On a visit to Volvo’s Torslanda plant in Gothenberg, Sweden, AMS examines how the split from Ford has affected the carmaker, going on to look at the production processes put in place to handle the complicated model mix
In comparison to the tense relationship between GM and Saab, where a twelfth-hour agreement with Spyker Cars saved the latter from a winding-down order, the relationship between Ford and Volvo, which ultimately ended when China’s Geely Automobile purchased the Swedish firm, was a mutually-beneficial arrangement.
Magnus Hellsten, Senior Vice-President of Manufacturing at Volvo, offers a round up of the current situation. “People say that now that we’re standing alone, we can go our own way, we don’t have to go down the same route as Ford. I don’t think I should tell the story like that. I have had a lot of good co-operation with the Ford manufacturing guys. Excellent co-operation. When you get to know each other, you see that everyone has the same questions, the same issues, surrounding manufacturing. Ford is much bigger than us, with a long manufacturing history. We had a lot to learn from them and they were very willing to share their experience and knowledge.”
As a practical demonstration of this, the two carmakers remain closely linked in terms of manufacturing, the preexisting part-sharing programmes destined to continue for the foreseeable future. Hellsten: “Since 1999, we have established a deep co-operation. We share the same architecture on both the large and small platforms and we therefore have a lot of common suppliers.”
Specifically, he says that while Volvo produces 50% of its own engines at its Skövde facility, including the five-cylinder diesel and petrol engines, Ford is delivering the remaining 50% of engines used across Volvo production, including the 1.6 and 2.0 petrol units. This also works in reverse, the Skövde plant manufacturing the five-cylinder engines used in the high-performance Focus ST and RS models and the DW10 four-cylinder, 2.0 litre diesel engine, used exclusively by Ford. This knowledge sharing also extends into the production of transmissions. All manual gearboxes used by Volvo – including the dual clutch model manufactured by the Getrag-Ford joint venture – are supplied by Ford, with Volvo building its own automatic versions.
Further to this, Hellsten says that the two companies collaborated over development of the four-wheel drive systems used across Volvo models, with the Köping facility continuing to be a centre of excellence for AWD systems using the Haldex clutch coupling.
But the fact remains that these are now two separate – and competing – car manufacturers. Will Volvo look to eventually bring 100% of engine production back in-house, stick with Ford, or would a new out-sourcing partner be lined up? “Those are the three alternatives,” says Hellsten. “For now we will continue with in-house engine manufacturing in Skövde, then we will see what happens. The current arrangement will continue for some time, but depending on the architectures we’re using and our new models, then we might have the opportunity to go down another route.” Besides engines, he adds that Volvo is also delivering other parts to Ford, including brake discs, con rods and stamped components. “We have established a good exchange of materials.”
At the Torslanda facility, where Hellsten is based, Volvo produces five different models on two different platforms; the S80, V70, XC70, V60, and XC90. While body-in-white (BIW) is carried out on two parallel lines, all bodies are moved onto a single line for paint and final assembly. Factor in the various drivetrain alternatives and it makes for a highly-complex build process.
Underlining this, Magnus Prim, Day Production Manager at Torslanda, explains the system used to marry bodies and powertrains. “We have two standard palettes to which three further palettes are added, front, middle and rear. The top palettes are picked and loaded in a fully-automated system. The completed palettes are buffered in a holding area before going onto the line and they return here to be broken down, ready for the next car.” The sub-line comprises a series of individual marriage stations for the different models, each stopping in the correct area to have the matching drivetrain applied.
Magnus Hellsten says that standardization of the manufacturing processes has helped to streamline the production system. “Just about every OEM uses some form of standardization in its production process, but we also use this idea in our planning, which also helps when deciding how to organise the appropriate training for our line operators.”
He goes on to say that the manufacturing system used at Torslanda and also at the company’s other European facility in Gent, Belgium, is largely based on the Ford Production System, which was the driver behind process standardization. There are elements, though, that he has removed in order to develop better solutions.
“We used to have an Andon system. Instead of a cord we used a push-button system, but it was the same setup, it would send a signal to a guy supporting the operator and he would have to clear the signal or the line would stop.” He explains that the organization was not mature enough to use the system; there were too many stops, with little thought given to developing permanent solutions. In place of the Andon system, teams at Torslanda have been using problemsolving sheets, which according to Hellsten serve to deliver a short-term fix while planning for a more robust long-term solution. “When we reintroduce Andon, it will be much better, we will use it in the right way. It’s not just a button push, (these calls) have to work the whole system.”
While he refuses to be drawn on whether other OEMs unnecessarily install such Andon systems, Hellsten says that it is easy to be tempted into using such technologies.
“Many people have been to a Toyota plant to see how they work their system and it is impressive, there are very few vehicles in the rework area, it’s a very smooth flow. But you have to understand that they have worked on this for almost 50 years, improving the system over time, and now it is a mind set among the employees.”
Where as Stockholm is considered to be Sweden’s technology centre, Gothenburg is the country’s industrial heartland. Over the recent downturn, Volvo was forced to lay off 1,800 people at the Torslanda plant, but as the economy has started to rebound, the company has needed to increase its current workforce. With the region’s manufacturing heritage, Hellsten says that there is a very good pool of local labour, but how do Swedish people regard working on an automotive assembly line? “Is it a person’s dream to be standing on the line building cars? It’s not for everyone. Are there enough people who want to do it? I think so.”
He continues by saying it is much more difficult to find suitable employees for the carmaker’s plant in Gent. “We took in 1,000 new employees and after just a few weeks, 250 people had left. They perhaps felt that the industry was not their cup of tea. It’s a bit tricky, you have to train these people to the right level to produce the vehicles, and that costs quite a lot of money.”
Hellsten says that it is important to help candidates based on their background. If an applicant is coming straight out of school, they will need more support, whereas people coming from other industries really like working on the line.
Hellsten recalls a conversation with a line operator that had previously worked in a tire shop. Was it not better there, he asked, with your own business, selling, fixing tires, a nice mix of activities? The operator had replied that it was a tough job. The cars were cold, covered in snow, the tires were cold, there was a lot of heavy lifting and when the door opened the wind was bitter. In the plant, it’s warm, you have good friends, there’s excellent tooling and everything is prepared for you. “People have different values,” says Hellsten. “It’s repetitive, but it’s steady work.”
In order to be seen as an attractive employer, Hellsten says that it is up to him to make the job more interesting. To do this, Volvo has instituted a step development plan for teams on the production line. This starts with the basics, including an introduction to the ‘5S’ system that outlines best practises for work area cleanliness and product quality. Following this, he says that teams should be give more opportunity to improve the build process, which includes holding Kaizen workshops. “We held nearly 600 workshops last year,” says Hellsten, “where people come together as a team and address the issues they have every day. We provide a production engineer, a maintenance engineer, a logistics expert, to help solve the problems.”
Implementing Kaizens is, according to Hellsten, part of a larger framework of consistency across Volvo’s production process. “You need to be consistent when you’re working with these kind of changes. We have not been so consistent in the past, but we have changed over the last couple of years. Consistency creates confidence and confidence creates energy, and then our people will provide their effort and knowledge. Does that mean that everything’s perfect? Of course not, but we have pushed this a long way.”
As the various costs across automotive production, materials, labour, energy, etc., increase, it becomes imperative that cost-saving measures be identified in the manufacturing process in order to deliver finished vehicles at a competitive retail price. After all, should a carmaker elect to absorb all associated cost increases while maintaining the same retail price, the result would inevitably lead to a reduced profit margin.
Magnus Hellsten says that one of the largest cost drivers across production is the need to invest in fixed assets, but early co-operation between product development and manufacturing can help to reduce this expenditure.
Planning, he advises, should start with an overall strategy that minimizes the need to change a vehicle’s fundamental build structure. “The less you need to change a new model, or a new body, the better. If you stay with your geometric fix points as you change from one model year to the next, or even between new models, the less you need to change your processes. These changes can cost a lot of money.”
To get the most from this, he further points out that each team should be very specific as to their individual requirements. “You need to say exactly what you need to have and where you see the heaviest investment coming in. You must decide whether you really need to replace the processes you have with different processes, and what gains any new equipment can bring, in terms of running costs and efficiency.”
Volvo is well-known as a leader in automotive safety, but advancing this top-level goal can influence manufacturing costs. As an example, Hellsten says that with each successive model, body structure is examined with a view to improving passive safety and manufacturing must accommodate these updates. Yet invariably, improving passive safety adds weight to the vehicle body. In an attempt to reverse this trend, Volvo has started hot-forming parts in order to achieve the required component strength with thinner, lighter materials.
“So you have the component dynamics, the part has the right characteristics, but how do you put it all together? Can you spot weld the material? Maybe not, maybe you need a laser. Is that enough? If not, you look at structural bonding.” In cases such as this, required changes to the bodyshell start a domino-effect pattern of cost increases across the BIW area. “In order to achieve peak efficiency, you try to find the best solution, but these changes must also be accomplished within a specific cycle time and with high repeatability. This also affects your costs, because if these elements are low, increased capacity is the only solution.”
Cars produced by Volvo incorporate a large amount of steel. In fact, the company logo, which many understand to be the biological symbol for ‘man’, is actually derived from the mark that was stamped on steel products produced in Sweden. In order to reduce overall vehicle weight, could future Volvo models use an increased amount of aluminium or other, more exotic materials?
“Aluminium is being used in more automotive applications, such as doors that have a steel inner and an aluminium outer. I think that we will see that coming into our cars in order to reduce weight. But aluminium is half the weight and twice the cost. I think that if you can form highstrength steel in such a way that it produces high-quality outer parts, this can help achieve some weight savings, and compensate for the cost of aluminium.” As for carbonfibre, titanium and magnesium, Hellsten says that these could be used in a limited number of components, but they will largely remain part of the supercar culture, rather than being assimilated into mass production.
Other parts that could benefit from going on an enforced diet are seats. Are there any plans to work on weight reduction in this area? “When you look into future architectures, you need to look at all systems.” That said, Hellsten admits modern seats, and particularly those with electric motors and heating elements, are very heavy. He adds that efforts to reduce cabin noise have also added to vehicle weight. “Glass is very heavy, and we’re using more insulation to achieve the desired results. Insulation products add a surprising amount of weight.”
Other automotive manufacturing plants might boast a greater model mix than Volvo’s Torslanda facility, but these facilities are largely built-to-purpose, designed from the ground up to deliver a broad range of different models.
This is not the case at Torslanda, where the multi-model set up is the result of manufacturing evolution driven by the need for improved efficiency and reduced costs.
“When we were building the 164, the 144 and the P1800 and P1800ES in the 1970s, we were basically running four models on four different lines. Now we are producing five models on two different platforms on the same line. Another difference is that while other manufacturers have regional plants to supply specific markets, we are delivering to the global market from two plants. We need to homologate the models, which demands a logistics structure that promotes a very efficient flow of material.”
Magnus Prim offers further details on how Volvo handles model complexity. “The most difficult thing for operators is model variation. If we didn’t have the system we have in place, it would be a big problem for us. Each person would need specific details and training about which car takes what part.”
To balance the line, the system allows for variable line speed. Prim: “Some models are more time-consuming to build. It’s quicker to build a rear-wheel drive model. The system allows us to control the line speed. If I have to build more models that require more time, I can slow the line down. Then for less time-consuming models, I can increase the speed of the line.”
He goes on to explain that while there is an average jobsper- hour figure, he can increase that to 110% of the average if there is a run of four-cylinder, two-wheel drive cars with low specification. On the other hand, if there’s a four-wheel drive XC90 on the line, production can actually stop in order to allow the operator to achieve the required quality level. “This is another way we solve having various models on the same line.”
Of the five models, the XC90 demands the highest proportion of dedicated production time – and dedicated machinery. While the weld shop has two lines, one is only for the XC90. On the assembly line, the IP-installation station has two robots completing the task, one of which is only used to install units for the big four-wheel drive model. Overall, Prim says that in order to balance the model mix and achieve optimum line speed, every fourth vehicle produced is an XC90. Is it the model you’re making the most at Torslanda? “We produce more V70 models than any other, though V60 numbers are increasing.”
Magnus Prim, who has worked at Volvo for 23 years, is justifiably proud of the vehicles produced at Torslanda. “Volvo has always had a lot of people from the region working here, I’m very proud to work here. I think everyone is.” While brand reputation is a large part of this, the fact is that Volvo is a global showcase for Swedish technology, with cars being sent to a variety of destinations, including
European countries, North and South America, and Japan. Prim highlights the last of these as representing one of the few production restrictions. “We can’t produce 10 right-hand drive cars in a row as it would affect line speed.” Despite this, he says that cars built for the Japanese market are closely batched in production to help with finished vehicle logistics.
When asked what he is most proud of in regards to production, Hellsten highlights the paintshops at Torslanda and Gent. Installed in the 1990s, he says that the facilities are still delivering first-class quality. “We are one of the top manufacturers when it comes to paint.” Despite their age, the paint shops are also environmentally friendly, an important requirement in Sweden. “They are still amongst the top five least-polluting installations with regards to emissions,” he adds.
Other environmental initiatives at Torslanda include the purchase of ‘green’ energy, produced by wind and hydro installations. Hellsten says that Volvo put forward a proposal to install its own wind turbines at the facility, but this was refused due to the plant’s close proximity to the city airport. If Volvo were to offer an unlimited manufacturing budget, what would Hellsten look to replace first at the Torslanda plant? “Experience has taught me that there is no such thing as a free lunch! But I think I would invest in areas where I have extended the lifetime of the equipment, where it requires more maintenance to keep the equipment up and running at the pace I want.
“When replacing items such as robots, you look at today’s version of the same machine and of course, there have been developments. They do not even look the same as they did five years ago. A robot lasts longer than a mobile phone, but it’s the same idea. You require the latest technology to gain higher performance. I would upgrade to the latest standard if I had that money, while still maintaining investment efficiency to keep my running costs low.”
But what Hellsten is most proud of are the people working at Torslanda, and their ability to handle the complex model mix. As he says, equipment and other technical developments will sooner or later be available for anyone prepared to pay for them, but the difference is how people are organized. “Getting the best out of your processes and equipment, that has to do with people. That is where our strength lies.”