Daimler adopts a people-centric approach to advance its commercial vehicle production operations in IndiaThe first thing Felix Homburg, vice-president, Operations and Manufacturing Engineering, Daimler Commercial Vehicles, pointed out at the start of our tour of the company's truck plant in Chennai, India, was a large noticeboard featuring various employee incentive schemes. 'Employee of the Month' and ‘Lean-O-Mania’ competitions are fairly common, but the importance of these should not be underestimated as India’s labour-centric automotive industry relies heavily on engaging with the workforce to consistently achieve the required levels of quality and productivity.
The vast assembly hall gives a good view across the two main production lines for heavy- and medium-duty trucks, and the open meeting section at the head of the lines is a good representation of the transparency of the plant’s operational communication structure. Here, regular shopfloor meetings are held with team and section leaders so that all are able to discuss operational developments and any issues with Homburg and other senior managers. This open forum offers greater access to management, which in turn fosters a much more collaborative ethos among the workforce, and this is important; Homburg noted that devolving responsibility to the teams goes a long way toward building confidence and greater engagement.
Creating a quality culture The scale of everything is big, from the size of the hall to the vehicles themselves, yet the whole operation proceeds with a calm, quiet efficiency. The main assembly and smaller subassembly areas are spotlessly clean, the company having placed a lot of importance on creating a pleasant, healthy working environment at the plant, both indoors and outdoors. This, Homburg explained, helps with engagement, improves efficiency and creates a quality culture.
Observing the assembly of the trucks coming down the line, the process seems deceptively simple. The ladder-style chassis have axles, suspension, powertrain and cabs installed at various stations along the line and it would at first appear that this open, simple vehicle architecture makes the assembly process more straightforward than with cars. However, several factors compound the complexity and create challenges when balancing the two assembly lines.
Firstly, there is a widely varying workload at certain stations according to the variant or model (notably the new 3143 CM truck, internally dubbed the ‘Thunderbolt’) due to different content levels depending on the vehicle and the market for which it is being built. Longer average takt times might seem preferable to help with balancing, but Homburg explained that in fact shorter takt times help to improve quality and, ultimately, productivity. Moreover, the size and weight of some of the parts adds to the challenge of installing them quickly and efficiently.
“Our production operations are very robust, so the great thing is we are very capable of building models for both the domestic and exports markets” – Felix Homburg, Daimler
Getting the basics right Given the high level of manual operations throughout the plant, Daimler has worked very hard to establish solid processes and procedures within all production operations. It has also seen a heavy reliance on self-developed Kaizens (improvement strategies) to optimise efficiency, quality and productivity. Lineside tyre mounting is one area where simple changes to the flow of the operation and some clever solutions to racking, tooling and delivery ergonomics have made a significant difference to the efficiency of the process. The tyres and rims are cumbersome and heavy, but simple carts that now deliver the tyres to the assembly line station (arranged in the correct orientation for twin-wheel axles) have made installation a much smoother operation. This is a solution that has been shared with Daimler’s global network.
Kitting is used extensively to help error-proof the assembly process, with the parts cases and racking specially developed and designed by the line workers to sit on and around the vehicle as it moves down the line. The layout of the parts within the kits is described as ‘surgical’, with everything in a particular position.
Clearly a lot of development has gone into these kits but the speed at which these bespoke racks can be built and implemented is surprising. Special teams supplied with pre-formed tubing, connectors, brackets and fasteners can be called to the lineside to measure and construct anything of this type on the spot. It also allows any changes or adaptations to be made very quickly. As Homburg noted, this further encourages the workers to think about their particular job and come up with solutions to improve the process.
Working on expert projects As well as the myriad of small Kaizens that have been and continue to be implemented, there are also larger, longer-term programmes underway: ‘Expert Projects’ which are developed and executed over a three-month period. One such programme is to boost the efficiency of the cab subassembly line, looking at ways to improve the layout of parts and materials at the lineside and reduce the space required for this part of the operation. Although most of these developments require a low-tech solution, an automated guided vehicle is used to deliver cabs to the main line; this is an experiment which is part of a feasibility study to improve the delivery of the bulky cab units.Engines and transmissions are both assembled at the plant and this is another area that has benefitted from the application of Kaizens. It is also the focus of another Expert Project, with the aim to improve the layout of components at the lineside. This would seem to be a serious challenge when observing the amount of parts needed for the engines and gearboxes, and the complexity of the build process, but Homburg is confident that big improvements can and will be made. The engine line produces both six- and four-cylinder engines, using a universal engine mount.
Simple solutions for complex builds The transmission line involves a complex process to build each gearbox, but also a very simple system that uses colour-coded golf balls to indicate when certain component sets need replenishing. Each worker has to focus on following an exact assembly procedure which includes preheating certain components to a preset temperature in order to enable the assembly of sections requiring an interference fit.
At the time of AMS' visit, the powertrain section was getting ready to add a new transmission line to expand capacity for export. In preparation for this, the operations team had built an exact replica of the planned line out of cardboard, complete with assembly stations, tooling, equipment and conveyors. The process was then worked through, timed and videoed, with everything from takt times to ergonomics examined in as much detail as possible to identify any problem areas and to optimise the layout for all sections of the new line.
With this impressive truck plant at Oragadam and a new bus production facility located next door, Daimler has demonstrated its clear intent to challenge for market share in India’s very competitive commercial vehicle sector. The plant is continuing to expand with new buildings under construction, although Homburg and his team would not reveal what additional operations they will house. What is very clear already is that the company has understood how to play to the strengths of India’s workforce, tapping into and developing problem-solving skills, and creating a greater sense of engagement. Interestingly, at a plant where everything is on a large scale, the smallest and simplest innovations are making the biggest difference.