Modern production methods mean Vauxhall’s old Luton plant can now compete with the best of the greenfield sites, says Anthony Gould

Cramped, noisy, and jammed into four floors, Vauxhall’s Luton car plant is a victim of its own history. Yet recent investment for the production of the Vectra hatchback and estate has also meant that it has taken control of its own destiny, with production capacity now at a healthy 215,000 units a year, and 85% of production destined for export.

Vauxhall claims the plant is the oldest UK car factory still in productive use. The claustrophobic nature of the plant is best illustrated in the body shop – which is also key to a 25% increase in production capacity – where a host of robots, squeezed into a confined space, constantly move and juggle with each other.

In 1994-95, in preparation for production of the Vectra, Vauxhall increased the number of robots in the plant by a factor of 12 – from 35 to 418 – and installed a network of 100 programmable logic controllers to monitor and control all the body shop processes and communicate with the diagnostic equipment. It now produces underbody, front-end dash, bonnet, doors and tailgate units which were previously imported as complete assemblies. The plant’s capacity has increased by 25% from 48 to 60 cars per hour.

The key to squeezing more and more out of this area is monitoring and fine tuning, says Norman Ball, industrial engineering manager.

Each robot has its own control panel and as many of the maintenance staff as possible are based nearby.

Installing the robots is only part of the equation however, says Ball, and the key now is not only to reduce the cycle time – Vauxhall is aiming at 48 seconds on all cycles – but to increase the up time.

To this end, complete records are kept of any breakdowns and these are analysed on a daily basis. Such monitoring can help to establish which is the controlling robot in the process, allowing technicians to take an operation such as a spot weld off it and allocate it to another robot.

`It is question of fine tuning and monitoring and monitoring and monitoring,’ says Ball.

`Our guys are on a tremendous learning curve. They were not trained on the basics of this equipment but have gone straight in at the top level.’

The body shop also demonstrates Vauxhall’s move to lean production techniques. To reduce storage, handling and distribution of the subassemblies to a minimum, these operations are installed close to the body framing line and the body-in-white line to provide synchronous delivery. `In the old days,’ says Ball, `the idea of putting a subassembly next to the line was completely taboo. That has all changed now.’

The body shop itself is based on the ground floor of the plant in the shell of the 1958 building, alongside the trim shop. Below, in the basement, is the engine dress, rear and front axle assembly and tyres on to wheels operation. Above, on the first floor, is the trim shop and in the penthouse is the door module – where the doors are taken off, assembled and the electrics checked.

Chris Gubbey, recently appointed director of manufacturing at Luton, acknowledges the difficulties inherent in a multi-storey plant, with production having to go up and down the building in a series of complicated manoeuvres. Yet he is convinced Luton has one major advantage over the perfectly laid out greenfield sites – its established workforce.

Gubbey, who joined from GKN Hardy Spicer where he was operations director for its UK plants, and who has also worked at Ford and as part of Toyota’s Burnaston plant start-up team, is keen to get more from the workforce. Since he joined in April, he has talked with many of the 4,000 shopfloor workers in an attempt to break down traditional worker-manager barriers.

The old adage that `people are ox and need to be treated as such’ is anathema to Gubbey. Vauxhall is in transition, he says, from a situation where workers are given set objectives and goals to them being given total ownership. The only real way to get production costs down and to improve safety is to get information flowing upwards from the production floor.

`It will take time, but the target is to have 4,000 people putting ideas into practice without bureaucracy,’ he says.

Luton employs 3,590 hourly paid and 418 salaried workers – of which 30% are women. The staff are split into teams of eight, including a team leader. Each member changes their job within the team each day or twice a day. Team areas are also sited next to the line – the only GM plant in Europe to do this – along with boards which are updated by the teams themselves.

The team boards are used to record each worker’s progress, and to lay out clearly how each job should be done, in what order and how long it should take, as agreed by the teams. Yellow shading denotes non-value added work, such as walking. As Ball says, `we want them working not walking’. If workers can reduce these yellow times, they can get a monetary reward.

`You can’t get quality without consistency,’ says Ball and, as with the robots, constant monitoring – by the workers – is seen as key to reducing job times even further.

A number of systems have also been introduced to improve quality control. The first, called hand-on, means that if a worker finds the same defect cropping up more than once within an hour – such as clips missing from bumpers – a team leader is automatically called. If the team leader does not arrive in 10 minutes the line is stopped and the shift manager is called.

`There is no point noting down problems if nothing is done about it,’ says Ball.

Lean production and just in time delivery to the line – a prerequisite in any modern car plant – have also been established at Luton, the shortage of space in the plant giving an added incentive.

As part of the lean materials system, the amount of material held at the various workstations is kept to an absolute minimum. For example, Vauxhall estimates that in the trim shop, repositioning the side component supplies and tools has eliminated more than 900 miles of walking per eight-hour shift by the 500 trim shop employees.

The other aspect of just in time is having suppliers in close proximity. Although Vauxhall cannot aspire to having a supplier park next door, due to lack of available land, it has supplies delivered in sequence.

Hays Distribution, located opposite the factory, acts as a central distribution outlet for suppliers. It is tapped into Vauxhall’s sequence in line schedulings, receives parts from a number of suppliers and puts them into the correct sequence for production.

Also opposite the plant is T&D Automotive which supplies painted bumpers in sequence on a just in time basis. This entails a truck driving across the road every half an hour and backing into the plant. The bumpers are pushed straight off the truck on to the production line.

The future was not always so bright for Vauxhall. The plant could have closed in the early 1980s, says David Cato, Luton plant works manager. In 1981 the rebirth of the Luton plant began when it was awarded production of the front wheel drive Cavalier, but in the same year production dropped to a lowly 30,000 units. `Without the support of GM we would have shut this place,’ he says.

Since then, and particularly in the 1990s, there has been a steady stream of investment in the plant. In 1987 a new paint shop was installed for £90m – which was subsequently supplemented by another £16.5m in preparation for the Vectra.

The next historical landmark was in 1989 when, just before the end of the property boom, Vauxhall sold off vast tracts of land around the plant, using the money to build a new administration and services block.

During the 1990s money has been pouring into the plant in the run up to production of the Vectra which started in August 1995. It wasn’t just a new replacement line that was installed, but a complete overhaul of the plant.

In 1992 Vauxhall invested £20.3m in a new doors-off assembly area; in the next year it spent £24.5m on electrical and air systems; in 1994, 12 months before production of the new car, £55.2m was spent on new trim and final assembly conveyors in a three week closure; and a whopping £168m was spent in 1995 in preparation for the Vectra.