A well-planned sprint

by MM&D Staff
Carsets arrive just in time and are unloaded automatically
Carsets arrive just in time and are unloaded automatically

It’s really quiet in the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter assembly hall at Ludwigsfelde, Germany, south of Berlin. Unexpectedly quiet for a place that builds more than 200 large vans every single day.

Previously there were countless wire baskets, shelves and carriers full of material all around the assembly lines, and employees had to pick the correct parts for each van themselves. Now, the scene is dominated by “driverless transport trucks”. These driverless trucks autonomously supply assembly personnel on the line with prepared goods baskets from the logistics and picking areas.

“The Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde plant is the benchmark when it comes to intelligent vehicle production. It’s what future plants should look like: streamlined, sophisticated processes; pinpoint, highly efficient logistics; and faultless assembly,” says Sebastian Streuff, the plant’s manager.

“In the last two-and-a-half years, the plant has taken its future into its own hands with its highly qualified and motivated workforce. Today it is a shining example of the use of innovative production systems in the Mercedes-Benz Vans worldwide production network.”

With around 2,000 employees, the Mercedes-Benz Ludwigsfelde plant is one of the largest industrial employers in Brandenburg, and Daimler’s third-largest van assembly plant worldwide. Ludwigsfelde is also the only European production site at which the open model variants of the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter “world van” (pickups and chassis cabs) are produced for a wide range of vehicle bodies.

In 2014, the plant had a successful year and increased its output by 13 percent to over 48,200 units. And this positive trend is continuing in 2015, with capacity
utilization remaining at a very high level.

Since 1991 over 600,000 vehicles have left this assembly plant, which covers a total area of 540,000 square meters (5.8 million sqf) with a production area of 182,000 square meters (1.96 million sqf). This total goes up by over 200 vans per day in a two-shift operation—with the vehicles being exported to around 130 countries. The plant plays a key role in the Mercedes-Benz Vans global production network.

15C671_06Since the end of 2012 the Ludwigsfelde plant has taken major strides forward in terms of efficiency throughout the entire area of vehicle assembly. One main objective was to bring about a clear improvement in the interface and collaboration between assembly and logistics.

Experts from the assembly, logistics and production planning departments first examined the entire process from the supplier to the point at which a part is installed on the line. At the same time, they also worked on establishing high-quality, robust and, above all, streamlined processes between assembly and logistics.

One example of this is door pre-assembly: while previously there were carriers practically nose-to-tail all the way along the line, and the employees had to locate, fetch and install the parts themselves, today there are just a few tool carts and data terminals. Everything else an assembler needs to fit a side door is presented to the correct vehicle on the line just in sequence and just in time by a driverless transport truck in what is known as “carsets”.

Here the complexity between assembly and logistics is extremely high: on the production line the employees assemble the Sprinter in over 350 different
combinations, depending on wheelbase, weight, motorization or colour. Consequently there is a different sequence for each vehicle, and respectively each Sprinter needs to have different components fitted.

Thanks to sophisticated IT networking, exactly the right parts for each Sprinter are prepared in a carset cart and delivered to the assembly line. The driverless transport truck even takes care of unloading completely automatically. After arrival, the carsets are positioned directly to the line, all the worker has to do is take the correct parts truck, attach it to the pendant and start installing the parts.

There are clear advantages: improved workstation ergonomics, shorter walking distances, direct access to the material, more space on the line and a reduced accident risk, thanks to the absence of forklifts.

An empty carset returns to be refilled with battery pre-assemblies
An empty carset returns to be refilled with battery pre-assemblies

Michael Bauer, plant manager in Ludwigsfelde until the end of May 2015 and now responsible for worldwide assembly planning at Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars, said: “We recognized the necessity of a very flexible factory at an early stage, and continuously optimized production processes. In so doing we ensured close coordination between management, the works council and our employees. Only in this way it was possible to take such huge strides forward in terms of efficiency, quality and added value here at the site in such a short time. That is our recipe for success here in Ludwigsfelde.”

Driverless transport trucks, computer-assisted picking and ergonomic workstations: the Sprinter plant in Ludwigsfelde impressively highlights what a sophisticated, highly efficient and worker-friendly production facility can look like today. This is also highlighted by a comparison of key parameters since the start of the “Assembly and logistics interface optimization” project at the end of 2012:
•    Far less space is now taken up by material on the assembly line;
•    The workstations on the assembly line are even more ergonomic, there are far fewer forklifts, and noise emissions are noticeably lower;
•    Driverless transport trucks are successfully established at the assembly plant and have become an integral part of the production process;
•    Fully autonomous material supply in assembly subsections;
•    Production time is much shorter and capacity utilization on the assembly line is correspondingly higher;
•    Quality level in the production achieved an all-time high.

The high level of investment in Ludwigsfelde shows how continuous further development of the site has paid dividends. In October 2014 Mercedes-Benz Vans defined the long-term strategy for production of the Sprinter successor model, which will be produced in Germany. Mercedes-Benz Vans will be investing €150 million (C$225 million) in Ludwigsfelde alone to modernize the body shop, paint shop and assembly line.