Brilliance Auto Group was ‘approved’ by the government of Liaoning province in 2002 and at the last estimate has US$4.85 billion in assets and 35,000 employees. The company has two brands, Jinbei and Brilliance. Jinbei is one of the leading truck making ‘domestics’ in China, in production, sales and market share. Its South Base manufacturing park includes Mianyang Xinchen Dynamical Machine Manufacturing Co. Ltd, Mianyang Huarui Automobile Co. Ltd and many other companies, and it majors on manufacturing engines, components and complete vehicles.

Lines and equipment

As with most Chinese vehicle makers, Huarui (the light commercial arm of the company) uses foreign machinery in all areas of production, with a manual stamping line from German maker Erfurt, an automated continuous stamping line with handling by ABB, and some transfer robots from Kuka. The body-in-white (BIW) cells for two series – the Haise and Granse – are imported from Toyota (the vehicles are modelled on the Hiace van/minibus series), with 23 robots from Kuka and a capacity of 80,000 units per year.

The paintshop was designed and built by Parker Engineering of Japan – Dürr bought a 10% stake in Parker in 2011) – and has a typical production rate of 120,000 units per year. The paintshop is extremely flexible and can paint up to 20 different kinds of bodies, with a palette of 12 colours. One final assembly line is used to build both Haise minibuses and Granse MPVs, using Toyota-specified equipment sourced from Japan and two testing lines from Schenck of Germany.

Smart platform strategies

The Brilliance car plant builds cars on two platforms, A and B, covering five product series (Brilliance M1, Brilliance M2, Brilliance M3, Brilliance FRV and Brilliance FSV), with a variety of more than 20 models, including Brilliance’s entry into the rapidly-growing light SUV market, the V5.

Uncoiling, blanking and stamping lines come from Schuler of Germany and all the BIW cells were designed and produced by Kuka, with 38 robots carrying out the automated welding. There are still some manual operations; some spot welding and all the CO2 ‘reinforcement’ welds to bulkhead and A-, B- and C-pillar to bodyside joints.

The car plant shares a paint line with Brilliance BMW and its final assembly and trim line, designed by Schenck, produces a finished vehicle every 2.1 minutes.

Brilliance shows signs of moving away from its reliance on Toyota-sourced and ‘inspired’ equipment choices in its new Zhonghua brand plant, in Shenyang. The new 380,000-square-metre, 150,000 unit per year, US$414 million facility will run with Kuka robots, AGVs from US supplier FORI Automation and Dürr (Schenck) testing equipment. The plant manager is Peter Atzler, who was the former head of production at BMW Brilliance.

GAC – building from partnerships

Guangzhou Automobile Group Motor is a relative newcomer to developing its own vehicle lines, for many years it has preferred to work with joint venture partners Honda and Toyota, and more recently Fiat, than work on its own car line up. This has changed in the past three years when Fiat sold it the Alfa Romeo 166 platform and engines which were quickly put into production as the Trumpchi saloon. Guangzhou has grasped the SUV nettle with the Honda CRV-inspired GS5, a light 5-door truck that uses its own 1.8-litre turbo and 2.0-litre normally-aspirated petrol engines.

AMS caught up with Tan Xi, vice-chief of the technology centre, process planning, and Ling Shiquan, vice-chief of the vehicle technology centre at GAC’s Panyu District production base and talked to them about the rise of automation at the company.

The company is in the fortunate position of having come a little later to establishing its own vehicle range and so has introduced automation a lot earlier than many other domestic OEMs. Ling says: “Our production volume is relatively small now, so while automation is lower than say, a Western carmaker, we can grow the automation in line with rising volumes and labour cost rises will also not impact us so quickly as with some bigger carmakers.”

With volumes at GAC forecast (by its own estimation) to double from the present 200,000 per year as its second plant comes on stream later this year, Tan Xi identifies the areas where there will be a focus on automation. “To improve cycle time in stamping, we will introduce robot material transfer from the end of the press line,” he says. “We already have ABB robots transferring stamped parts through the press line. We will also install conveyors between stamping and bodyshop, to get rid of the forklift trucks that we use at present in the number one plant.”

Body-in-white and paintshop policies

Body-in-white is the usually the first target area for increased automation and GAC is aiming to reduce manual handling and welding here too. Ling says: “We will start with automation for the bodyside and floor line, also for powertrain transport up to the marriage station in the assembly area.” Ling recognises the trade-off in flexibility that can occur when robot welding and conveyor handling are extensively introduced. “We will use flexible tooling on just one line, not go the Volkswagen and Toyota route with several lines with less flexible jigs and fixtures and machinery,” he says.

Many Chinese carmakers have shown great ingenuity, designing their own BIW cells and tooling – particularly recently, to accommodate the demand shift from saloons to SUVs – but GAC is not following this route. Also, as Ling says: “The tooling for the main BIW line was designed by Comau but in future, in the next five to eight years, our target is to design our own lines and all tooling and just use manufacturing equipment suppliers.”

As high-strength steel usage increases in China, to help carmakers meet global crash test standards, so laser cutting and welding, and hot forming, should start to make inroads. Ling is interested in this technology but says he has not been shown this enough and looks forward to seeing demonstrations. “I have not seen examples of this [laser technology] so I cannot judge but it is something we are interested in, if the cost fits into our plans,” he says.

Ling plans to increase automation in the existing paintshops with more robots as, at present, the basecoat on some vehicles is applied manually; all clearcoat is robotised in the Taikisha-supplied installation. The paintshop supplier for the new, number two, plant is not yet decided, Ling says: “We have been looking at Dürr equipment but we are open to other companies demonstrating their equipment.”

Powertrain strategies

GAC buys in its automatic transmissions from Aisin, and its manual gearboxes from a GAC-Fiat joint venture in Hangzhou and Ling is very happy with this arrangement as it gives the best balance between owning the technology and not having to find machining, gear cutting and assembly expertise locally. “We are investigating the development of a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission,” he reveals. “This may be developed with our R&D but will be made by our suppliers as they have the expertise already. But we would like to reduce our use of Aisin’s products by using the jointventure company more.”

Asked to give a figure for the rise in automation at the existing and new GAC plants as a percentage, Tan says: “In different workshops, the figures will be different; in the press shop we will aim for 90% automated processes, in BIW we expect 60 to 70%, and in paintshop it will be 90%. We will always have some manual stations for sealing. In final assembly we would not expect automation to rise above the industry standard of about 10% but this could change a little depending on the different vehicle models.”