More robots — but more workers too — as VW modernises car assembly
● Back in the 1940s, Volkswagen employed workers based on their height. Very short employees would work on mechanical aspects underneath the vehicle, while tall employees would focus on the upper parts of the vehicle. Now, 70 years since the company was founded in South Africa, mechanisation has automated many processes.
At Volkswagen South Africa’s plant in Uitenhage — where about 600 robots assemble 3 000 units on each Polo — it takes one minute and 57 seconds to build the structure of each vehicle when the metal is pressed to shape.
When at full capacity in April and operating 24/7, producing about 600 cars a day, there will be 300 more employees at the plant — in contrast to the expectation that mechanisation would make jobs redundant.
Despite the overwhelming number of machines at the plant, Babalwa Klaas, technical development practitioner at VWSA, said that it was impossible to run the plant without staff.
Thomas Schäefer, MD and chairman of VWSA, said mechanisation should not be seen as a threat because there were other opportunities that arose from it. Although jobs might be cut at one point because technology was evolving, the manufacture of cars was also evolving and becoming more complex, and people needed to be trained to do the new complex jobs. “All it does is [bring] repeatability and improve accuracy,” Schäefer said.
Last week, VWSA launched the new Polo — following a R6.1-billion investment. The plant, which previously used two production lines to produce the Polo and the Polo Vivo, now uses one production line to manufacture both vehicles.
This means that the amount of electricity used has been reduced by between 20% and 25%, while also enabling the business to react quickly to demand.
The automotive industry contributes about 7.5% to gross domestic product and employs 113 000 people.
South Africa’s economic environment has been challenging in the past two years as a weak rand and low business confidence prompted many companies to focus on investment abroad. Last year, General Motors said it was disinvesting from South Africa.
GM’s Struandale plant in Port Elizabeth, which has the capacity to build at least 100 000 vehicles, built only 34 000 in 2016.
Volkswagen is one of six major vehicle manufacturers in South Africa, alongside Toyota, Ford, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. A new Chinese manufacturer, BAIC (Beijing Automotive International Corporation), announced an R11-billion investment plan last year to produce up to 100 000 vehicles at its new assembly plant in Coega, close to Port Elizabeth, by this year.
The Volkswagen Group continues to be the world’s largest automaker in terms of sales, in spite of the negative publicity surrounding the “Dieselgate” emissions cheating scandal that rocked the company and the industry in 2015.
Last year, VWSA produced 110 000 passenger cars and plans to produce 133 000 in 2018. At its peak in 2014, the company produced and sold 438 942 passenger vehicles.
Competitor Toyota South Africa sold 68 810 passenger vehicles (excluding Hilux and Quantum units) in 2017, while Ford sold 71 220 vehicles.
Schäefer said newly elected ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa was so far making the right decisions, although there was still a long way to go to stabilise the industry. “For now I am cautiously optimistic. With Cyril Ramaphosa there is a good message coming from South Africa,” he said.
The company said the water shortage in Port Elizabeth would not compromise operations. Experts said that under the worstcase scenario, at least 40% of the normal water supply would be available.
With Cyril Ramaphosa there is a good message coming from South Africa