Mercedes U.S. van plant opens door to suppliers

Frank Klein, Mercedes-Benz Vans: "Suppliers are going to have to make their own calculations. We don't tell them where they have to localize."
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NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina -- Daimler's commercial van factory here will soon go from needing almost nothing from North American suppliers to needing an entire supply chain of local parts.

Daimler is investing $500 million to transform basically a kit factory into a bona fide vehicle assembly operation that will pull together body panels, axles, windshields, seats, electronics and the rest.

Until now, the North Charleston plant has been what U.S. labor leaders and foreign trade critics used to dismissively refer to as a "screwdriver factory" -- with no opportunity for U.S. parts or technology. Large cartons of disassembled Sprinter and Metris vans were brought in and were reassembled using parts made mostly in Germany.

That will soon change.

To stoke U.S. sales of Mercedes-Benz commercial vans, Daimler is shifting its van production from Germany to South Carolina -- even though the North Charleston factory was already "assembling" the same vans. The expanded plant will dwarf the existing one, receiving a paint shop, new assembly lines and large-scale marshaling and logistics centers.

Until now, North American suppliers have had few opportunities, except for fluids and some batteries.

The enlarged plant will source stamped, unpainted body panels that will need to be assembled and painted locally. Mercedes executives are reluctant to identify which components are most likely to be first for local sourcing. But they acknowledge that the enlarged Sprinter plant will require the same sort of just-in-time supply chain that other automakers have. Those components are typically the largest and bulkiest parts of the vehicle, and the most delicate to ship -- including seats, headliners, cockpits and front-end modules.

While staying mum on the details, Mercedes officials estimated that the launch of the enlarged plant will generate 400 local supplier jobs.

Frank Klein, head of worldwide operations for Mercedes-Benz Vans, said the Sprinter supply chain also will include local upfitter work.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinters are assembled in Duesseldorf, Germany, above, partially disassembled, then shipped in containers, similar to those at top, to South Carolina for reassembly. The South Carolina plant is expanding to handle full vehicle assembly.

Retailing of commercial vans differs from that of other vehicles in a significant way. Customers buy a van for a specific need, and have the vehicle equipped to serve that need. Van upfitters install shelving, racks, special equipment or special seating in the van before the buyer takes possession. 

That work is traditionally arranged by the retailer. Mercedes wants to have that upfitting work done near the expanded plant. 

One U.S. upfitter, Auto Truck Group of Bartlett, Ill., announced in August that it would open a service center in Summerville, S.C., about 7 miles from the Mercedes plant. 

Under the Auto Truck agreement, Mercedes will send vans straight from its assembly line to the local Auto Truck center for upfitting. The vans then will be sent to the Mercedes transportation network for shipment to dealerships. 

Mercedes is not saying which suppliers might win U.S. business for production parts -- U.S. companies or suppliers to the existing German Sprinter program that might open operations near the South Carolina plant. 

"Suppliers are going to have to make their own calculations," Klein said. "We don't tell them where they have to localize." 

Of 379 Mercedes dealerships in the U.S., 230 also have Mercedes-Benz Vans franchises, which were added starting in 2010. Fifty Freightliner truck dealerships also offer the Freightliner Sprinter. 

In 2015, U.S. sales for Mercedes-Benz Vans were a record 28,600 units, up 11 percent from 2014. Sales this year are on track for the sixth consecutive record year, said Bernie Glaser, vice president of Mercedes-Benz Vans USA. 

Mercedes executives avoided forecasting production volume for the expanded factory. "We do not like to give our competitors the latest news," said Volker Mornhinweg, worldwide head of Mercedes-Benz Vans. But U.S. demand is growing, he said. 

"We expect further growth in the U.S.," Mornhinweg said. "So we are establishing local production."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com.


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