A visit to Volvo’s Torslanda plant reveals the company’s alternative approach to improving productivity

The main points of interest for my visit to Volvo’s Torslanda plant had been to look more closely at production of hybrid cars (and Volvo had recently increased production of their V60 Hybrid) and find out about planned expansion of the manufacturing facilities. But this visit also revealed some very interesting developments in the Swedish carmaker’s approach to manufacturing. 

New direction

Arriving at the plant I was immediately introduced to Patrik Sjöström, Volvo Cars Torslanda’s (VCT) launch manager for the new bodyshop (designated TA3). As Sjöström outlined the concept for the production process in TA3, it became clear that Volvo were going against the current trend in automotive manufacturing; automation. A map of the current bodyshop’s operational layout illustrated a very complicated production flow with very high levels of automation, as is common across automotive manufacturing. This bodyshop dates back to the inauguration of the plant in the 1960s, and Sjöström explained how this area had grown in size and complexity as new models had been added to VCT. The result was that to accommodate the extra capacity more automation had been introduced and the flow between the production cells became over-complicated.

The high level of automation, which includes processes such as laser welding, had become problematic in the VCT bodyshop. This was surprising to hear as automation has increased throughout the entire vehicle manufacturing process, and is widely considered to be the key to greater productivity and efficiency. A study of the existing bodyshop had revealed to the engineers that the bottlenecks were being caused in a large part by equipment failures; the automation was costing as much time as it was intended to save.

To address this problem Volvo have taken the unusual step of reducing the automation levels for TA3. The layout for this new area (intended for production of the company’s new Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) platform) has been greatly simplified with a single direction flow of parts and production. Sjöström described how they will develop the manual operations, and build the process around the teams. This people-centric approach is a central pillar of the company’s VCM strategy. Sjöström explains that rather than workers just attending a particular station they are encouraged to take an active role in the operation, organisation and maintenance of the process. A key part of this will involve training and continuous improvement programmes. The workers will be trained to carryout running maintenance to reduce downtime. The team leader will be able to perform the next level of fault diagnosis/ repairs. This multilevel approach should reduce dependence on outside support, improve efficiency and create a greater level of engagement with the workers. So the teams will be at the centre of production in TA3 with automation serving to augment rather than replace manual operations.

Interview: Michael Gustafsson, deputy plant manager, Volvo Torslanda

AMS: Can you explain more about the Volvo Car Manufacturing strategy (VCM)?

Michael Gustafsson: We have developed a strong system and improving productivity and quality are key elements of this. Through from the product design the manufacturing process and fl ow are developed to be ‘lean’ and effi cient. Tooling and operations are standardised as far as possible. We feel it is very important to support the operators and we want to create a mind set in production that puts the worker at the centre of the operation. There is a strong focus on teamwork between departments and on a process of continuous development of the workforce. To develop this we have put a lot of effort into improved training both in the classroom and one-to-one.

AMS: Is this VCM strategy a new concept for Volvo?

MG: It is something we have been working on over the last couple of years.

AMS: Maintaining a stable workforce must be an important factor for the success of this strategy. What is the level of staff turnover at Torslanda?

MG: Retaining our skill base and maintaining the culture is very important to us and our staff turnover is very low here. The design of our new bodyshop, with the focus on less automation, demonstrates the human-centric strategy of the company. It probably seems unusual to be reducing automation and increasing manual operations in a new bodyshop but we have done a careful study of the current processes and risk assessments and we see great benefi ts in reducing the complexity of the production process. The aim is to simplify and make the whole production process easier to understand and operate. It will make problem solving easier and reduce downtime.

AMS: Given that you currently are running a fl exible assembly line for seven different models, how will you balance the inherent complexity of this with the strategy to simplify the production process?

MG: We use very accurate parts sequencing across the line. The focus is on supporting the operator to make to job as simple as possible and this means ensuring exactly the right part for that specifi cation vehicle is in place ready to fi t. We are also using kitting; when the car reaches the operator they know that a complete kit of the correct parts for that vehicle will be with it. This is far easier than the operator having to refer to a vehicle specifi cation manifest. We want to refi ne this process so that there is a greater standardisation of parts and production processes across the new models that will come through.

AMS: What is the current production capacity at Torslanda?

MG: We are currently producing 51 cars per hour (with a two shift operation) so anual output is at present 180,000 units, but with three shifts this would reach 270,000 units per year.

AMS: What production operations do you carry out here?

MG: It’s a full car plant operation, so we have a small stamping facility that produces some outer body parts but the majority of the stamped parts come from another Volvo facility. There are two bodyshop areas, one exclusively for the XC90 and the other for the rest of the models produced here.

As you have seen today we are building a brand new bodyshop, which will see a major step-change in our operation in terms of quality, productivity and reliability. We have worked very hard on designing and developing this.

We also have a paintshop that has been very highly rated by JD power, something we are very proud of here, and a full assembly line. There are currently 3,000 workers employed at Torslanda.

AMS: Will you use this paintshop for the new platforms?

MG: Defi nitely, but there will need to be some modifi cations for this. These will be minor changes not requiring any major investment.

AMS: Will it have the necessary capacity or will you need to extend the paintshop?

MG: No, it already has the required capacity. As we increase production across the plant extra shifts will be added, plus we can utilise the weekends. With our strategy we don’t invest for the highest production level, we take a more conservative view aiming just a little below this highest target. It allows us to build-in some margin for any increase when needed.

We work hard to balance cost of investment against hours of production. We are always looking to be as cost-effective as possible.

AMS: Has that always been a Volvo policy for production or has it recently been introduced given the current challenges in the market?

MG: We obviously want to avoid getting into a situation of overproduction and the costs involved. The plan is to increase production capacity at a measured rate to keep control of costs.

AMS: In terms of parts holding, how many days production do you have on site at one time?

MG: We only keep only two days worth of batch material for production on site. A good supply chain is very important to maintain a lean production process.

AMS: Volvo recently announced an increase in production of the V60 Hybrid here at Torslanda. Given the additional complexity of this vehicle how much impact did it have on your production planning and line balancing?

MG: It is a harder vehicle to balance on the line because the hybrid operators need to follow each car through several stations, but essentially it is the same basic process. For the hybrid models we have a total of 30 operators that operate throughout the production process from bodyshop to fi nal assembly to balance out the workload more effi ciently.

AMS: Did increasing V60 hybrid production create any challenges for your ‘just-in-time’ parts delivery?

MG: No, we already had a parts supply for this model so it was just a case of increasing the volume.

AMS: Will you retain all the current production operations here, such as the press shop?

MG: The press shop was established when the plant was inaugurated in 1964, so it has always been part of the operation here. It produces large stamped parts so it’s good not to have to transport these large panels a long distance. Also the press shop is operated separately from the rest of the manufacturing operation at Torslanda.

Streamlining internal logistics

The bodyshop will be a forklift-free area, using AGVs instead to transport the panels, helping to streamline the internal logistics. The old system of transporting bodies on different pallets will be replaced by one tool to fit a single geometry (SPA). At the time of my visit TA3 was a huge empty space awaiting the new production lines and processes, so it was hard to envisage a state-of-theart bodyshop with greatly reduced automation. I quizzed Sjöström on how he would approach welding and adhesive/ sealant applications, he replied that these would also see a greater level of manual operation.

In the main assembly shop I was keen to see how the hybrid vehicles were integrated into the line. The hybrids are scheduled along with the other six models produced on the mixed assembly line at VCT, and follow the same process, with the addition of a number of operations for the electrical drive system. The first of these I observed was the installation of the battery pack. Here the line reverses the vehicle into the battery station to receive the pack. This is a surprisingly labour intensive operation. The operator removes the battery pack from its storage pallet at the station using an electrohydraulic lift and places it onto a special pallet for ancillary cabling to be attached and a test procedure to be conducted prior to installation in the vehicle. On completion of the test (around 30 seconds) the operator locates the battery in vehicle using a lifting arm. One of the things you notice is how the operator is required to move all around the station in order to complete the operation, rather than remaining in a more fixed position as you see at other assembly points.

Due to the high voltage systems on the hybrid, a team of specialists work on these elements, following the vehicle through a number of stations to fit cabling, insulation, cooling systems, etc. Watching hybrid components being fitted on a powertrain section I realised that Volvo were not just assembling seven different models, but also a variety of platforms with a mixture of front-wheel, all-wheel and electric drive configurations. This illustrated the complexity issues that had been discussed and challenge facing Volvo with its push to simplify operations.