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.
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.
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.