At the forefront of vehicle making for more than a century, Flanders is home to a vehicle making industry that has grown steadily on the strength of quality engineering
Flanders, in the northern half of Belgium, is well established as one of the leading regions in European automotive manufacturing and assembly. From early home-grown luxury cars, such as the Minerva and Imperia, through to the legendary Model T and the Chevrolets of the 1920s – Flanders has made them.
Today, the tradition continues. With an entire range of support companies, R&D, the right infrastructure and conditions, and its unique position in Europe, Flanders continues to attract investments from the global automotive industry.
Flanders has one of the most concentrated automotive production bases in the world, with the highest per-capita vehicle production in the world. While this may be a slightly misleading statistic – total Belgium production may not top one million in 2007 – it is a very large part of the country’s total industrial output and a disproportionately large share of total European vehicle production. The vehicle-making sector in Flanders covers the full range of activities, from production through to research; from logistics through to telematics.
The region’s assembly industry is set to grow with several new vehicle programmes. There are Ford, General Motors, Volvo Cars and Volkswagen plants within a radius of just 65 kilometres.
Ford’s plant in Genk produces the Galaxy, the Mondeo and the company’s new S-MAX cross-over model. The new Mondeo has started rolling out of the facility, with all three models being constructed on the Mondeo platform. A recent €715m ($970m) investment was aimed at fully converting Genk to a flexible plant.
General Motors’ plant at Antwerp produces the Astra five-door and station wagon models, and in 2005 launched production of the first Astra GTC (Gran Turismo Compact). In 2006, the Astra Coupé Cabrio was added to the range.
Volvo Cars in Ghent produces more than half of the Volvo cars manufactured around the world. Production rose more than 50 per cent in 2004 following a considerable investment to pave the way for new models. Some 270,000 cars are expected to roll off the line in 2005. Volvo Ghent currently produces the S40, S60, V50 and V70, and the C30, a compact sports coupé, which joined the range in 2006. Production of the V70 has now moved to Sweden.
At Vorst, Volkswagen has recently invested in making its plant more flexible for the introduction of new models between now and 2010. Construction of a new sevenhectare supplier park for the plant began early in 2005. Suppliers include dashboard and bumper manufacturers. The Vorst plant currently produces the Golf 5.
In the truck and bus sector, Volvo Trucks has its largest plant in the world at Ghent and accounts for some 30 per cent of the company’s global output. In 2004, 29,819 vehicles were produced.
The Van Hool company exports around 80 per cent of the coaches and buses it manufactures each year, while Jonckheere assembles up to 500 coaches annually. There are also a number of special-vehicle manufacturers in the region. These include MOL, JLG Industries and Bombardier Transportation. DAF Trucks has a cabin and axle manufacturing division in the region, while Honda in Flanders makes components, as well as operating a parts distribution centre.
Backing-up this large industry are some 260 suppliers, with new companies arriving each year. Suppliers in Flanders include Bosch, Bosal, Decoma, Inergy, Johnson Controls, LMS, Nitto Europe, Recticel, Rieter Automotive, Tenneco, TI Walbro and Tower Automotive, among others.
Major names in the automotive industry also have pan-European logistics operations in Flanders, ranging from the Toyota Parts Centre Europe through to valueadded operations for new cars. Harley-Davidson, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Komatsu, Mazda and Subaru are among those operating independently or through specialists such as New Wave and Caterpillar Logistics. Bridgestone, the tyre specialist, has a European distribution centre at Zeebrugge that can handle almost a million tyres annually.
Three of the region’s ports (Antwerp, Zeebrugge and Ghent) are major players in the new car import and export sector. Zeebrugge is a European leader in the field, handling 1.73 million new cars in 2004.
As automation continues to grow in what is an increasingly mechanised industry, employment figures reflect the relatively high labour costs of the region. Flanders is ideally placed to take advantage of these changes; with excellent technical education that has led to a good skilled labour pool, and good logistics, the region figures high in the plans of European vehicle makers.
Much play is made of the advanced level of technical education provided in Belgian schools by all of the manufacturers in Belgium. However, the compliant nature of the labour market is a far more significant factor in the attraction of the country to international corporations.
Less rigid than elsewhere in the EU, and incomprehensibly open from a US union standpoint, in the past Ghent has faced its fair share of industrial action. But since a particularly bitter dispute in the late 1970s consensus, rather than confrontation, has dominated.
The flagship of Ford Europe’s flexible production is the Genk plant, located an hour east of Brussels. Its future looked bleak back in 2003 when Ford announced that it was moving production of the Ford transit from Genk to its Kocaeli facility in Turkey. However, at the time, Ford management promised the Ghent facility three new models and when the new Ford Mondeo starting rolling off the production line on 27th March they made good that promise. Already being produced at Genk are the successful Ford S-MAX and new generation Ford Galaxy.
The €715m was made at Genk in support of the three new models. And once production is running at maximum capacity, almost 1,200 Mondeo, S-MAX and Galaxy models will be built there each day, with 98 per cent of the total being exported to more than 60 countries.
“After the international recognition and success of both the Galaxy and the S-MAX, which was voted Car of the Year 2007, the new Mondeo completes the Ford range in the crucially important European CD segment,” says John Fleming, Ford of Europe’s President and CEO.
“Following the introduction of a new, flexible production system over the past year, Ford Genk has made gains in its efficiency and quality, and it remains the cornerstone of the production of Ford’s large car line-up.”
As many as five different body styles will now roll off the same production line at Genk – and in any order. These body styles are S-MAX, Galaxy, Mondeo four-door, Mondeo five-door and Mondeo wagon (estate). Genk is the only Ford plant to produce all these models.
“Thanks to the far-reaching modernisation of our production plant, Ford Genk achieves pace-setting production quality and flexibility, enabling us to respond quickly to the ever-changing demands of our customers,” Guy Martens, General Manager of Ford Genk, says.
Main investments for the new Ford Mondeo production took place in the Genk Stamping and Body Construction. Stamping of the new Mondeo bodyside is now handled in the Genk press shop on a huge 6200lbs tri axis press from Weingarten, while S-MAX and Galaxy body-sides are produced at Ford’s assembly operations in Cologne, Germany. This in-house operation allows a better control of the surface quality on all the outer skin parts of the new vehicle.
In the Genk Body Shop, Ford’s new laser brazing technology guarantees a better connection between the roof and the bodyside of the Mondeo, improving stiffness and safety as well as better styling in the roof joint. This innovation allows the company to move away from the traditional approach of joining the bodyside to the roof with a ‘U’-channel and spot welds. Now, the bodyside and roof are joined together with a copper silicon wire seam applied with a laser beam. The result is an excellent fit and finish.
Another innovation at Genk is the robotic door setting line. Here Kuka robots armed with a vision system position the doors accurately and consistently for another set of robots
to bolt on. The paint shop is also pioneering new technologies with a manual wet sanding process between the two primer coats ensuring a high quality finish for Ford’s premium range of cars Given that the Mondeo is built in three body styles (four-door, five-door and wagon) the plant implemented a variety of error proofing systems to ensure a correct material delivery to the line and fitment. Also new is an on-line portable hand-held electrical testing system that allows electrical testing of the car while it is in the middle of the assembly process, rather than at the end. If an error is discovered with a connection or a module, it can then be fixed before the trim panels are assembled. And to eliminate the squeaks and rattles that customers say have marred previous editions of the Mondeo, there is a 260 metre indoor test track featuring a range of services that every car performs on before release.
Volkswagen assembly began in Belgium in 1954 when the D’leteren company was granted a license. By 1970, when VW took over its own operations at the plant in Vorst near Brussels, D’leteren had production of more than 835,000 cars. These included some 800,000 Beetles with a balance of Karmann Ghias, Packards, Porsches and Studebakers. From 1980 onwards the plant at Vorst produced a succession of Golf models, from the original A1 up to the current incarnation.
The plant has also produced all evolutions of the VW Passat, predominantly for the North American market, eventually ceasing Passat production in 1997 when the car was replaced in the plant by the Toledo and Leon models from VW Group’s Seat marque. Between 1980 and the end of 2005 Vorst produced 3,679,948 Golf models across its five generations. Today, the Golf 5 is made there. The plant and employs around 6,000 people and produces around 250,000 vehicles a year.
Most westerly of Belgium’s ‘big four’ is the Volvo factory in the port city of Ghent. At the beginning of the 1960s Volvo decided to establish a car factory in the then embryonic EEC with the intention of avoiding high import duties on finished products. With Swedish accession to the European Union in the early 1990s, such practicalities became moot, but by this time Ghent had become a cornerstone of the Swedish manufacturer’s production base. The 850 model, manufactured on the site in the 1990s was the first Volvo to begin production outside of Sweden, paving the way for a future production philosophy which now sees Sweden and Belgium producing roughly equal portions of Volvo’s total output.