AMS takes a look inside JLR’s plant in Solihull, West Midlands, UK, where production is increasing and aluminium will soon replace steel

The recent success of Jaguar Land Rover is at the centre of the ongoing revival of UK vehicle production, and at the heart of JLR is its Solihull factory. Such is the scale of growth planned for Solihull in particular that we can reasonably regard the plant as the centre of a revolution in UK vehicle manufacturing. Not only are production volumes rising, but new technologies are being increasingly applied, particularly focused on aluminium; within a few years, steel bodies will be a thing of the past at JLR.

The Solihull site covers around 300 acres and is a fully integrated manufacturing operation. As well as being home to the most iconic and best-known Land Rover and Range Rover products, it will soon be producing Jaguars in an all-new facility which is currently under construction.

The origins of the plant as a manufacturing location date back to the late 1930s when the site supported the growth of Britain’s military aircraft sector during the Second World War. In 1946, it was handed over to Rover and gradually evolved into the modern facility it is today.

Currently, the Solihull plant makes the Defender, Discovery, Range Rover Sport and Range Rover, a line-up which is set to grow in the coming years.

Pressing ahead at Solihull
The starting point at Solihull is its press shop, which has just one line; the two other JLR plants, at Halewood at Castle Bromwich, also have press shops which supply a significant proportion of the pressings required at Solihull. In turn, Solihull supplies a number of parts for the Jaguar XJ which is made at Castle Bromwich.

The press line is a Muller-Weingarten 8,300-tonne, five-station transfer press which was installed in 2000 and cost £65m ($106m). The investment was made when Land Rover was still part of BMW and the initial parts made on this line were for the Range Rover of the time and the Mini. Half of the investment was for the press itself and the other half was for building construction costs. The fully enclosed, 100% automated line now produces a stamped part every 12 seconds. 

The press line is partly located several metres below the surrounding road network; in fact, 40% of the whole building is lower than the road, so that the reverberations from the press line are not felt in the nearby residential districts. In order to achieve this, over 400,000 tonnes of earth were excavated, much of which was used to freshen up the 13-mile off-road track used for vehicle testing during development. The press itself sits on a huge ‘seismic’ block of concrete and rubber that helps to absorb shocks when it is in action.

Production for Mini stopped soon after BMW sold Land Rover and the factory now has just over 30 die sets, making more than 40 different parts for the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, Discovery, Defender and Jaguar XJ. At present, more than 80% of the output is in aluminium, with the blanks coming from Novelis in Germany. The remainder is accounted for by steel parts for the Defender and Discovery, using steel from Arcelor and Tata. In about five or six years, possibly sooner, steel part production will end, coinciding with the end of Defender production and transfer of the Discovery to the aluminium platform which it will share with the latest Range Rover and Range Rover Sport.

According to production rates in Q4 2013, the press performs over 35,000 hits per week, producing nearly 50,000 parts. Despite automation, around 140 employees are still required to handle machine operation, maintenance and the logistics of the raw materials, finished parts and the die shop.

Press shop processes
The press line produces the major outer panels for the models mentioned above, ie the complete body sides. The company claims that the Range Rover body side is the largest single SUV pressing in the global automotive industry.

The five stations comprise: strike; re-strike; trim and pierce; as well as two finishing stages. The dies themselves, which cost up to £2m each to make, weigh between 30 and 50 tonnes and the press shop has two 50-tonne cranes for moving them around. A key element in the unit’s efficiency is the speed of die changeover and an effective production schedule to feed the bodyshop. On average, it takes around 20 minutes to change a die set, with two or three die set changes normally taking place during each shift, although this will vary according to the differing work schedules for each vehicle the line supplies.

As soon as parts come off the press line, they are hand-rubbed with an abrasive cloth as part of the visual checking process. This stage is designed to highlight high or low spots in the pressings which would, in turn, indicate possible imperfections or emerging faults in the dies, including faults caused by the ingress of dirt, grit or loose metal shavings. The dies themselves are made of cast steel and take three months to be produced at the toolmakers; a further three months of testing and try-out are required to make sure they function properly.

After the visual quality checking and hand-rubbing, the stamped parts are moved to the bodyshop, with transportation inside Solihull (and indeed all three JLR factories) being carried out by DHL. There are around 40 DHL trucks at Solihull just for in-plant logistics. In the normal course of events, it takes three days from the aluminium blank being loaded onto the press before it comes off the final stage of the assembly line as a fully finished car; after the press shop, the part moves to the bodyshop, then to the paintshop (which lasts a full day) and then onto the final trim shop.

Busy building bodies, but quietly
Painted bodies move through enclosed overhead/over-road conveyors from the paintshop to the bodyshop. There are currently two body main bodyshops at Solihull, one for the Discovery and a new £116m bodyshop which assembles the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport; the replacement Discovery will also be made on this line in due course.

The Range Rover/Range Rover Sport bodyshop is remarkably quiet and clean because there are no welding robots; these all-aluminium bodies are riveted and bonded, with more than a dozen different types of rivet and over 3,500 rivets used to hold the body together. The bodyshop has almost 330 robots, more than 250 of which manipulate the rivet guns, using rivets supplied by Emhart Technologies. Thyssen Krupp Engineering installed the Range Rover/Range Rover Sport bodyshop equipment. JLR says the rivet and adhesive assembly of the Range Rover/Range Rover Sport represent a 50% saving of energy compared to that required in the welding of the steel body of the Discovery.

The steel Discovery body is welded in a separate bodyshop, after which it joins its Range Rover counterpart on the same final trim line. At the end of 2013, this line was running at just over 40 vehicles per hour, having seen a more than 10% increase in speed over the previous year.

Once assembly is completed and the vehicle has been tested and signed off, finished vehicles are parked around the Solihull site before being shipped out by road, typically spending no more than six hours parked. There are normally three or four sets of major movements of vehicles off site every day. Vehicles have to leave by road as there is no rail link, something which may need to be addressed once, or ideally before, the imminent increase in production volumes becomes a reality.

Foundations for the future
In terms of future investment, Solihull is witnessing a remarkable burst of activity. The first stage of this is the construction of an all-new bodyshop, on the site of the building which made the first Freelander before production of this model was transferred to Halewood. Construction began early in 2013, some nine months or so before the C-X17 concept was shown at Frankfurt.

The new building will make a new range of vehicles that will be based on the C-X17 concept. Although this was a crossover model, the first vehicle to be made, from 2015, will be a sedan (a Jaguar model to compete against the BMW 3-series and Audi A4). A four-wheel drive crossover, the first Jaguar SUV, will follow a year later. Although not officially confirmed, there is widespread expectation that an estate version and a coupe will also be launched. Moreover, a Range Rover version is anticipated, which would sit between the Evoque and Range Rover Sport in terms of size and price.