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Going, Going, Graz

Automotive Industries, Oct, 1999 by Norman Martin

Time constraints and assembly capacity sent Mercedes M-Class production to Graz, Austria, where it's built alongside the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Here's an inside look at the tricky assembly of two very different sport-utilities, in the same plant.

Here in the hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger, DaimlerChrysler AG is flexing a bit of manufacturing muscle.

Buyers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean were clamoring for its popular M-Class sport-utility, but the company couldn't add capacity to the Vance, Ala., assembly plant that was already running full out. So it turned to Graz, Austria, and Steyr-Daimler-Puch, a vehicle-making unit of megasupplier Magna International Inc., to pump out the iron.

Not only would Steyr produce the vehicle, it would make it on the same line as the Jeep Grand Cherokee (WJ).

The trucks have virtually no common parts and totally different architectures -- the M-Class is body-on-frame, while the Grand Cherokee is a unibody design. Integrating production required planning, attention to detail and above all, flexibility. Wherever totally different production techniques are needed -- such as installing the engines on the two vehicles -- the assembly lines are separated. Blue areas are for Mercedes; green areas are for Jeeps. Workers can distinguish vehicle operations at a glance.

DaimlerChrysler knew there would be complications, but producing the M-Class on the Jeep assembly line was its least expensive option. "The specific equipment that was designed and put in place for the WJ and the Mercedes M-Class have operated within expectations," says Gary Cash, managing director of DaimlerChrysler Graz Manufacturing Operations. "But the interaction between these two systems has left us with opportunities for improvement, I guess you would say."

The cost of building an M-Class in Graz is higher than it is at the U.S. plant, but new investment for the project was limited to $35 million. More importantly, it took less time to put the M-Class into production in Austria than it would take to build an additional assembly line in Alabama. Mercedes had boosted annual capacity at the U.S. plant to 80,000 units, from 65,000, and any further expansion would have required major new investments, primarily in the paint shop. Also, the primary market for the additional M-Class vehicles is in Europe, and DaimlerChrysler wants to boost WJ production by 1,200 vehicles, to 30,000 a year, matching the M-Class goal. By next year, those lines should be turning out 150 or more of each model daily.

Why go to Graz?

There was excess capacity at Steyr where the old Chrysler Corp. was already making WJs.

The Graz factory also builds Mercedes-Benz cars. The Graz facility is actually several separate factories whose common majority owner is Steyr-Daimler-Puch. One part of the plant produces the Mercedes-Benz E-Class 4-Matic, another makes the Gelandewagen (G-Class) off-roader, and another builds the Grand Cherokee. Still another part of the plant, this one jointly owned with DaimlerChrysler, assembles Chrysler's Voyager minivans for the European market.

The M-Class is highly modular, and the bulk of the vehicle ships from the United States relatively easily. Of the 65 total suppliers on the M-Class, 18 of them provide major preassembled modules. Doors, decklids and hood assemblies are received complete from Ogihara Stamping; the front and rear floor pan, and bodysides are manufactured by South Charleston Stamping. The plant gets its seats in sequence from Johnson Controls Inc., and completely assembled instrument panels from Delphi Automotive Systems. The IP module includes the cross-car beam, HVAC, wire harness, audio system and full airbag unit. Front and rear suspensions are also delivered as complete modules, and include the upper and lower control arms, differential, CV joints and halfshafts, brakes, knuckles and steering gear.

On The Line

Malting sure it all works requires complex logistics and careful planning. A walk through the color-coded production lines shows the merging and un-merging of the assembly process.

For instance, the welding fixture for the bodyside aperture panels is a rotating drum that accommodates two different vehicles at the same time. Originally, the fixture held WJ panels and there were two open spots for a second model, no matter what that model was. In this case, it turned out to be the M-Class.

In the body shop there are separate areas to build up the floor plan and the underbody unit. The welding fixtures that hold those are unique between the two product lines. The reason for not consolidating them was that Chrysler had already ordered and tooling supplier Nothelser, a unit of Thyssen AG, had completed manufacturing the WJ equipment.

"It would have been very, very costly for us to have gone back and modified those fixtures," says Cash. "It actually was a better investment to go off and just do separate unique fixtures in that case. And we have found the floor space to put that in."


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