More ro­bots — but more work­ers too — as VW mod­ernises car assem­bly

Sunday Times - - Business - By LUTHO MTONGANA

● 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

Pic­tured above are VW Po­los rang­ing from the first to the sixth gen­er­a­tion of the model. Be­low is the very first VW Bee­tle rolling off the assem­bly line in 1951. Pic­tures: Sup­plied

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