BARCELONA - The Smartville factory at Hambach, France, took another step toward full production last week, adding its second shift on 27 July.
The third shift should begin next year, raising weekly production to 4,250 units.
Just as the Smart car itself incorporates a lot of new thinking, so does the factory. Harald Boelstler, general manager of Micro Compact Car, is happy with the way the Smart production is running.
The factory is his responsibility. In his soft voice, this big man explained the production numbers. 'The maximum per day,' he says, 'is 250 cars per shift. The factory can run five days with three shifts and one day with two shifts.'
By next year, all shifts should be in place and the factory should be producing 200,000 cars per year.
Boelstler is calm, solid and looks like a man who knows what he wants. He came to Micro Compact Car from Daimler-Benz in November 1996. At Daimler, he was senior deputy manager of purchasing for exterior and interior components.
System suppliers with their own facilities are also going full speed ahead, says Boelstler. Partners include Magna International (stampings and welding), Eisenmann (paint shop), VDO (dashboard), Krupp (engine, transmission), Bosch (front-end module) and Dynamit Nobel (exterior plastic).
Many manufacturing ideas at Smartville are new to Daimler-Benz, and some are new to the industry.
For example, said Boelstler, 'Micro Compact Car has no stock at all. All parts belong to the system partners until the car is assembled. After the car is built, Micro Compact Car pays for the four wheels (Smart has no spare wheel), one engine, two seats and so on.'
Close cooperation is essential. The factory stops if any part is missing. The buffer is just 12 minutes.
Suppliers and factory all learn the production plans and the sequence of part delivery three days ahead. Boelstler describes the system as 'a pearl necklace, each pearl of each size having its place on the string. If the string is broken, it all falls apart.
'We have a full transparency environment at the plant,' Boelstler said. Problems must be recognized and stopped at the station where they happen.
The secret behind the new way of manufacturing is that all partners influence the way the parts are constructed and in the way the factory works.
In the first phase, the partners have all said how they think things should be done in order to make production smooth.
This philosophy extends to the workers. There are not as many bosses at Smartville as in traditional factories and workers accept more responsibility. Employees, for example, organize their work and holiday schedules.
Building a Smart means a lot of group work. Every car spends exactly 1.7 minutes at each working station. That is how long it takes the production band to run along each of the 4.5 meter long working islands. Assembly time is 4.5 hours, and 7.5 hours total when the suppliers' work hours are added.
Over 20,000 people applied for the jobs at Smartville.
Micro Compact Car hired 600 in final assembly, and the suppliers hired 900. Most employees are from the region.
Their average age is 29 years, and one in five are female. The company pays average salaries for the region, says Boelstler, but employees can earn a bonus of 12 percent.
Production did not get off to a smooth start. The whole project was put back six months when engineers determined that the Smart would have similar stability problems as the A-class.
The delay and re-engineering affected 10,000 people directly and indirectly involved in the Smart and the Smartville factory.
Micro Compact Car sent 200 workers to Germany during the delay to fix up Mercedes-Benz A-class cars, and 100 others did the same work in the Hambach factory.
It cost Micro Compact Car an extra DM300 ($170 million) to redesign the car and to pay suppliers some of their extra costs caused by the delay.
According to Micro Compact Car, total development cost has reached DM2.8 billion.