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Factory Visit Report

 
Old 05-16-2003, 05:03 AM
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SL55 AMG
Factory Visit Report

Around 40 members of the UK Mercedes Club (including Paul (SL Boy) and yours truly from this board) visited the Bremen Mercedes plant on Wednesday and in a tour tailored for us, saw a great deal to interest and inspire. For those of you who will not have the opportunity to visit, this post tries to share with you what we saw. Not everything I'm going to tell you is unique to Mercedes of course but if you've never visited a modern car plant, I hope you will find it interesting. There was a huge amount to take in and I'm sure SL Boy will correct me where I've got it wrong. I had to return to the UK early but the others have gone on to visit Brabus in Bottrop which is further south.

Bremen is a bustling town in northern Germany and although much of it was damaged in the war, the new blends with the old and Bremen boasts the oldest municipal offices (town hall/marie/Rathaus) in Europe. There are a number of Lutheran churches with distinctive copper spires, turned deep emerald green through centuries of oxidation. The Schnoor district is an enchanting network of narrow streets with some interesting bars and restaurants. Spring-time in Germany is the white asparagus ("Spargel") season and at this time of year, it's Spargel with everything. Oh, and there's a huge Becks brewery sitting right on the river. Can't be bad.

The DaimlerChrysler Bremen plant covers 300 acres and is about 8km from the city centre. It employs 16000 people, of whom 5% are women working a 3 shift 5 day week. They make the left-hand drive C class, C class estate, CLK, SL and SLK in this plant, more than 250000 cars in a year, more than 1000 a day. 50% of the cars produced are silver, 20% are black with the rest being all the other colours. A C-class comes off the line every 90 seconds, and a completed SL every 9.2 minutes. 155 SLs are built every workday including 35 SL55 AMGs which suggests something like 30-35000 SLs a year, say $3bn a year at retail. They are working at full stretch to meet demand. Signs in the production area show progress against target since the start of the previous night shift - 22:00 - and when we were there, they were high 70's, 4 down from target. Looking at the cars on the line, black and silver seem even more dominant in the SL. I saw a single green one, a single magma red and a handful of white cars, mainly headed for Japan. Most interiors are light or dark grey. I saw some sand, no blue at all and only a very small number of berry red. Also, contrary to what you'd think from reading this board, hardly any cars have the panoramic roof.

Production in the plant is split into three main areas which for the C-class is reflected in there being 3 similar sized buildings - body plant, paint plant and assembly.

We toured the C/CLK body plant on an elevated walkway which allows a bird's-eye view of the action below. Sparks can still reach up to the walkway so safety glasses are required. What you notice most is the absence of people and the huge number of robots. There are more than 1000 in the plant, of which 600 are used in C-class body production and 400 in SL/SLK production. The role of people is much more to monitor and control rather than do the work. When I visited Porsche, much was done by robot but there were still people with welding masks making welds which the robots could not. Not here, the production engineering of the car focuses on making it easy to make.

In a typical sequence, 3 robots work together to assemble two sub-assemblies to make one side of a C class body shell. Two of the robots each pick up half of the body side from a queue of completed parts from the previous stage in the process and place them in a jig. Hydraulic clamps then rotate into position to hold the components in place and the robots then spot-weld the two together. I counted between 30 and 40 spot welds. When they are done, the two robots move out of the way, the assembly is released and the third robot picks the completed item up which allows the first two to get on with the next one. While they are doing so, the third robot moves the completed item to a jig where it is precisely measured using laser measuring equipment. Once accepted, the item is picked up and placed on a lift which transports it away into the roof of the building where it is held until needed in the next stage of the process. This process continues around the clock.

The robots which are all bright yellow and made by Dura, a German company, have their spot-welding copper tools cleaned every few hundred welds. The robot inserts the copper tool into a grinding machine to expose fresh copper before eventually being replaced. The grindings and old tools are collected for re-cycling and the huge emphasis on the environment in the plant means that more than 95% of waste from the production process and more than 60% of general waste is re-cycled.

The steel making the cars arrives from the German manufacturer Thyssen in 28 ton rolls and is stamped into body parts using a series of 1400 ton presses on the site. There are more than 200 body parts in a C class and more than 320 in an SL. The parts are made from different thicknesses of steel according to where the part will be used. In the SL, some steel is as thick as 3mm (1/8th inch) to provide extra strength. The steel is pre-coated with zinc to prevent corrosion and with oil to assist in the pressing process. The SL also uses aluminium components which are glued together instead of being welded, just like in a Boeing 777.

Completed body shells are cleaned and prepared for painting in the paint shop. Here, 5 cars are painted the same colour at the same time in a multi-stage process irrespective of the colour mix required. Once completed, the cars move to a car sorter which is like a multi-storey car park for painted body shells. From here, the body shell of the correct type and colour is released into the production sequence and the stock of body shells means there's always one of the correct colour available. So, if your preferred colour for your SL is Travertine Beige, that body shell might have been in store for a while...

The C class has a number of different body shells but the SL has just one. A single body shell design handles left and right hand drive and any of the models which are all made on the same line.

So, an SL begins life by the correct colour body shell being picked from the car sorter according to the customer's order. From this point, the car is assigned to an owner and will be built according to the specification ordered. A large pink sheet is attached to the hood so the technicians can see its specification. There's also a transponder bolted to the front of the car which can be interrogated by the production processes for automated testing.

The SL assembly takes place on a line which runs forwards and backwards 6 times across the building. When the end of the line is reached, the car does a U-turn on its sled for the next trip. The body shell comes in with the trunk lid attached to the scissor hinges but not otherwise so it sits near head height, out of the way. The first items fitted are those which do not vary from car to car, things like window winders, door locks, licence plate lights but even now, the car's destination and customer choice will influence the choice of real light clusters (AMG/Non-AMG), door handles (Keyless Go). One of the biggest elements added in this early stage is the wiring loom. The loom comes in parts and a separate station to the right builds the correct wiring loom according to the car's specification and unravels it for easy installation in the car. There are more than 30 wiring looms possible depending on the options chosen and when you see the complexity of it, it's easy to see how retro-fitting options like the TV is so expensive. The loom weighs 50kg - over 100 pounds - and consists of 9.5km - nearly 6 miles - of cabling. The loom components are minutely tested by the manufacturer for shorts, open connections and loop resistance because of the complexity and cost of replacing faulty loom components in the completed car. What was really noticeable is how soon the car is under power. As soon as the dashboard is in, the car is under power, you can see diagnostic displays on the car's own display and test equipment on the line. As well as assisting in building the car, any faults will be noticed earlier. At one stage about half way through the total process, a detailed electronic check is made with the technician being guided through each step from a screen by the side of the line.

We didn't see each of the 6 lanes in complete detail and at some points, it's difficult to see what is being done but the early part of the production process is all to do with the electronics, wiring and trim. Then comes the fitting of the items under the hood with the huge hole where the engine will go. At this point, the hood is vertical to allow easy access. The nose of the car is built offline and arrives matched to the car, not only in colour but also options such as headlight type, grill type (the SL600 has chrome edges along the front edges of the slats), Parktronic, Distronic and the extra oil cooler for the AMG which sits in front of the main radiator. The nose is attached to a counter-balanced lift which allows it to the inched into position. It slots in neatly and is held in place by some brackets.

To be continued...

Last edited by blueSL; 05-16-2003 at 05:33 AM.
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:05 AM
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:17 AM
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SL55 AMG
Factory Visit Report - Part 2

The installation of the windshield is interesting. It's done by two robots working together with no manual intervention. The first robot uses optical sensors to locate and measure the exact position of the windshield aperture which will vary slightly from car to car, not least because the car itself is on a moveable sled and may turn up in a slightly different position. The robot then picks up a windshield which has just had items like the GPS antenna and rain sensor bonded to the inside surface and offers it up to the second robot. This applies a bead of hot glue all around the edge of the windshield. The glue is at 55C which starts a chemical reaction to cause it to cure while cooling. With the glue applied, the first robot minutely adjusts the position of the windshield and then presses it into place with a force of 60kg. It holds it for a few seconds and it's done. A completely automatic process.

Nothing much mechanical is added until the car is on the 5th out of the 6 sections. Here, the car is put on a rotating cradle which allows easy access to the underside for fitting hydraulic pipes and fuel pump and other under-body components, but there's still nothing mechanical. Then, what they call the "marriage" takes place. A deceptively simple-looking assembly - the completed engine/transmission mounted on a sub-frame with the front axles and brakes and the rear differential mounted on its sub frame (steel for the 55/600, aluminium for the 350/500) with its half shafts and brakes - appears by the car. They drape a thick red plastic sheet over the engine to avoid it snagging other items in the car as it is raised on a hydraulic lift. A little shaking here and there and the engine inches into position. It's then a case of connecting up the hydraulics, cooling and electrical lines (lots of those!) and then the car moves to the final stages of production - adding the wheels, exhaust, cleaning the car, filling it with fluids and testing the roof for water leaks.

The engines for the V6 and V8 SL500 arrive from the engine plant in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart, the SL55 AMG engine from the AMG plant in Affalterbach and the V12 from a new plant in Berlin. The V12 engine in the engine bay of the SL600 is huge, though there's less to see than in the SL55 AMG.

There's an air of calm about the place, no banging and crashing and all physical effort is aided by powered lifts or machines. Typically, a technician may have a work tray he places in the car which he loads to contains the parts and tools he needs to complete the job. Many of the smaller components are added using a hand cordless driver just like you might buy at Home Depot. The technicians work in teams and regularly rotate the work they do to provide added interest to the job and also to make sure skills are available if people are off sick or on vacation. They work on wooden floors which are more compliant than concrete ones to easy the aches and pains. Younger people tend to work on the line, older people can be re-deployed to off-line work. Those on the line are not allowed to wear watches or jewellery to avoid damaging the cars and many wear gloves, some without fingers where finger-tip sensitivity is required to do the job. Outside the line, there's a constant stream of fork-lifts replenishing supplies. I counted about 36 brake pipes being delivered and stacked on a rack, enough for about 6 hours production, so that guy will have to be back before then.

The SL is probably the most complex manufactured product most of us can buy and the processes involved in producing 155 of these things every day in a smoothly working sequence are deeply impressive. See it first hand and it's easy to see how making changes mid-model year which are not essential are avoided which may explain why it will be a while yet before we see any major changes to the car.

Next door, we saw the same process for the SLK which is obviously a much simpler car. Production is winding down now and there, under a protective cover, was the new SLK. The techician was persuaded to remove the cover just a little; the nose was under thick disguise but we were able to see the Fomula 1 look in the hood. The car is basically the same size and shape as the current car and is said to have the rotating rear window as in the SL. The interior is also much improved.

Next to that line were the first signs of the new line for the new car. Deliveries of lighting, racking, jigs all painted yellow. In the next few weeks, the close-out production of the SLK will shift to another building, this one will be closed to visitors and the frenetic activity of building the new line and test production will start. The car's due to be launched in March. These things take a long time...

My apologies for such long posts, but I hope you have found what we saw interesting.

Last edited by blueSL; 05-16-2003 at 05:42 AM.
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:25 AM
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great documentation blueSL

btw did you ask when your SL will be build ?

you can go to bremen and watch how your car grows up
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:29 AM
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SL55 AMG
No, I already have my car, but I can just imagine how it was last September!

By the way, an SL body takes 16 hours in the body plant to make, has 5500 spot welds. The completed car takes 8 - 10 days from start to finish and has 12500 parts.
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:30 AM
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any pics???
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Old 05-16-2003, 05:44 AM
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SL55 AMG
Sadly no, photography is not allowed, both for reasons of commercial confidentiality and the unions don't like the workers being photographed.
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Old 05-16-2003, 06:09 AM
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Absolutely fascinating, very informative and very well written.

Many thanks.
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Old 05-16-2003, 06:22 AM
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Much thanks for a most interesting post. Having had the opportunity to watch the C Class assembly last summer when I was in Sindelfingen to pick up an SL at the European Delivery Center, it was not difficult to see each step as you described it. Are there regulary scheduled factory tours in Bremmen or only special groups? You mention that the CLK is also assembled in Bremmen. I understand that the new cabriolet version is outsourced (to Karmann?). Are body shells, however, made in Bremmen and shipped out for the final assembly of the cabriolets? The reason I ask this is in the British press there appears to have been reported a noticeable difference in build quality between the CLK coupes and CLK Cabriolets, with the latter much improved in that department.
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Old 05-16-2003, 06:33 AM
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BlueSL, great write-up buddy! Thanks a lot - I hope I can do the same tour the next time I am in germany..
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Old 05-16-2003, 07:52 AM
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An excellent article BlueSL, well done!

Succinct and informative. Been to Sindelfingen many times, but will have to get to Bremen. Interesting no Blue cars on order..

Thank you.
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Old 05-16-2003, 10:34 AM
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You must have taken notes It felt like being there.

Pleased you enjoyed it as much as I did.
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Old 05-16-2003, 12:47 PM
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Yes, my anorak has extra large pockets...

Mustard, there were some blue cars to be sure but not many and outside, where the completed cars were lined up, black and silver dominated completely. The two cars we saw on the banked test track were... black and silver, it's amazing how they dominate.

SL Boy's Jasper SL55 looked great, it's a good colour.
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Old 05-16-2003, 03:18 PM
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Originally posted by blueSL
SL Boy's Jasper SL55 looked great, it's a good colour.
Yes, it is.
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Old 05-17-2003, 04:44 AM
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Old 05-17-2003, 12:31 PM
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Awesome writeup! That must have been quite an experience.
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Old 05-18-2003, 02:28 PM
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Question re RUST

Tnx for detailed report and outstanding effort.

QUESTION re RUST WARRANTY

The MB automobile warranty in the US is:

Standard Basic: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Drivetrain: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Rust: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

I understand that the RUST warranty in Europe is for 20 years!?

If that is so, are European MBs created with a special alloy or paint for long rust prevention?

Have you seen any reference made to the different body metal treatments as they relate to rust prevention and RUST WARRANTIES?
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Old 05-19-2003, 01:07 PM
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A great article and really appreciated by someone who has not seen the production process in action.

You mentioned that the nose section was built off-line. I think the nose for the C-class at least is outsourced to Decoma.
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Old 05-20-2003, 08:24 AM
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BlueSL - this is a terriffic report, fully representative of what we saw last week and I would urge anyone who has the opportunity to tour this factory if they are collecting a new car or if they are in the Bremen area.

Would just like to add a couple of comments to the third paragraph. The daily production figures BlueSL quoted of 155 SLs of which 35 are SL55 AMGs are the average daily production figures over a 10 day cycle. On the day of our visit 176 SLs were due to be made of which 25 were 55s so there appears to be a quite a bit of flexibility depending on downtime for maintenance and customer demand.

Although I saw every available body colour on the SL line I was surprised at the mix - 50% brilliant silver and 20% black is fair enough but one tansanite blue and two jasper blue was less than I expected. The SL looks stunning in white or magma red (though too bold for some) and the two new silver colours the tellurium silver (a sort of blue/silver) and the cubanite silver (halfway between brilliant silver and travertine beige) are I think a refreshing alternative to brilliant silver I didnt count the bodyshells but cubanite was probably the third most popular colour on the SL and SLK lines after brilliant silver and black.

Last edited by SL Boy; 05-21-2003 at 11:48 AM.
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Old 05-20-2003, 10:25 AM
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Re: Question re RUST

Originally posted by karl k
Tnx for detailed report and outstanding effort.

QUESTION re RUST WARRANTY

The MB automobile warranty in the US is:

Standard Basic: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Drivetrain: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Rust: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

I understand that the RUST warranty in Europe is for 20 years!?

If that is so, are European MBs created with a special alloy or paint for long rust prevention?

Have you seen any reference made to the different body metal treatments as they relate to rust prevention and RUST WARRANTIES?
Can any Euroean respond?
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Old 05-21-2003, 11:55 AM
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Re: Question re RUST

Originally posted by karl k
Tnx for detailed report and outstanding effort.

QUESTION re RUST WARRANTY

The MB automobile warranty in the US is:

Standard Basic: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Drivetrain: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

Rust: 4 yr. / 50,000 mi.

I understand that the RUST warranty in Europe is for 20 years!?

If that is so, are European MBs created with a special alloy or paint for long rust prevention?

Have you seen any reference made to the different body metal treatments as they relate to rust prevention and RUST WARRANTIES?
Rust warranty in Europe is 30 years. Standard and drivetrain warranty for mainland Europe is 2 years and for UK 3 years. Cars for all world markets are made on the same production line and have the same rust protection.
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Old 05-21-2003, 06:18 PM
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Re: Re: Question re RUST

Originally posted by SL Boy
Rust warranty in Europe is 30 years. Standard and drivetrain warranty for mainland Europe is 2 years and for UK 3 years. Cars for all world markets are made on the same production line and have the same rust protection.
Thanks Paul for this information.

A 30 year Rust Warranty in Europe covers a GENERATION!!

(Is this bow politically correct?)

That IS sound insurance against rust.
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Old 05-22-2003, 01:30 PM
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Thumbs up blueSL, great write up!!!

Wow! The experience must have been amazing!
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Old 05-31-2003, 08:37 PM
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Thanks for the great article BlueSL, very informative.
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Old 08-19-2003, 07:44 PM
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Great reporting.
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