By Andrew Cornelius
Austin Rover yesterday unveiled radical plans to introduce unmanned production to parts of its once strike-torn Longbridge plant, in Birmingham. The move will be achieved through a £600 million investment at Longbridge by the mid-1990s with further redundancies for the workforce which has halved to 13,000 in the past decade.
Mr Andy Barr, Austin Rover’s director of manufacturing, said yesterday that the introduction of new automated technology meant that inevitably the workforce would shrink. However, he said that although the company would start its first unmanned line within a year, Austin Rover would not have a totally unmanned factory in this century. Mr Barr was speaking at the official opening of Austin Rover’s £80 million automated production facilities at Longbridge.
The company, which has been ordered by the Government to prepare for privatisation, is already making 1,000 cylinder heads each week for the Rover 800 engine by unmanned technology. The cylinder head production line works 24 hours a day with nine employees, including a cleaner, at the moment, in an area which previously employed 40 people. Mr Barr said the company was on the threshold of turning this facility into what he called ” a fully light-out operation.”
The new computer-controlled production line is linked directly to computer-aided design and planning systems which will untimately cut the time to design a car from five years to three. The first real test of the skills of Austin Rover’s 750 graduates who have helped to develop the unmanned systems will be the design of a new series engine for the R8 mid-range car which Austin Rover is developing with its Japanese partner, Honda.
The £200 million-plus investment in the new engine will form the lion’s share of the £600 million Longbridge investment, with Austin Rover contracted to supply weekly 5,000 of the car’s engines after the launch in two years. Mr Barr said the investment in new technology and highly skilled staff was essential for Austin Rover to survive as a relatively low-volume car maker. He said the company, already closely linked to Warwick University, would increase its graduate intake next year from 100 to 150 and that graduates will form an increasingly large part of the workforce.
He admitted this could widen the gulf between the shopfloor and the new technocrats and that shopfloor workers would have to retrain four or five times during their working lives.