Essays : Wirral going on a plant tour
Mike Humble accepts an offer to tour General Motor’s Ellesmere Port assembly facility some 20 years after his first visit and makes some sobering comparisons with our very own Longbridge, but remains upbeat about the state of British motor manufacturing…
Visiting Ellesmere Port
When Andrew Elphick asked me a while back to tag along with his bandy gang of petrolheads on a plant tour of Vauxhall Ellesmere Port, I jumped at the chance without hesitation. I first visited this facility back in the early 1990s when a drinking buddy, who held a managerial post at Luton, had made the arrangements so I was keen to see how things had changed.
Back then, Luton was in full Cavalier production whilst, up on the Wirral, the Astra had just morphed into its Mk3 guise and the assembly lines were working pretty much flat out. Luton is a sad former shadow of itself and, when the Vectra was killed off and replaced by a fully re-engineered replacement built overseas, most of the Kimpton Road plant died too – that is now just an assembly hall concentrating mainly on commercials.
After a short sprint to collect Andrew and friends over the county border in Surrey, we all piled into my 75 for the long drive some 200 plus miles away to the factory which resides on the southerly bank of the River Mersey. We arrived just before the agreed time of 11.30am and were greeted by an unforgettable smell of sintered steel filling the air – an evocative aroma for anyone with any form of engineering exposure. After pressing flesh with Stephen Ward and some of his friends, we were warmly greeted by a pair of retired GM employees, who are now employed as part-time tour guides, and ushered into a board room for the standard health and safety low down, some background history of the factory and, of course, an outline of what we were about to see on the day.
Sitting there quietly, reflecting on past times, I noticed the streamlined atmosphere compared to my last visit almost 20 years ago. This was soon explained by the tour guides who told us why so many pressings and castings are now shipped in from as far away as Malaysia – it’s all about cost. My last venture to Vauxhall included a waltz around the expansive press hall where your rib cage would rattle to a rhythm akin to the bass line of a Fat Boy Slim concert.
Thanks to cheaper labour and materials, most of the heavy pressings were out-sourced to Poland some years ago and today only 30% of the current Astra panels are stamped on site, but the huge press shop building still stands containing just three lines of machinery – a ruthless reminder of the cost savings required not only to keep Ellesmere Port alive, but also to enable the Vauxhall brand to survive.
Our tour starts with the shells being fitted together along various individual welding ‘cells’ containing anything from three to 20 fully automated robot welders which go about their business in a disturbingly quiet and awe-inspiring manner. Our group leader nods in agreement at my comment that a robot is never swayed by opinion, politics or attitude and does not come to work on a Monday after a row with the wife because the kids have been running wild thus affecting its work quality.
Vauxhall is rightly proud of its quality – out of each batch of build, shells are taken to a quality audit area where laser-guided robots check for the accuracy of every weld. Highly-trained Metallurgists check the depth and strength of the welds by means of ultrasonic equipment, proving that the human touch is the ultimate method of quality.
I recall visiting Rover Group at Cowley some years ago and was surprised to see stock and clutter on the line side – almost organized chaos, if you like. Today, GM operate a system whereby supplies of various componentry are delivered line side on a ‘just in time’ basis which results in lower overheads, less space being needed and suppliers being fully responsible for delivery, supply chain logistics and down time should they fail to meet demand. The working area here is clean, well lit and calm with every attention paid to maximum efficiency. Track workers doffed their forelocks or nodded in acknowledgement of our presence in a cheery kind of way – how things have progressed in the world of car building since Derek Robinson’s time Longbridge.
Once the completed bodyshells take a journey across the road to be painted, the doors are removed and they enter the build up process. The removal of the doors and tailgates means that the trim can be fitted more easily and enables narrower track lanes to be used, but this is by no means a new idea. Rover Group first used this system on the R8 and the procedure was first introduced by Honda.
The use of bolted door hinges, as opposed to welded ones, has several distinct advantages - they are far quicker to repair after, say, an accident, no welding is required and the costs of accidents or breakages on the line are reduced while ensuring a quality fit and finish every time at production. The once universal idea of a bar-coded build sheet to tell the track workers which model they are assembling is slowing being superseded by a magnetic electronic transponder.
This little electronic box, which is no bigger than a bar of soap, makes sure the car passes through each build stage and quality control procedure. Should there be a problem during assembly, the transponder is removed and the car will automatically divert to one of the many audit or rectification points along the track. The transponders also hold key information such as power train type and trim info as a back up should the wrong build sheet be attached to the car – that used to happen with alarming regularity at Ford, with many Escort and Orion models coming out of the plant with incorrectly sized engines or the wrong gearbox fitted.
This array of electronic or computerised wonderment has in part reduced the staffing levels from 15,000 to just over 3000 during the 50 years of car production on this site – a veritable sign of the times.
As the vehicle reaches the stage at which it looks like a car, the doors are matched up by computer and re-fitted before it enters the stage where the oily bits are added. Suspension, steering and sub-frames including pre-run in powertrains are built up on jigs before being fitted aloft by an electro-pneumatic hoist and bolted into place, all completed to an impressive accuracy of just 1mm. Wheels and tyres are fed from an overhead supply conveyor which drops matched rims down what appears to be a computer driven helter skelter – it’s all breathtaking stuff.
However, for me, the most eye-opening part of the process had to be where the cars are driven on rollers, steering geometry tracked, lamps aligned and fully system checked for function – all of which take less than one minute per car. Again, vehicles from batches are diverted for quality checking, which includes a full 18-mile road test.
All this made for a most impressive day - not only because the staff at Vauxhall were friendly, informative and upbeat but also because there was a cause for celebration owing to the fact that, just a very short while ago, the plant was faced with the very serious threat of closure. All those who reckon that British workers are lazy, inefficient and oblivious to quality are so very wrong.
The shining examples of forward-thinking, team work, quality and efficiency which are evident in every corner of the Ellesmere Port factory, which also celebrates 50 years of car production this year, have earned the workers the right to build the forthcoming, all-new Astra from 2015 until 2020 in the face of stiff foreign competition. Some components such as engines and transmissions are now produced overseas which is a shame, but we should be pleased that volume car production is still very much alive in the UK.
On a personal note, I left in Ellesmere Port in a reflective mood thinking of the various journeys I made to both Longbridge and Cowley during BAe and BMW ownership. The hive of activity on the former Rover Group site which included an engine foundry, gearbox production and the awe-inspiring gargantuan New West Works body plant were one hell of a sight to witness – you left with a warm feeling of pride. Sadly, for reasons which are beyond the scope of this article, Longbridge has shrunk to nothing more than a handful of staff doing little more than assembling cars from nailed up tea chests.
Any form of mass UK automotive manufacturing ought to be celebrated, encouraged and supported - our remaining car plants should not be allowed to turn into yet more Ikea-infested retail zones.
At the end of a most informative tour, we were all presented with a lovely ball point pen and were provided with a cracking buffet. At no point were any sales pitches made into buying a car, nor were we subjected to any form of high pressure propaganda, just a well planned and thoroughly enjoyable Plant tour.
Top marks are due to General Motors for their hospitality and also for keeping the valued Vauxhall marque alive during the past few turbulent years which have seen a good few of GM’s other brands quietly fade away. All of us on this visit offer our heartfelt thanks and wish General Motors UK Limited every success with both the present Astra and its successor!