While GM Thailand is preparing for production of the second-generation Colorado pickup, Ford is building a new in-country plant that will produce the third-generation Focus. Key personnel from each company talk about how the two carmakers are managing their respective projects

While GM Thailand has had an in-country presence since 1993, the company’s Rayong production plant only entered operations in 2000. The facility was one of five global greenfield sites built over the same time period, which further included (with SOP dates): Rosaria, Argentina (1997); Shanghai, China (1999); Gliwice, Poland (1998); and Gravatai, Brazil (2000).

For many years, the automotive market in Thailand has been dominated by pickups – highlighted by the fact that the country is the second-largest pickup market in the world behind the United States. Although the first model produced by GM Thailand was the Zafira MPV, it is the depth of the local pickup market that has played a defining role in how the plant is arranged. Kaher Kasim, Vice-President Manufacturing and Quality for GM Thailand and South- East Asia explains: “If you look at Thailand, people use pickups to carry goods to market, to drive their family. In many ways, it’s a ‘fit-for-purpose’ vehicle.”

Reflecting the depth of the local commercial vehicle market, GM Thailand features dedicated body-in-white and assembly lines for pickup production. Although there are two paintshop lines, both delivered by Eisenmann, Kasim notes that the first can paint both cars and trucks. The second, he adds, is a ‘capacity expansion’, which is brought into play depending on production numbers.

In fact, while pickups remain a key part of the local model mix, the vehicles most recently added to production at the GM plant serve to underline how the local market is maturing. “One-tonne pickups have dominated the market,” says Kasim. “But In Bangkok, there’s a lot of generated wealth. Cars are now more affordable and they are considered a symbol of [personal] success.” In essence, where the pickup was once a vehicle for all occasions, it is gradually returning to its traditional role of rural utility vehicle as urban buyers consider other models with added luxury and associated status.

In order for GM to tap into this growing market, the Rayong facility has recently started production of three new models, the Captiva SUV and Aveo and Cruze saloons. Separate from the pickup BIW line, the three bodystyles (each on a unique platform) are delivered by individual lines that ultimately feed bodies into one ‘common’ line for welding. Kasim explains that if a new model is added, it would be produced on another line that would also ultimately feed into the common line.

The Captiva and Cruze are relatively standard fare, both models already in production at other GM plants around the world. The Aveo is much the same, but the Aveo CNG derivative was launched to appeal to a market where compressed natural gas is currently 33% of the cost of petrol.

Preparing for the new Colorado

Kaher Kasim explains that in advance of production for the second-generation Colorado, existing equipment has been examined in terms of usefulness and longevity. “Platform differences can determine whether you go for new or old equipment. In areas you can reuse, you have to integrate without affecting current production. For the new truck we have a combination of new and old machinery.”

He goes on to say that the length, width and other dimensional characteristics of the new truck dictated whether it would be feasible to incorporate used equipment on the line building the new truck – but there was more. “You also have to look at the longevity of the equipment. It doesn’t make sense to use old equipment if you’re planning to use a line for the next ten years.”

Does this mean there’s no choice but to plan for new investment if the machinery is approaching the end of its working life? “It’s case by case,” says Kasim. “In the paintshop we’re reusing all the equipment and just making adjustments to the skids to allow us to process all the new models. We’re retaining all our existing automation, we’ll program the robots to cope with all the different bodystyles, while also making sure there’s enough programming capacity to implement the required colour changes.”

Beyond equipment reuse, a new press line, delivered by Hyundai WIA, has joined the existing 10-year old Komatsu press line. The new tandem line, which features one 1,800- tonne press and three 800-tonne examples, is capable of producing a full bodyside. Kasim: “Both presses are in place to cater for our expansion, in Thailand and across the region. We’re now in a position where we can supply panels.” Interestingly, GM Rayong does not have its own blanking line. “There’s a lot of local capacity for blanks,” he explains. “There’s no reason to invest in capacity specifically for blanks, there’s no unique opportunity.”

Press tooling is largely delivered from GM Korea (the rebranded GM Daewoo), but Kasim adds that this equipment could come from other manufacturers offering a better price. To reduce costs most tooling can be shared between both lines, but additional savings have been achieved by reducing the number of strokes needed to press parts. “Some OEMs use five presses, but we’ve designed our panels to be produced using four,” he points out. In addition to smaller tooling sets and reduced energy usage, the otherwise redundant fifth press has been adapted for use as a test bed.

“GM hasn’t bought a lot of presses over the last few years due to overcapacity, but where we have bought new presses, we want a competitive quote and technical function. Function is more important than price. If you have suppliers that can both meet technical function, then it comes down to price.”

The decision to automate

Like press tooling, price plays a key role in purchasing automation, but Kasim says that he is also trying to retain some commonality across the plant. “In the bodyshop we run Kuka and Fanuc robots. We look for improved efficiency, but we also have to carry the right spares, invest in training and development. We’ve made the decision to go with Fanuc moving forward.” This is evident in the press shop, where the robotics in the existing Komatsu press have been replaced with examples from Fanuc.

Kasim explains that while the pickup box production line for the second-gen Colorado uses a combination of reused and new equipment, the framing and respot line is an all-new installation. “The new line incorporates added stations, room for more robots. In this case we chose to go with new technology in order to achieve added flexibility on the line.” The bodyside line, which is adjacent to the framing line, provides parts that are welded manually. “It makes good sense,” he says. “We have dedicated, flexible tooling which allows us to cater for different bodysides. The manual operation lends that degree of flexibility.”

Asked if the Rayong plant has a skewed number of manual operations due to the availability and cost of local labour, Kasim says that it depends on what plant you compare it with. “The GM Manufacturing System has a process for low-labour cost countries and low-volume applications, and a process for higher-cost countries and high volumes. Each one is different and each requires a different level of automation.”

He adds that during periods of growth, like the one taking place in Thailand now, employee churn can be an issue, particularly with contract labour. But this aside, he believes that the local workforce is young, intelligent and willing to work. “I don’t have an average age for workers at the plant, but I think it’s in the twenties. We have a lot of women working at the plant, they’re conscientious and very reliable. There is a cultural perception that there are jobs that men should do and jobs that women should do, but we treat men and women equally. The concept that women are not as physically strong as men is not true, there are a lot of women working in the bodyshop.”

Overall, the decision to use automation or manual labour is again made on a case-by-case basis. “It’s the difference between installing automation for the sake of automation and putting in tooling that makes good business sense and adds flexibility. If you look at [the Colorado], the unique aspect of manufacturing at this plant is the ability to throttle production and respond to quick increases in market demand.”

Does that mean that the market in Thailand is quite volatile? “I wouldn’t say volatile, but it shifts between segments. But you have to be able to alter production. It’s not always as simple as changing shift patterns and operating plans, but tooling and plant layout allow you to respond. You go in with a plan and you adjust along the way. Adjusting along the way means you have the inherent flexibility to respond to the market.”

Engine production at GM Thailand

As production of the first-generation Colorado pickup is phased out, it will bring an end to the deal that saw GM producing Isuzu-badged pickups. In return, the Japanese vehicle maker will stop delivering the diesel engines previously used across both brands.

To deliver diesel engines for the new Colorado, a new engine production facility has been added to the GM Rayong plant. David W. Clarkson, Vice-President Powertrain GM Thailand, explains that it is a ‘Big Three’ operation, meaning that the machining of the crankshafts and aluminium cylinder heads, together with final assembly are all completed on site. Machining cast iron blocks is scheduled to start in 2013.

None of the castings are completed in Thailand. Cylinder heads are delivered from Nemak, based in Mexico, while the forged cranks and blocks are from the GM engine plant in Joinville, Brazil. Clarkson says that finishing equipment at the plant is sourced from various companies in Japan, Germany and the UK, including CNC machines from NTC and grinding equipment from Landis.

“If this was a plant in North America and we were bringing in a new engine, we wouldn’t have had as many people overseas looking for machinery. When construction of the plant resumed in December [2010], we were hiring people and immediately sending them to Germany and other places. We’ve had 50 people looking at equipment around the world.”

New Ford facility

Up until now, all Ford vehicles built in Thailand have been produced at the Auto Alliance Thailand plant, which is operated by Mazda. While this joint-venture will continue, Ford is in the fi nal stages of constructing an all-new plant, located close to AAT and the GM Thailand facilities. The new plant is scheduled to come online in second-quarter 2012.

Interviewed in March this year, E.V.V. Ravikumar, General Manager, Plant Engineering and Projects, is responsible for delivering each of the buildings before the installation of production equipment. “We started construction here in April 2010,” he explains. “The paintshop was handed over on January 1, and about 50% of the equipment has been installed. The bodyshop and assembly facilities were handed over in February and Kuka (bodyshop) and Rotem (assembly) are working to install machinery. With regards to the press shop, we’re going to work with Schuler. We will hand over the building in June and it should be up and running in July.”

In addition to the contracted machinery providers, Ravikumar says that two transformers are due for installation, while the piping to carry compressed air to the line is almost complete.

The greenfield site has allowed the facility designers to revisit and solve problems encountered on other sites, particularly with regards to the flow of inbound and outbound materials and product. “We have tried to reduce the interference between part delivery and finished vehicle movement,” says Ravikumar. As part of this, the route that finished vehicles take in order to reach the 2,300 unit holding park is fed under the main access road via a new bridge.

A range of environmental features have also been included in the new production facility. Ravikumar: “The assembly hall features natural lighting and ventilation; the side walls have louvers which allow outside air to circulate within the building. We’re also planning to install LED lighting, automatic handwash areas and a solar panel array.” The new Ford Ranger pickup will be manufactured at the AAT plant; the first vehicle to be produced at the new Ford plant will be the third generation Focus. Between the high automation of European plants and the comparatively low automation of Indian plants, where will the Thailand plant fall in terms or automation?

“In India, Ford can leverage against labour rates, but I don’t think they’re doing that here. Maybe in the past, Ford might have taken advantage of the low labour rates to use manual labour in areas that will now be automated. The goal of the project is to deliver the best quality.”

Currently, Thailand does not have any regulations with regards to automotive paintshops, but like GM Thailand, Ravikumar says that the new plant will follow the carmaker’s global standard. “[Ford] wants to be seen as a good, co-operative company. For example, we’ve tried to limit the use of cement, as it’s fairly acidic. In the future, we will be looking to get a world certification for the building.”

While the plant is anticipated to enter production on time and on budget, delivering the first GM engine production facility in the ASEAN region has meant overcoming various challenges, including staffing and training. “I brought in 16 expats from around the world, Koreans, Brazilians, Americans, but training labour to deal in microns for the engine plant has been significantly different to training for general assembly,” says Clarkson.

The plant has a dedicated training co-ordinator and also a translator. “All the OEMs speak English, but we came across very few machine providers that had Thai machine controls. There’s Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and German, and they all needed to be translated.”

Is the lack of local-language machine literature due to the fact that the engine plant is breaking new ground? “There are other OEMs that produce engine here,” says Clarkson. Would it have been possible to ask for their co-operation? “It’s an intriguing question. We did hire some people away from our competitors, but not many. Out of the 180 people we have here now, maybe about six have engine building experience – and I still need to hire another 200 people over the next year.”

While the official annual production capacity at the new plant stands at 106,000 units, Clarkson says that he is already planning for an expansion project that will increase that number. He adds that while most engines will be sent across the road for Colorado production, there could be other ‘opportunities’. As it stands, though, the engines will be exported as part of the Colorado, 95% of which will be shipped within the ASEAN region.

The first pre-production engines were produced in December 2010. Clarkson says that until the start of series production, his staff will be involved with addressing quality issues. “Keep in mind that these people have never built engines before, but it’s great to teach them about what we need.”

Although the vast majority of equipment in the facility is new, he notes that the CMM room has one of the few examples of reused equipment. “The Zeiss machine came from a plant in the US we were closing. We sent it back for reconditioning and it was delivered here.” Additional testing is based on control plans and performance. “We’re 100% hot testing and 100% inspecting supplier parts before launch. Based on historical performance, this will be scaled back,” says Clarkson.

The final word

The engine plant and overall production at GM Thailand have a lot in common. Kaher Kasim rounds out the future production plan: “When you’re designing the line, you look at each process and what’s the most cost-effective way of competing that process, making sure that quality is still given top priority.

“Another factor is flexibility, being able to change your tooling to cater for changes in the future, not having inflexible ‘monuments’. In any country, you want a lean production system that you can adjust to meet different changes as the model mix is updated and the market shifts its preference.”