Automobile Industry in Transition

During a tour of the Ford Industrial Supplier Park in Saarlouis, Mexican entrepreneurs learned about supply chain management and the optimised logistics at one German automobile manufacturer.

Upheavals in the German automotive industry, like proposed diesel bans and investment in alternative drive systems, have also impacted industry suppliers. Most of the Mexican MP participants who visited the Ford Industrial Supplier Park in Saarlouis in September work in the automotive supply field. They toured the automotive seating expert Adient’s plant in the park. Visiting Mexican executives identified many of the elements important in working with German car manufacturers based on Adient’s successful collaboration with Ford.

As one of the world’s largest suppliers in its sector, Adient furnishes almost all automobile brands with seating, including the nearby Ford plant. It takes just 90 minutes from the time a part is ordered to its final installation in a Ford vehicle. The close proximity of the two businesses, i.e. just a few hundred metres as the crow flies and easily covered by a truck in just minutes, make this quick turnaround possible. Careful coordination in many operational areas, such as aligning shifts at the two plants, is also key.

Roman Lauer from Ford explained current challenges facing the automobile industry.

The electric monorail conveyer is the heart of the supplier park, and an important factor in its success. It enables direct and fully automated transport to the Ford plant from most suppliers. In combination with the automatic small parts warehouse that went online in 2016, optimal logistics has reduced production costs for suppliers. In real terms, this means just-in-time and just-in-sequence production. The right parts are delivered at exactly the right time for the various vehicle models on Ford’s production assembly line. For this system to work seamlessly, Ford and its suppliers have to precisely coordinate their daily operations. Breaks at the Ford plant and its suppliers in the park are synchronised. Quality management, production processes and human resource management are also meticulously harmonised.

1,200 vehicles roll off the assembly line every day at Ford's Saarlouis plant, 70 per cent for export and 30 per cent to be sold in Germany. A tour of the factory provided MP guests with insight into all the production steps. "The assembly line never stops moving, even during shift changes. It runs at a constant rate and a new vehicle is completed every 34 seconds", plant manager Christian Klein explained. Adient’s automotive seating is timed to the second to arrive just in time to be mounted in the model it was ordered for 90 minutes before. The high, constantly increasing level of automation was the subject of lively discussion among the visiting Mexican managers, as was the new, automated boron press shop, which produces components from a special steel alloy using a hot-forming process. "These parts are lighter yet more robust than the conventional coldformed components. There is a lot to learn here," Daniel de la Serna, a manufacturer of metal parts for the automotive industry in Mexico remarked with interest.

The participants experienced car construction at first hand. Here in front of car bodies of the Ford Focus model at the Ford plant in Saarlouis.

The visiting executives also experienced the vocational training system at Ford and were shown how apprentices are supervised at the plant and the supporting infrastructure. The plant consumes as much energy as a medium-sized city with around 40,000 inhabitants and has its own water treatment plant and fire brigade. A company-owned combined heat and power unit supplies the plant with environmentally friendly electricity and heat. Head of Material Planning and Logistics Roman Lauer and Head of Production Planning and Vehicle Delivery Bernd Kuhn rounded off the company tour by hosting an animated discussion on the strategic challenges at Ford and the current developments in the German automotive industry. “Where do you see the German automotive industry in five years’ time?”, MP participant Frédéric Bron asked, addressing market changes in Europe, a topic covered and much discussed in the “Writing a Business Plan” seminar. Roman Lauer enriched the conversation with ideas drawn from his experience and global perspective and concluded the exchange with a positive outlook: “Global sales figures for vehicles are rising steadily. Africa, China and South America are all markets with great potential.”

Photos: © ZEW