Production: The Hambach plant - quality and efficiency in one

Nov 4, 2014
Highly efficient assembly and logistics operations and suppliers based directly on-site at the plant as system partners: since it was opened in October 1997 the smart plant in Hambach, Lorraine, has stood for the success story of an innovative, particularly lean production concept which continues to set new standards in its area of the automobile industry. More than 1.5 million smart fortwos have rolled off the production line in Hambach since then. With investments in the order of 200 million euros for production of the new generation of the two-seater, the plant has brought its original production concept into line with the state of the art while further increasing the flexibility of production operations.
"Just as the new smart generation continues to embody the virtues of the original smart, we have also kept the essence of the original revolutionary production philosophy," says plant manager Dr Joachim Betker (52), who joined the plant as a young engineer when it opened in 1997 and – following various positions in the Daimler Group – returned to Hambach as site manager in 2011. "Our production concept is based on smart assuming overarching control of the plant and responsibility for the end product, while at the same time drawing on the expertise of specialised suppliers and service companies as system partners for numerous areas of production."
'smartville': an innovative and particularly lean production concept
A bird's-eye view explains why the Hambach production site is also called 'smartville': at the centre of the industrial complex with a total area of 68 hectares – with buildings covering 17.5 hectares – is the central smart building that is surrounded by separate halls for the system partners. This is where the system partners produce components, assemble modules or perform logistics services.
The final assembly of the vehicles takes place in the central building that has the shape of a plus sign. The vehicles travel on the production line through the four extensions ("branches") with their respective assembly stations. Thanks to the long external walls of these branches all modules and parts can be delivered directly to the assembly stations for installation at precisely the right time ('just in time') and in the correct sequence ('just in sequence') for each individual vehicle. The system partners supply their components directly via transport bridges, further volumes are supplied via the numerous truck docking stations. In the centre of the plus sign there are further floors for the plant's administrative department. An octagonal covered courtyard enables visual contact to the production at all times. The canteen on the top floor can be used by all employees at the smartville site and therefore also serves as a daily meeting place for the smart team and the employees of the system partners.
System partners on-site include Magna Chassis (tridion safety cell), Magna Doors (doors, tailgate), Faurecia (bodypanels), ThyssenKrupp (rear axle drive module and front axle) and SAS (cockpit). The system partners are largely responsible for their modules. For example, at special geometry stations Magna Doors examines the precise dimensional accuracy of the plastic doors of the new smart fortwo so that no further adjustment measures are necessary on the vehicle during the final assembly.
There is also an approximately 1.5 kilometre test track on the smartville site for testing preproduction series and for quality assurance. It is used to test vehicle behaviour on all kinds of different road surfaces, including a bumpy track.
Consistent development and increased flexibility
The company has invested around €200 million in the site for the production of the new smart fortwo. In recent years, especially in 2013, the consistent development of the production concept gave rise to the greatest structural changes since the plant opened. An additional area of around 30,000 square metres was developed, among other things for a new logistics centre. Last year a new ultra-modern paint shop was put into operation: an environmentally friendly wet-in-wet painting process replaces the previous powder coating. This means that both the throughput speed and also the variety of possible paint colours have greatly increased, now enabling smart customers to also select the colour for the tridion safety cell from the whole range of colours available.
The measures in the body shop were also very extensive: New bonding methods – gas metal arc welding (MIG/ MAG) and soldering instead of the spot welding employed exclusively to date – also necessitated large-scale conversion measures. In expedient areas, such as tasks which are strenuous from an ergonomic point of view, the degree of automation was increased by installing 500 robots as opposed to the previous 160. In addition, the whole conveying system in the final assembly was modernised. The modernisation of the plant also increased the overall production flexibility: this means that both the new smart fortwo and variants based on the predecessor generation can be produced on one production line.
Highly qualified and motivated team
Around 800 employees are directly employed by smart, and approximately the same number again are employed by the system partners on-site. "We owe the success story here at the Hambach site to the work of our highly qualified and motivated team," plant manager Betker emphasises. There is a high level of loyalty to smart; after all, half the employees have been with us since the very beginning. Nevertheless, at 40 the average age is currently very low.
"smartville has always been a big cooperation project between Germany and France," Betker says. "Most of the staff in the engineering departments speak three languages – German, French and English – and this has contributed to the success, as has Hambach's good central European location on the A4 Strasbourg – Paris motorway."
Intensive exchange in the production of the new smart forfour
There is close contact between the smart plant in Hambach and the Renault production plant in Novo Mesto, Slovenia, where the new smart forfour rolls off the production line as part of the cooperation agreement between smart and Renault. The involvement of the production and quality experts from the Hambach plant ensures that all vehicles of the new smart generation meet the smart quality standards in full, irrespective of where they are produced.