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|Touring the Mercedes-Benz Factory in Tuscaloosa, Alabama|
|Written by Debi Lander|
|Wednesday, 14 April 2010 11:27|
Three-wheeled bicycles, a spotless work environment, and an über-efficient "just-in-time" inventory system
Tuscaloosa, Alabama was honored back in 1993 as the site of the first and only Mercedes-Benz production facility in the United States. M-Class vehicles began rolling off the production lines in 1997, followed by R-Class and GL. The three-million-square-foot plant rests within a 1,000-acre enclave 20 minutes from downtown. And once again, the plant's production lineup is expanding, adding C-Class models by 2014.
At the Visitor's Center, a modern, freeform structure that serves as gift shop, mini museum, and meeting place, I strolled through exhibits that outlined the history and vision of the German company founded by Karl Benz. Visitors get to see some classic early models on display, but the most popular is the M-Class camouflage all-activity vehicle used in The Lost World, the sequel to the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park.
Our guide, Terri, explained the Mercedes-Benz philosophy of quality and excellence, which dictates that every process involved in a vehicle's assembly follow six production cornerstones. Cleanliness and safety are emphasized, as are numerous inspections for accuracy and constant visual management. Employees adhere to exacting standards, methods, and procedures and are encouraged to work toward developing improvements in the assembly process.
First on our tour we passed the large office area where electronic orders arrive from dealers. The employees, or team members as they're called, set a production date and create a barcode that includes the VIN and exact specifications. Additional electronic signals activate orders for specific parts, which will only be delivered as needed. Roughly two-thirds of the components used by the plant come from North American suppliers, and many of those are located in Alabama. Mercedes-Benz does not stamp its own metal body parts.
We entered the main floor and followed a well-marked path along the side. My immediate impression was of the jaw-dropping cleanliness, giving new meaning to spic and span. Mercedes uses a "just-in-time" method that eliminates stockpiling. They receive parts precisely when ready to be used, maintaining just two to three hours of inventory on the line. Consequently, suppliers and forklift operators scurry like bees to make deliveries.
When employees need to move from one center to another, they ride three-wheeled bicycles with orange fluttering flags alerting you to their activity. Everyone wears uniforms called Team Wear, which are embroidered with their names, and special safety shoes rated "ESD" to prevent electric static discharge. The shoes help prevent potential damage to delicate electronic components. (Team members in the assembly division also wear special protective belts and protective watch coverings to prevent them from scratching the body of the vehicles.) I felt a little like I was in the well-manicured Disney-created town of Celebration, Florida. While Germans are known for their efficiency and cleanliness, this place was like a biotech lab handling hazardous waste--so sterile for a manufacturing plant that handles automobiles that it was almost surreal.
The body shop boasts hundreds of German-made (KUKA) welding robots that join components together. (The plant has approximately 800 robots overall, 600-some of which are in the body shop.) To avoid flying sparks, a flexible screen moves down to cover the area of risk. This works well for safety, but not for the visitors who want to see the exciting action. Guests must wear long pants or skirts two inches or more below the knee to enhance safety. No shorts or mini-skirts allowed. Workers inspect critical welds to verify dimensional accuracy using something similar to an ultrasound machine. When all the welding is complete, another inspection ensures the exterior body is ready for paint.
I was disappointed to learn that visitors are not permitted to the second-floor paint shop at the Tuscaloosa plant. Anyone entering this ultra-super-clean environment must don a special suit and headgear and then be vacuumed to prevent unwanted dirt or particles. The vehicles themselves go through a six-step process: a pre-cleaning followed by a phosphate dip, then the application of an electrically charged e-coat, primer, color coat, and, finally, the top coat. Each car travels more than three miles on conveyor belts as it proceeds through the painting process and curing ovens.
After inspection, it returns to the assembly shop for installation of the interior parts and engine. This section of the plant includes six "trim lines," four "final lines," a "door line," an "engine/chassis line," an "off-line quality test," and a repair area. The assembly lines are so long, you can't see their ends. Robotic and human workers toil side by side, applying their various skills to the vehicles as they move slowly along. If any deviation is noticed, someone pulls a rope that sounds a short melodic tune. Each line has its own melody, and workers instantly recognize "their song." I rather enjoyed hearing the jingles and watching the workers scramble. Repairs seemed to be resolved quickly and most vehicles continued on. Terri said only rarely are vehicles actually pulled off the line.
All engines arrive from either Berlin or Stuttgart. In the so-called "wedding" arena, on the engine/chassis line, the two major parts are united. Numerous robots work together on this marriage, which is performed on a raised platform (shall I say, chapel?) allowing everyone a view.
Our group next stopped to watch the off-line quality checks. The rattles test involves driving over rollers that simulate bumpy road conditions while an inspector listens for any rattling sounds. Another quality station ensures proper sealing by using high-pressure hoses to mimic pounding rainstorms and flooded roads.
Once a car passes its final inspections, it is sent to the marshalling yard and prepped for truck or train transport to dealers across North America. International orders are shipped from the ports of Jacksonville, Florida (my hometown) and Brunswick and Savannah in Georgia.
Production dropped in 2009 to 160,000 vehicles per year, from the previous 172,000, due to the worldwide recession. During 2009, team members only worked four days a week. They are now happily back to the full five-day schedule: Monday through Friday from 6:15 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or 6:15 p.m. to 3:00 a.m., with shifts rotating every two weeks. Except for the power plant, the factory shuts down for two weeks in the summers and approximately two weeks around Christmas and New Year's. Interesting to learn that the employee parking lot functions on a first-come, first-serve basis--no executive privileges here!
If you find yourself in the Tuscaloosa area, home to the University of Alabama's champion Crimson Tide, I heartedly recommend visiting the Mercedes-Benz plant. The plant is so immense you will not see everything. Group tours take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays for those 12 years old and over; reservations required, and the fee is $5.00 per person. A video presentation plays in the Visitor Center for younger children and anyone unable to handle the long walk. (There are no steps involved.)
BMW vs. Mercedes-BenzHaving been fortunate enough to tour the BMW Factory in Munich last summer, I'd like to offer a few comparisons. First off, I was amazed at the cleanliness of the Mercedes plant. Then again, they don't stamp out metal parts. I must admit I was disappointed by not seeing the paint shop operations in Alabama. This was my favorite part of the German tour and totally mesmerizing. Elevated walkways in some sections of the BMW plant allow tourists to look down onto the production floor. Everything in the Mercedes plant is seen from the main floor. Okay, I admit I'm biased since I own a Bimmer. Go see both factories for yourself!