18 September 2007
DaimlerChrysler South Africa (DCSA) has spent approximately R2-billion upgrading its manufacturing plant in East London, which now produces both right- and left-hand drive versions of the latest Mercedes Benz C-Class car for domestic and export markets.
The decision demonstrates the confidence that the German-based automaker has in its local unit, which had also been producing right-hand drive versions of the previous C-Class model, for both local sales and for exports to countries like England, Australia and Japan.
For the first time, DCSA will manufacture left-hand drive versions of the new C-Class model, dubbed internally as the W204, for export to the United States. East London is one of only three plants globally manufacturing the new C-Class, the other two being Sindelfingen and Bremen in Germany.
Speaking at the launch last week, President Thabo Mbeki commended DaimlerChrysler for their investment, which would ensure that the port city became a major manufacturing node.
Mbeki said the government was aware of the motor industry’s contribution to the South African economy – currently about 7.5% of gross domestic product (GDP).
“Our government has formally taken the decision that in terms of our industrial policy, we must encourage and support the automobile sector as one of the leaders in our process of radical expansion of our manufacturing sector,” he said.
Highly specialised robots, controlled and monitored by computers, were installed in DCSA’s new plant for laser welding and brazing, high-strength steel welding and structural gluing, while a revamped production line allows for quick and efficient operations.
According to DCSA, several of the company’s just-in-time and just-in-sequence suppliers are based in the nearby East London Industrial Development Zone and are linked with the manufacturing plant by a small train.
Since the last W203 C-Class car rolled of the production line at the end of February, the electro-coat and primer ovens in the paint shop have been upgraded and a completely new assembly line has been installed.
With some 70% of the welding processes now being carried out by the 230 robots in the bodyshop, existing employees had to be retrained to manage and maintain the robots.
DCSA adds that virtually all of its 1 600 employees working on the new C-Class were trained in new skills to support the flexibility concept, which allows for the movement and redeployment of employees capable of building all the options available for the new car.
Work at the plant is being carried out in eight-hour shifts, though DCSA chairperson Hansgeorg Niefer states that a good relationship with the relevant trade union gives them more flexibility to extend working hours or add additional shifts should there be a higher demand for the new vehicles.
“We have a flexibility agreement in place with the union which will help absorb market fluctuations,” he said. “This type of understanding with Numsa [the National Union of Metalworkers of SA] and our local shop stewards is testimony to the high level of maturity in our relationship with the union.”
Commenting on the quality of the luxury car, Mbeki said its class and elegance sent out a message that South Africans were capable of making products of the highest quality.
Niefer added the new vehicle was the most technologically advanced product that the company had built at its East London plant.
“It is our ticket to the future that has been bought and paid for by many,” he said. “We know that South Africa will reap the rewards of economic growth, skills and technology transfer, supplier development, black economic empowerment, job growth and global respect.”