SPEED MERCHANT

For the Micro Compact Car joint venture to have developed a vehicle as innovative as the Smart in just 36 months is a considerable achievement. To have done this at the same time as building a FF2.8bn (£300m) factory and supplier park, known as `Smart-ville’, at Hambach in the Lorraine district of France, is remarkable. […]

For the Micro Compact Car joint venture to have developed a vehicle as innovative as the Smart in just 36 months is a considerable achievement. To have done this at the same time as building a FF2.8bn (£300m) factory and supplier park, known as `Smart-ville’, at Hambach in the Lorraine district of France, is remarkable.

When the Mercedes-Benz/SMH joint venture starts production of Smart this autumn it will set new standards in manufacturing efficiency. This has been achieved by taking manufacturer-supplier partnerships to an unprecedented level.

Throughout, the philosophy has been to devolve responsibility to key suppliers, or `system partners’, to develop their own modules within parameters laid down by MCC. Materials and plant suppliers were involved in design and planning from the concept stage.

The car will be assembled from modules mostly made in satellite factories surrounding the main Smart plant. The only exceptions are the engine and gearbox, but even these are integrated into a rear axle module before arriving at the final assembly area.

The highly efficient 600cc engine, designed by MCC’s own team with engineers from Mercedes-Benz, will be built at the rate of 200,000 a year on a new line at Daimler-Benz’s existing engine factory in Berlin-Marienfelde.

The engine assembly is itself organised to optimise efficiency. Production is divided into four logistically arranged zones: preparation areas, component production, the assembly line itself, and engine shipment. The key production lines for crankcase, cylinder head and crankshaft are placed as near as possible to each other.

Petrol and diesel engines can be built on the same line. Simultaneous development involving the foundry, materials design and production planning of the cast aluminium cylinder head led to a process which ensures oil and water paths are sand-free when removed from the moulds and do not have to be machined.

Crankshaft bearing journals are formed in one operation using combined oscillating-stroke plunge grinding instead of the usual turning and broaching followed by milling. This gives shorter cycle times, lower investment and reduced downtime.

Each engine undergoes a cold test in which it is driven from an external source, allowing the mechanics, ignition, fuel injection and sensors to be tested in under 60 seconds.

From the end of the engine assembly line, completed units are loaded by automatic handling equipment into special plastic engine carriers for transport by truck to Hambach.

The automatic clutch, supplied by Fichtel and Sachs, is mated to the engine at the Berlin factory. The gearbox, made by Getrag at a new plant in Neunstein, is built with the engine into a rear axle module by Krupp-Hoesch at one of the Hambach satellite plants.

Integration has been built in at the Smart-ville factory. The plant and its surrounding business park is claimed to be the largest of its kind in Europe. Hambach was chosen because of its central European location and because it is convenient for a network of international traffic connections.

MCC France holds a FF100m stake, or 38.3% of the equity; Mercedes-Benz holds 36.7%. The remaining 25% is owned by Sofirem, a state-owned company dedicated to the economic regeneration of former coal mining regions.

Other manufacturers, such as Ford at its Valencia plant in Spain, have key suppliers located around the main plant, but Smart-ville takes this to new levels. The cruciform final assembly plant is surrounded by key system partners with direct links to the assembly areas.

On site partners include Magna International, supplier of the main body frame/safety cage; Dynamit Nobel, supplier of the plastic body panels; Eisenmann, for paint and surface coatings; Ymos, for the side and rear door modules; VDO, part of the Mannesmann Group, maker of the cockpit module; Krupp-Hoesch automotive, for rear axle/power train assembly; and Bosch, assembler of the front end module, which incorporates lighting and electrics. Also on site are specialists for internal and spare part logistics.

MCC says stringent environmental guidelines have been followed throughout the plant: for example it uses powder coating which significantly reduces the amount of water used in painting the vehicle.

The result of the modular approach to building the car results in a final assembly time of only 4.5 hours and a total time of 7.5 hours.

As production builds up for the European launch next spring, with an eventual production target of 200,000 vehicles a year, rival manufacturers around the world will be watching closely to see how well this degree of cooperation and integration can be sustained.