It is possible for things to happen quickly in the automotive industry. But, they rarely happen so fast.
The story is probably familiar to you. After the death of Jaguar Land Rover Defender in 2015, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a billionaire chemical engineer, sketched the outline for a “spiritual successor” to the iconic off-roader while sitting at a pub.
Ratcliffe doesn’t believe in dreaming. The newly founded Ineos Automotive company was able to build the final product four years later. It’s now almost time for full-scale production, just 18 months later. All this happening against the backdrop of, you know what?
Ineos’ factory is what makes Ineos a serious entity. This is why we are now in eastern France, near Strasbourg. Although it is nice that Ineos could buy Mercedes-Benz’s Smart-manufacturing Hambach facility in December 2020, and then begin building Grenadier off-roaders, it is also absurd.
The factory’s 1000-strong workforce is highly reliable, with the majority of them being veterans who have been there since 1998 when Smartville was founded. The factory’s brand-new paint shop, which was built as part of a EUR470million upgrade Mercedes recently made to the plant. It is also where huge emu feather brushes clean dust off freshly minted bodies.
Even though the Grenadier will use the same lines of Smart cars, this was the problem Ineos’s manufacturing group faced when it won the keys to the location (at the expense of a highly-anticipated new-build facility in Bridgend, South Wales). The Grenadier measures five meters in length and weighs 2600kg. It would be a disaster to attempt to build one on lines that are half as long as the Grenadier and three times as heavy. What has given this factory an unexpected lease of life? It’s quite a lot. Ineos spent EUR50m already on Hambach, and is currently at the PT01 stage in its manufacturing plan. Production Try-out One is the term for when raw processes are implemented without time constraints.
Erik Torseke, industrialisation director, says that most of the hard work is finished. The bodyshop is where panels are spot-welded (4068 for the steel floor and shell and 368 for the aluminium doors, bonnet, and bonnet), and then glued together. Mercedes’ 250 robots were taken out, modified, and then fitted with new heads.
It was a lot of work, but fine-tuning it is almost as difficult. Many robots are currently in ghost mode, in which they perform their tasks in mime. They will repeat the process tens of time until they are perfect, before any panels are installed for customers cars. To nail the choreography, each of the 23 stations in the bodyshop assembly process, which basically covers the entire floor, have been 3D-modelled.
The Grenadier corps are then transported via a sky tunnel into the building that will house the new paint shop. It is extremely warm, bright, and clean, although it may not be comfortable at all. This begins with corrosion protection. PVC-based sealant is applied by massive robot arms. They take a minute to measure the naked, squared-off bodyshell and then attack it with incredible precision, darting in and exiting windows with centimetres spare.
In the 300 seconds that a body spends at the station, 3.7kg (about 120 meters’ worth) of sealant is applied. It’s ready to go for general assembly in another area of this plant with two coats of base coats followed by a top coat.
Most of the work needed to prepare Hambach for Grenadier has been done in GA. This section of the facility was awarded PT01 status. 75 overhead carriers were modified and strengthened to achieve this. Due to their ability to carry 2.6-tonne cars, reinforcements were also required to strengthen the structure of the building, especially the roof.
Also, the’skillet floor conveyors have been strengthened and enlarged. They can be adjusted to six heights in order to make it easier for staff to fit the glass, interior, and any other addenda. Modifications have been made to the stations responsible for the eight-bolt process of joining the chassis and body. A completely new sub-assembly was required for the chassis, an old-fashioned ladder-frame design using beam axles from Carraro tractor specialist.
The chassis is fitted with the six-cylinder BMW engine, petrol or diesel, ZF automatic gearbox, and Tremec transfer box. Drive is sent to all four wheels. The Grenadier can optionally be fitted with electronically locking differentials. Standard equipment includes a centre differential that can be manually locked via the low-range gearstick. The Grenadier’s rolling chassis, which is almost as large as an average Smart, is quite a feat of engineering.
PT01 was the culmination of 23 concurrent development projects across all 133 assembly stations along the combined lines. There were 20 suppliers involved. All this happened within the past 12 month.
Ineos’s success is due to its ability to attract top-notch manufacturing professionals. Torseke worked as a director at NEVS and then joined Valmet Automotive, a Finnish company that made the Boxster and Cayman Porsches for many years. Philippe Steyer, the CEO, has been working in operations for Mercedes for over 20 years, most often at Hambach. Stefan Bruhnke is an ex-Mercedes employee who oversees quality control.
Ineos opted to leave Wales to France because they had access to cutting-edge equipment originally intended for EQA production.
Although many of the factory’s processes are at the cutting edge of modern mass-market production, the Grenadier is still a straightforward prospect. According to Torseke, the casting within the rear door is the most complex part of the construction. This is where the spare wheel is mounted. This is a Mercedes innovation that makes the area stronger. The Grenadier, which is a body-on-chassis concept similar to the Defender’s original Defender, is otherwise very basic. Spot welding and automation in the bodyshop are vastly different from the process used to build Defender. Even 2016, the last year of production, involved some hammers and spanners.
Torseke and co. now have to move on to PT02 which will see 130 more prototypes built in addition to the 130 that were made during PT01. This will allow for vehicle development to continue with an estimated 1.1 million miles.
During PT02 Hambach will reach the operational speed required for Grenadier to become commercially viable.
The 300-second cycle will eventually become very rigid. What happens after that? Next, it’s time to order customer cars. These should be delivered to their first owners by September. It remains to be seen who these customers will be and what they will do with their Hambach-made Grenadiers.
Daimler-Benz opened its innovative EUR450 million Hambach plant in 1997. Because of the many suppliers on the site, Smartville was named Smartville. This resulted in extremely low vertical integration.
Smart completed only 10% of the total production steps. This is a much lower percentage than the average in the car industry. However, this method worked due to that supplier’s proximity. Components were delivered directly to the production line. This allowed Hambach to maximize the benefits of the just-in time manufacturing principle. In some cases, components were delivered in the right order, which is the order in which they would be assembled. Smart had no access to customer-specific data.
The site also has its own railway station so finished cars can be moved quickly. This ensured that there was minimal inventory on either end of the production line.