Mercedes-Benz has commenced manufacture of vehicles at its own, new plant in Chakan
Chakan, near Pune, was until now known for Bajaj Auto's revolution-ary motorcycle plant. Starting with suppliers to Bajaj, many other tier suppliers made Chakan their home over a period of time. Now it's the turn of global automakers like Volkswagen and Navistar. Mercedes-Benz has however taken the lead by commencing operations at its Greenfield plant and not very far from where Volkswagen is setting up its own. Home of Mercedes-Benz in India, according to Manas Dewan, the spokesperson for the company in India, the plant was built in 13 months and stands over an area of 100 acres.
At the very front and in the centre is the administrative building with the three-star logo on the top. To the left is the customer centre where cars can be viewed and various customer-related activities are performed. Adjacent to the customer centre is a seemingly large parking lot. Among the cars made at this plant, CBU imports could be spotted here - the likes of M-Class and others. Built in less time than planned, according to Prof. Dr Eberhard Haller, director of the board, Mercedes-Benz India, and the plant manager of the largest Mercedes-Benz plant at Sindelfingen (Germany), the manufacturing blocks are located behind the administrative building. These include one for the manufacture of passenger cars and the other for the manufacture of commercial vehicles. Part of an infrastructure created to address future expansion needs, underscoring the long term growth plans of the company in India, the passenger car plant and the commercial vehicle plant have a capacity to build 5000 units and 1200 units respectively in single shift, at present.
Described as state-of-the-art by Dr Wilfried Aulbur, managing director and CEO of Mercedes-Benz India, the plant was built with an investment of Euro 50 million and houses an engineering centre. The engineers at this centre (currently ten in number) work closely with their counterparts at the Mercedes-Benz R&D centre at Bangalore, which was set up in 1996. The immediate focus of the engineers at Pune, according to Dr Aulbur, is on seats.
Step into the passenger car plant and there is an estimated five to six lines set up adjacent to each other. Work starts with the welding of body panels of the C-Class in the first line. Next to it is the E-Class weld line. The body panels, sourced from other Mercedes-Benz locations, are welded into a body-in-white. It is a manual intensive operation as technicians weld the panels, clamped together with the help of jigs and fixtures.
Explains Muralidhar Nayak, general manager of production, pointing at the technicians, "We place emphasis on educating the technicians so that they are aware of the different weld points and weld gaps of the C-Class and E-Class, both of which are done manually to a large extent." Once complete, the body-in-white are transported to the Tata Motors paint shop for painting. Painted bodies are received at a station where they are checked for defects. Thus starts the journey of the C-Class, E-Class and the S-Class on the final production line, which amounts to three or four of the five or six lines mentioned above. S-Class bodies come painted from Germany.
Various bits are added at the many stations that make up the final line, starting with the laying out of the wiring harness and lines. Carpets are added thereafter and are other parts. The powertrain, assembled by Force Motors, is married to the monocoque followed by the axles and other mechanicals. The dashboard of the C-Class and E-Class is supplied by MSSL (Motherson Sumi) in 'ready-to-fit' form. Sources at Mercedes-Benz reveal that MSSL would soon be doing the cockpit of the S-Class too. In the final stages, the wheels are fitted and the necessary fluids added. The car is thereafter subjected to water leakage test. The wheels are aligned and the car leaves the plant for the test track.
The commercial vehicle plant has stations in one half. In the other half, axles, bus chassis parts, cabs and various other bits that go into the making of trucks and bus chassis are stored. Work on the line starts with the arranging of axles on the conveyor. The chassis is also readied in the initial stages by fitting of various lines and wiring harnesses and the supporting equipment. Axles are then married to the chassis depending on the configuration of the vehicle ordered. Suspension is fitted. Then come the powertrain and other mechanicals. The 'ready-to-fit' cab is married to the chassis thereafter. After final testing, the truck leaves the plant for fitting of tipper body and the required hydraulics (by Hyva) at a facility only a few kilometres away. The bus (buggy) chassis is mounted on a carrier and sent to Sutlej at Jalandhar for coach building.
Interestingly, Mercedes-Benz is working on the upgradation of aftermarket support for its commercial vehicles. It is spending Rs. 50 crore for the upgradation of the passenger car network too. While looking at the three-axle and city bus segment, according to Dr Aulbur, the company is also working with various financial institutions to ensure finance backup. Having dialed-in enough flexibility to be able to manufacture a number of different models, the company will introduce the new E-Class in India early next year. Last but not the least; Daimler is looking forward to increase its global sourcing out of India. While speaking to the media at the inauguration of the plant, Dr Aulbur stated that his company has been systematically sourcing from India for the last ten years. Pointing at the Hero-Daimler venture that is coming up at Chennai, Aulbur added that it would further boost local sourcing. He, however, declined to comment more about this venture. Prof. Haller, while speaking on the sidelines of the inauguration, remarked that his company would be looking forward to increase global sourcing from emerging markets and India in particular.
The Mercedes C-Class currently has a local content of up to 40 per cent. The commercial vehicles made here also carry an amount of local content. The wheels, for example, are sourced from Pune-based Kalyani Lemmerz. Parts typically sourced by Mercedes-Benz from India under its global sourcing channel include forgings, crankshafts, etc.
Back to the plant, and the current volumes of both, the passenger cars and commercial vehicles may not justify capital intensive investments like the setting up of a press shop, engine plant and a paint booth. It may not justify enough localisation either. The plant however highlights the commitment of Daimler towards India and the fact that Mercedes-Benz wants to retain its early runner's advantage. After all, it was the first luxury car manufacturer to enter India in 1995.