Ian Henry visits Opel’s Gliwice plant in Poland, which is at the heart of GM’s Drive! 2022 turnaround strategy

GM’s European operations lost over US$1bn in 2012, and a similar or even worse loss is expected for 2013. Back in the US, however, GM senior management is standing behind its European operations’ long-term position within the group.

A wide range of new models and powertrains are being launched, with 23 new models including variants and 13 new powertrains due to be introduced between 2012 and 2016. Most of the vehicles and all of the powertrains have been developed in Europe, including some which will take the Opel and Vauxhall brands into new segments. One of the key new models is the Cascada cabriolet being produced at the Gliwice plant in Poland – the first true soft-top cabriolet made by GM in Europe; the previous generation Astra cabriolet was made by Bertone in Italy.

The Gliwice factory was built between1996-98. Its first model, a first generation Astra, came off the line in August 1998. The Suzuki-based Agila joined the production line-up in February 2000, the second generation Astra started in October 2003, and the Zafira was added in September 2005. By this stage, Gliwice had become an integral part of GM Europe’s manufacturing operations. The Agila finished in April 2007 and a few months later the third generation Astra went into production. By November 2007, the factory had reached the landmark of one million units produced.

In late 2009, the fourth generation Astra started production but in July 2010, production of the Zafira finished; having shared Zafira production with the Bochum factory in Poland for nearly five years, production of this model went back to Germany. Gliwice has since concentrated on Astra production, currently making five Astra models – the fourth generation five-door hatchback, three-door GTC, four-door sedan and OPC models, as well as the third generation sedan, mostly for Eastern Europe. And since February 2013, the plant has been the sole production source for a sixth model, the all-new Cascada.

Gliwice has also been designated, along with the UK’s Ellesmere Port, as one of the two plants which will make the fifth generation Astra from 2015. The current Astra had at one time been made at no less than four plants – Gliwice, Ellesmere Port, the now-closed Antwerp plant in Belgium, and Russelsheim in Germany (which made some Astras for a while on a flex basis) – but the general downturn in the car market and the increasing competition in the C-segment in which the Astra competes mean that GM no longer needs four plants to make either the current or indeed the next generation Astra.

In-house press plant

The Gliwice factory is a full manufacturing operation and stamps most of the metal panels and large body parts for the models it assembles (engines and transmissions come from other GM plants). The modern press plant consists of three lines, one of which, consisting of seven Mecfond presses, was actually installed when the factory was built. The other two lines were installed during 2008-9 as part of a major upgrade to the press shop. This upgrade and expansion of capacity was required for the production of the fourth generation Astra.

The first of these new lines is a fully enclosed, five-station Schuler transfer line, installed in 2008. One year later, the factory commissioned a four-station tandem press line from WIA of Korea. This is also fully enclosed and to all intents looks very much like a transfer press line.

The Schuler and WIA lines both have 2,500-tonne header or lead presses, much more powerful than the 1,500 tonne press at the head of the Mecfond line. Such is the power of these presses that they have been installed on top of concrete foundations which are four metres thick.

Together these lines form an integral part of the GM pressings factory network in Europe. As well as supplying a large part of the Gliwice plant’s needs, the press shop also supplies Ellesmere Port, Bochum, Russelsheim and St Petersburg, all of which make models based on the same Astra platform as Gliwice. However, in the case of Bochum and Russelsheim this will not be for much longer: Astra production at Russelsheim will finish during 2013 and Zafira production in Bochum is expected to finish in 2014.

Steel supply

Steel is sourced from stockholders typically located within a five-kilometre radius of the plant, with the steel itself mostly coming from Arcelor and ThyssenKrupp. On average, the factory holds around one day’s worth of steel coil on site.

Typical of a press shop, there is a decoiling (or flattening) line, supplied by Schleicker which straightens out the coils before the flattened steel reaches a Fagor blanking press. Close by is a single try-out press from Muller Weingarten, used for testing new tools.

Once the blanks have been produced they are stacked and stored, before proceeding to the press lines. These three press lines are currently working two shifts, five days a week and usually produce parts one day in advance of their being needed in the body shop.

Assembly line

Once welded – in a body shop which has 60% automation – and painted, the bodies are held in a painted body store; this is quite lean by comparison with many other plants around Europe, typically holding no more than 85 painted body shells. These are then called off for the main assembly line according to the planned assembly schedule.

The assembly line is designed to operate in a highly flexible manner, with different Astra versions and now the Cascada coming down the line in seemingly random order. This apparent randomness is entirely logical however, as the vehicles’ widely differing content levels – and therefore different assembly times required – mean that batch production would not work. The Astra OPC and Cascada models need to be interspersed with at least six, or more, less complex Astras; and even then, the Cascada has to have an off-line area to fit the roof assembly which cannot be easily integrated onto the main assembly line.

Each area of the assembly line is organised on the ‘kitting’ principle, meaning that each assembly line worker has a trolley of pre-prepared sets, or kits of parts needed for a given number of models. These are prepared in advance in a dedicated area and the assembly line workers therefore do not have to spend time going to and from stores; everything they need is delivered next to their work station.

At the time of our visit, the line was running at approximately 37 units an hour which will mean around 120,000 Astras and Cascadas will come off the line in 2013. Around 10,000 or so are expected to be the latter. The assembly line can run at up to 40 units an hour; if demand rose above this level, additional shifts would be required.

Parts from Brazil

One intriguing observation made when touring the assembly line was the sight of packaging from Brazil; the parcel shelf on the third generation Astra sedan, which is still made in Gliwice, comes from a Brazilian supplier, Plascar. This model, or more specifically the back end of this model, was designed and developed in Brazil. Even though the model itself is no longer made in Brazil, continued demand for this ‘value’ model in Europe means that the parcel shelf and a range of metal parts are still shipped from Brazil all the way to Poland. The modest volumes meant that it was not worth the additional costs of moving the tooling to Europe.

It is also intriguing that GM chose two plants outside the eurozone – in the UK and Poland – to produce the Astra – its second highest volume model in Europe after the Corsa, and also one of its key new models, the Cascada, which is destined to be at the forefront as GM aims to move its brand more upmarket. The benchmark vehicle for the Cascada has been the Audi A5 – an ambitious, but laudable aim.