Just a few hundred metres from the main assembly line of the Vauxhall Astra at Ellesmere Port, a new supplier park has sprung up. Developed to provide outsourced logistics and modular assembly right next to the production line, it was created at a cost of £20m compared with the £300m spent to modernise the Ellesmere Port plant itself.
The park brings to the UK a process known as supplied in-line sequence (or SILS), which has two roles.
One is logistic: marshalling components from more than 70 locations around Europe into the order required for delivery to the line. The other is to locate modular assembly alongside the vehicle assembly plant.
At Ellesmere Port, this includes the assembly by Delphi Automotive Systems of the front-end sub-frame, complete with electro-hydraulic power steering, control-arm stabiliser bar and links already attached. Delphi also supplies the rear suspension system to the car plant as a complete unit, as well as engine-management modules.
In a separate building on the park, Plastic Omnium is supplying bumpers complete with fixings and attachments such as built-in fog lamps. Mackie, next door, assembles and sequences interior trim items and the cooling module.
The benefits of SILS are clear: it cuts down delivery movements and reduces detailed assembly work on the Astra assembly line, as well as eliminating inventories of stocks and materials in transit. These costs are passed on to the suppliers in the park. In return, Vauxhall is paying them for the value added by getting the parts delivered in sequence, and at just a couple of hours’ notice.
How much further outsourcing can take place at Ellesmere Port is less clear. Delphi’s facility at the plant covers nearly 10,000m2, and provides far more space than is required for even peak Astra production levels of 42 cars per hour.
But while Vauxhall has been quick to contract out some modular assembly, it has retained others. For example, against general industry trends, seating is still produced in-house.
‘We’ve looked at it, but it is not worth taking this activity outside,’ says Vauxhall chairman Nick Reilly. Instead, seat covers arrive at the Delphi building for sequencing into the right colour order for the day’s production.
Similarly, assembly of cockpit modules looks set to be kept in house, despite Delphi’s eagerness to extend its role into this product line. It already builds modules for the Mercedes M-Class at the new plant in Alabama.
Reilly believes outsourced modular assembly of cockpits could lead to quality problems, not least because of the way in which the modules are transported to the vehicle assembly line. ‘Those on the current Astra are not designed for this kind of transportation,’ he says. ‘If a module suffered damage in transit, that could stop the line.’
In any case it looks unlikely that the future Astra would incorporate such a design. ‘If something is difficult to do, like a cockpit module, we would rather do it ourselves,’ Reilly adds.
Some within Delphi also point to the inevitable political dimension behind these in-sourcing/outsourcing decisions. Keeping some assembly jobs within the vehicle maker’s plant may be a price to pay for productivity gains elsewhere. ‘When it comes to how much of this kind of thing is outsourced, it can all come down to negotiations with unions rather than technology,’ says Delphi systems engineer Victor Sokolovs.