables craftsmen to form the complex double-curvature shapes as the substrate for walnut, oak and maple veneers used on the fascia, waist rails and trim. At Rolls-Royce, the veneers are matched to produce a mirror image of the pattern each side of a centre line. In volume production cars, the veneer is first bleached to remove the features before restaining, which avoids the need for these skills.
The leather-upholstered seats, roof lining and fittings take 15 hides, each of which is meticulously inspected for blemishes before the skins are cut to shape using patterns and a computer-controlled press. Previously, the patterns were hand cut with rotary scissors. The company prides itself on the ability to build the most comfortable car seats in the world.
The firm has switched to using water-based paint systems, which are still applied manually using hand guns. For quality control reasons, the final lacquer gloss coat is applied by ABB robots in a new £2m investment which upgrades the Durr paint facility installed nine years ago.
For the first time in the company’s history, car bodies are now assembled from panels at Crewe. Previously the bodywork had been handled by coachbuilders such as Mulliner and Park Ward, both acquired by Rolls-Royce some years ago, along with several smaller firms.
Panels are contracted out to Vickers Pressings and to Mayflower Vehicle Systems, which use Rolls-Royce tooling.
Panels delivered to Crewe on a just-in-time basis fit into a tight production schedule in which build activities are broken down into 40-minute slots, the average time assigned to each assembly station.
Significant investment has gone into tooling up the body shop, where specially designed jigs and fixtures ensure that panels are assembled to design specification. Framing machines with hydraulic gates and pneumatic clamps hold panels in place in the correct relationship. Prior to spot welding, the hydraulic press clinches panels and inner panels that form the boot, bonnet and door so that the fixings will not be visible.
Plasma welding, a ‘cool’ process, is used to join the panels with minimum distortion, helping to create invisible joints.
The body is held together with 6,500 spot welds. This is said to be a much higher number than on the average car, and greatly improves body rigidity. Torsional rigidity on both the Silver Seraph and Arnage motor cars has been increased by 65% over previous models, to improve handling.
Painted bodies are delivered to the assembly line on a just-in-time basis, giving the company a high level of flexibility to meet customer demand. Throughput of models is random, depending on how the orders come in. A Kanban ticketing system highlights shortages of parts and assemblies.
At the start of the assembly line a teleprinter station records the vehicle identification number on the engine as well as on the car body shell. Changes to the build specification or any problems are communicated to the MMI screens at trackside production points so everyone knows what to expect at every stage.
Every car leaving the line spends 1.5 hours on a state-of-the-art shake rig, rolling road and monsoon test. After a final inspection and valet, it is taken to a bonded warehouse to await delivery to the customer.
On the other side of the assembly hall, the daily build of around five Bentley Continental R and Azure two-door saloons uses modern equipment and business processes, but there is no moving assembly line and the methods conform to the company’s manual traditions.
More than half of all cars sold by the company today are Bentleys. The resurgence of the marque follows a major marketing study of customer expectations, adding fuel to rumours of a new racing car.
Company morale is running high. Flewitt says: ‘Rolls-Royce and Bentley are famous marques under-leveraged over the years. With that understanding now underpinning the marques, we are poised to take advantage of our new automotive owner’s capability of supporting us.’
Henry Royce may have taken a more circumspect view of events. ‘Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble,’ he is quoted as saying on a sign above the new assembly line.