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Opel's Approach in Rüsselsheim: Operating for the 21st Century

The Opel Rüsselsheim complex has roots in the 19th century. It has built a plant and an operating structure that it hopes will be effective and efficient for the 21st century. Here’s a look.
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The Back Story

The Adam Opel AG Rüsselsheim complex in Germany seems to be to that company what the Rouge complex in Dearborn is to Ford Motor Company: a historic site with a meaning that goes far beyond any factory. In November, 1999, Ford announced that it is building a new assembly plant, which will be called the “Dearborn Truck Plant” at the Rouge Center. In the case of Opel, a new plant was announced in May, 1999. The structure is up; the equipment is being moved in or is already installed; volume production of a new Vectra model, based on the GM global Epsilon platform, will begin early in 2002.

While many people may be familiar with the Rouge and its scope of integrated manufacturing capabilities established by Henry Ford, Rüsselsheim’s past is probably not as well known. Auto production there goes back to 1899 with the production of the “Lutzmann patent motor car.” The first car assembly line in Germany was installed in Rüsselsheim in 1924. The site had to undergo rebuilding after World War II; that work was completed in 1950. In 1954, they started construction of a new body plant for stamping and final assembly; at the time it was the biggest new industrial construction project in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The K40 body plant went into production in 1956. A new paint shop went on line in 1981; Opel became the first car manufacturer anywhere to use water-based paint in production. The International Technical Development Center was built on the grounds of Rüsselsheim; it houses designers, engineers, technicians, and the associated managers. The point of all of this background is simply to indicate the amount of investment that has been made on that site (and know that there are plenty other projects that I’ve left out for purposes of making said point). But sometimes, making modifications and improvements is not enough.

According to Michael J. Wolf, Rüsselsheim plant director, “Although we kept the traditional Rüsselsheim plant up to date by continuous modernization and restructuring, all these measures during more than a century of car manufacturing, though sensible in their respective eras, created a complex conglomerate of buildings and processes over the years that could not comply with true lean production requirements any more.”

So they made a decision to do something different.

Breaking (Old) Ground

Although it could simply be a matter of semantics or spin, in point of fact there is a commitment at Opel to developing a new way of work at its long-standing Rüsselsheim site.

There are “brownfield” plants, those places that are, well, already there. Working on a brownfield site means making whatever improvements can be made within the existing structure. Sometimes what you can do there doesn’t go quite far enough.

Such a plant exists at the Rüsselsheim complex, where Omegas and Vectras are built.

Then there are “greenfield” plants, where ground is broken that hadn’t previously been fitted with foundations. Often, these plants are built in comparatively far-off places compared to where things are ordinarily done. (Think, for example, of a U.S. greenfield: Saturn in Spring Hill, Tennessee. Not exactly mainstream auto terrain when it was built.) As the people at Opel were considering building a facility for building cars, they thought long and hard about the lands to the east where there isn’t much in the way of modern manufacturing facilities yet there are a good number of people who are capable of building cars—at a lower wage rate.

But then there is what is known, in the parlance of the General Motors Global Manufacturing System, as the “leanfield” plant. It is, in effect, brownfield melded with greenfield with a whole new structure put in place. And this is what is going to go into full production early next year in Rüsselsheim.

Wolfgang Strinz, deputy chairman of Opel’s Board of Managers, says, “It is unique in the German car manufacturing industry. No other company has ever built a new production site with the existing assembly lines still running next door.”

He goes on to explain that there was considerable forethought regarding this approach, going to the leanfield rather than to the green, which many of his German competitors have decided to do. Strinz says, “Opel has invested a total of DM 1.5 billion in the new plant. To be honest, it might have been cheaper and easier to build a new plant on a green field. This was no easy decision, and we compared the pros and cons intensively. In the end, we decided that we would take advantage of the strengths and advantages of this location.

“These are the three main arguments for it: 1. Our experienced, dedicated staff. 2. Proximity to the International Technical Center and therefore ideal preconditions for exchange between production, product development and manufacturing engineering. 3. Immediate contact with other central corporate functions, such as purchasing, and an infrastructure that is unique in Europe.” People and resources: potent elements for successful operations.

A Star Is Built

The architecture of the 48,000-m2 final assembly building is unlike anything I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of assembly plants). Generally, assembly plants are variants on rectangles and boxes, something that you could model rather readily with Lego blocks. That’s not exactly the case at Rüsselsheim—at least not unless you have some sort of deluxe Lego kit.

The building is star-shaped, with five arms. It is sort of like this: * (minus 3 legs).

Michael Wolf explains, “There is a simple explanation for this from an architectural point of view: With this ground plan, we create a very long building frontage in order to optimize deliveries of materials and components.” There are more accessible walls than would be the case with a traditional layout.

What’s more, rather than using the traditional rectangular approach, the spur-like arrangement breaks down the production line so that there is good visibility of the overall line.

Of the five spurs, four are the main production line; the fifth is where door and cockpit modules are prepared for insertion into the main line. The four segments are decoupled so that should there be a stop in production due to the pulling of an andon cord (quality, as will be noted below, is a key concern of the production operation), there isn’t a complete line shut down as there are buffer zones between the lines.

At the center of the star there is an area replete with meeting rooms and information boards; it is referred to as the “nerve center” of the plant.

There is another feature of the final assembly hall that is architecturally unusual compared with the norm: There are windows lining the outside walls of the plant. Not only are these windows valuable from the point of view of providing the people in the plant with an opportunity to get a sense of what is going on in the outside world, not only are the windows decorative, they are also functional. Each window is dimensionally similar to a loading dock. In the event that there needs to be a change to the layout of the docks (say a new vehicle is to be produced), the windows and the loading docks can be shifted in a comparatively easy manner, thereby permitting fast changeover of the outside of the building.

Working With Digits

Coming up with the plant and the processes that are housed within it was turned over to the people in the International Technical Development Center. Using their UGS software tools (General Motors has standardized on UGS for product and process development, thereby facilitating global product development because everyone is using the same tools), they actually built the plant and installed all of the equipment in the virtual world. All together, they simulated 1.3-million m3. They had a virtual reality building set up two years prior to one in iron and steel so that they could optimize the structure before any concrete was poured. They simulated the more than 600 robots in the plant and expect there to be resulting operational efficiency in the 80 to 85% range, a sizable improvement over typical current practice. They even simulated the assembly line through final assembly, including test and finishing, which is a demanding task due to the variables related to those operations. They brought in people from the plant’s Works Council and the Opel medical and industrial safety departments to simulate the ergonomic aspects of vehicle assembly so that there would be assurance that the operations that were put in place would not include unsatisfactory work positions and movements. They simulated the stamping shop with the result that they were able to minimize the size of blanks needed in production. They simulated the 70 docking stations in final assembly so that they were able to coordinate the logistics between the suppliers and the assembly line. It is expected that the investment ordinarily spent after production begins in order to modify things will be cut in half as a result of this extensive simulation.

Getting Lean at Rüsselsheim

A quintessential explanation of “lean production” is provided by Sabine

Dionisius, who handles human resources at the Leanfield Project Center at Rüsselsheim: “Lean production joins people and technology.

The people own the technology.”

Which means people come first . Which necessitates extensive people involvement. Which means that people need to be extensively trained in the methods first (not technology) if for no other reason than most people in industrial organizations have not historically come first (common rhetoric like “People are our most important asset” notwithstanding). So the people have to learn the new way of work before they can perform it, a point that seems obvious, but which is sometimes overlooked in organizations because it is so apparent.

Dionisius points out that it is important to train everyone: “This avoids two classes in the workforce (i.e., the trained and the un-). They’ve found that training two hours per day, Monday through Friday, is about right for most people, especially those who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom for years. (And let’s face it: there are a number of people who work in factories because they weren’t interested in continuing to be in classrooms).

To prepare for the new factory, orientation with people at the existing plant began in 1999; the then-10,000 people* learned about the considerable investment the company is making, about the production system, the training, and about the importance of Rüsselsheim.

The training then proceeded in a cascading manner: Plant directorÕUnit managerÕProduction/shift/department managerÕSupervisor/group leaderÕTeam leader/team member. The training is performed by an internal training team; most of the 17 trainers (all of whom spent time at the Opel Eisenach plant, which is a model of lean production) are hourly workers: “They are accepted by the shop-floor people,” Dionisius says, explaining that when it is peer-to-peer training, things go more smoothly.

A specific, tactical goal that is an outcome of the training is the development of standardized work operations sheets for all of the tasks involved in vehicle assembly. This sheet is developed by the team that will actually perform the work that’s described. Not only does it define the steps that are to be taken in the station, but it also indicates what the conditions are that should cause a worker to pull the andon cord, as the objective is to make sure that quality is built in-station, which means that anything less than correct doesn’t proceed to the next station. Quality is a high concern at Opel, where they are working hard to improve performance. According to Reinald Hoben, the company’s executive director of Quality and Reliability, customer complaints for vehicles up to 12 months old have dropped by 63% since 1998. The company has established “an independent investment fund valued at a two-digit million-Mark figure” to permit “quick and unbureaucratic decisions” in order to improve quality. Hoben says that in the new Rüsselsheim plant there is what is called the “zero-defects principle,” in which there are “three action instructions: do not accept defects, avoid them, and never pass them on.”

Training is being conducted outside of the classroom, as well. In the assembly plant they are using what is called the “bucket build” concept, in which between the pre-pilot phase and the pilot-stage, in which there are “buckets,” or quantities of vehicles that are added to the current product run; the number of vehicles within a “bucket” is increased with time. Hoben explains, “Dividing pre-production into individual ‘buckets’ allows us to conduct real-world tests with the solutions obtained during the pilot phase at the plant. This pattern is repeated until a stable, controlled process with the required volume and the corresponding cycle times is guaranteed.”

(On another, but related subject: Hoben points out that because “there is a 60 to 70% supplier share in a new vehicle’s added value,” they have initiated close cooperation with the suppliers during the Vectra development, as well as a 16-stage process to ensure supplier quality. And while on the subject of suppliers, it is worth noting that a “business mall” has been built on the property, where consolidated shipments of components and subassemblies are organized for delivery to the plant just in time, and in-line sequence. Approximately 50% of the materials used for vehicle assembly pass through the mall.)

Klaus Franz, chairman of the Opel General Works Council and deputy chairman of the company’s governing supervisory board, says that it was challenging to convince some people of the need to change to this new way of working, that it took some three to four months. “Now they want training in the classroom,” he comments. Speaking of the high level of worker involvement in shaping the new Rüsselsheim way of working, he says, “Trade unions do more than protect members. They can shape the future and shape the new factory.”

Of the factory, he notes, “It sets a milestone for the future.”

This place with a long automotive past clearly has a long, productive future.

Executing Epsilon in North America

The Vectra that is going into production at the new Rüsselsheim plant is based on what is known as the global “Epsilon” architecture. This is a mid-sized architecture that will be used for a variety of vehicles, including the Saab 9-3. In the U.S. Epsilon will be used for the next-generation Chevrolet Malibu, Pontiac Grand Am, and yet-to-be-named Saturn (the current Saturn L-series is based on the current Opel Vectra). (The Saab will start production in the second half of ’02; the Malibu production is scheduled to start in early ’03; the Grand Am and Saturn will follow.) Gene Stefanyshyn is the vehicle line executive (VLE) overseeing the North American Epsilon models. Stefanyshyn’s background includes stints at the Saab Technical Center in Sweden and at Opel’s International Technical Development Center, which he says is helpful with regard to working with his international colleagues on the Epsilon variants.

Stefanyshyn was named a VLE in the fall of 1995, which makes him one of the original group to have that position. Some people have questioned having a single person in charge of more than one vehicle. Although he has various people working with him who have specific vehicle concerns (e.g., vehicle chief engineer; vehicle chief designer; purchasing person; quality person; etc.), he says that one of the advantages is that there is “one person who makes the decisions and lives the vehicles 24/7.” In earlier programs, he explains, there were numerous people involved, some of whom stayed with the program. Others, in effect, were just passing through. The VLE, he suggests, concentrates on the products. “The objective is to maximize the value to the customer.”

Which leads to another point in the VLE’s favor: There is the possibility of achieving good manufacturing flexibility by doing such things as using common components where they make sense (e.g., there will be a common seat frame for the Malibu and the Grand Am, but the seat’s other elements will be distinctive to the models). There is an awareness that “common” is most effective in places where people don’t see them; there is not a desire to have someone who buys one brand to see that there are the same touch points as in another.

Which leads to still another point: While there might be criticism that a VLE might lead to too much “sameness” between vehicles on the same platform, Stefanyshyn suggests that the opposite can hold true. By knowing all of the vehicles, the VLE can work to make sure that there are differences among models. (It is also worth noting that a platform isn’t a single size, as there will be both differences in length—as in longer for something like a wagon—and mass. There will be front-wheel and all-wheel drive capabilities.)

Here’s one thing that you rarely hear and would like to from more people in the industry: “It’s fun to work on a car and to see it at all stages, knowing that one day people will drive them.” Think about that: (1) fun working; (2) enjoyment in the process; (3) concern/interest in customers. More companies need people like Gene Stefanyshyn working for them.