Professor Veit, as a service to the students in his Wirtschaftsdeutsch lecture, organizes frequent trips to car manufacturing facilities throughout the semester. I've had the opportunity to go along on a few of these trips, partly as Veit's assistant to help with logistics and partly as an engineer interested in how cars are built. Thus far, including trips during my previous visits to Germany, I've been to the following facilities:
- Daimler, Rastatt - production of the Mercedes A and B classes
- AUDI, Neckarsulm (twice) - final production of the A4, A6, A8 classes and a couple others
- Daimler Motorenwerk, Stuttgart Unterturkheim - Final assembly of Mercedes engines
- Daimler, Sindelfingen - Final production of Mercedes C, E, and S classes
- VW, Dresden - Final production of the Phaeton class
- BMW, Munich - Production of 3, 4, and maybe 5 series
- MAN, Munich - Final production of 2-4 axle trucks
- Opel, Rüsselsheim - Production of Astra and Insignia models
Opel was the furthest away from Reutlingen with a 5 hour bus ride, but other than that, all of these factories are within a 3-4 hour drive away.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t possibly write down all of my impressions from every single one of these trips, so I'll just pick out a few things that I think are worth observing.
The automobile industry is one of the exceptional industries in Germany where the level of customer service is better than in the States. If you order a new Mercedes, AUDI, BMW, or a similar high-end German car, the manufacturer will offer you the choice of picking it up at a dealer or to go to the factory where it was made, receive a tour of the factory and get a personal introduction to the car from a trained technician. They'll even pay for your transportation and hotel room. At the customer service center, there is usually a special area set aside specifically for the purpose of introducing people to their new car. This seems to me like a great way to keep customers.
The degree of automation in car production is baffling. Practically the entire chassis and frame of the car is built from the ground up entirely by robots. You know the clips you always see in car commercials with a bunch of robotic arms welding like crazy while partially assembled cars move slowly down a conveyor? Yeah, it's just like that in real life.
In contrast, the trucks at MAN, München are assembled almost entirely by hand. I thought of two reasons: they were only producing 120 trucks per day, so robots would not be cost effective and the parts that they install on trucks are simply too big for robots. The robotic arms would have to be massive in order to manipulate truck axles and engines. So, almost every task on the MAN production floor required a ceiling-mounted, manually-controlled crane and sometimes 2-3 workers.
I could go on forever about everything I've seen in car factories, but I'll end this post here. If you want more details, then get on Skype and give me a call!