Constant investment safeguards competitiveness

May 13, 2008
  • Mannheim products shipped all over the world
  • 1995: EvoBus unites the brands Mercedes-Benz Buses and Setra
  • The “synchronous factory” points the way ahead
December 1968 saw the production launch of the first O 305 standard regular service buses at Mannheim. This represented the beginning of a new era of bus design at Mercedes-Benz, since touring coaches and service buses were now built in separate model series. Other new buses included the O 307 standard regular-service interurban bus (STÜLB), which was built in Mannheim from February 1973, and the new O 303 touring coach. This expansion of the product portfolio was possible largely thanks to the increase of production capacity in 1970. By this time the Mannheim plant was producing 240 complete buses and the same number of bus chassis per month.
1970 was also the year Mercedes-Benz celebrated topping-out ceremonies for two new production halls next to the foundry. In line with the restructuring of commercial vehicle production, the plant would now focus on producing cast iron for engines, assembly of commercial vehicle engines and above all bus production. And Mannheim needed both new halls for the engines. The buildings had a combined total floor space of 87,800 square meters, the two building carcasses valued at 50 million and 20 million marks respectively. Equipment for the halls cost a further 130 million marks. Plans were to produce 8,500 engines per month here in future, since Mannheim was to take over central engine production for Mercedes-Benz’s entire commercial vehicle division. Among the engines produced here were the new generation of commercial vehicle diesel engines, the OM 400 series, built from 1972 onwards.
Improved education facilities and milestones
The plant’s vocational training school, with roots dating back to 1916, was expanded to include seven new teaching rooms in 1974. Planners of the 1.4 million mark construction project succeeded in pulling off an architectural coup by attaching a self-supporting steel construction to the existing plant education center (BBW), which would then serve as a frame for the new lightweight school wing.
The one-millionth commercial vehicle diesel engine assembled at the Mannheim plant came off the production line in 1975. The V6 engine (OM 401) had an output of 141 kW (192 hp) and belonged to the 400 series introduced in May 1970. This anniversary engine was presented to the city of Mannheim for use in a Mercedes-Benz fire engine.
Other changes in the 1970s included the acquisition of flywheel and gear rim production from Untertürkheim, and part of textiles production from Sindelfingen in 1977. Series production of crankcase cores by the “cold box” method started in the new core shop in 1978.
Advent of robotic colleagues
But 1978 also saw the advent of a truly groundbreaking innovation. For the first time paint robots were introduced to the processing of commercial vehicle engines at the Mannheim plant. The machines learned their jobs by means of the “ teach-in” method in which a paint worker guided the robot arm through each step of the painting process. The stages for each individual engine were then saved to magnetic storage so that they could be called up later as required. Robotic spray-painting was introduced for the 300 series in 1978, and soon afterwards the same labor-saving innovation was also introduced for the 400 engine family.
Despite the arrival of these first robots, the vast majority of bus assembly was carried out by hand in 1979. As one press release from that year put it, the bus is “a Mercedes product manufactured in the smallest unit numbers, but which at the same time has the largest number of parts and a large number of special requirements. Every bus – whether for touring, interurban or urban use – must therefore be treated virtually as a one-off.” The distribution of jobs at the plant also showed clearly the work-intensive nature of bus construction. In 1978 the Mannheim plant employed a workforce of about 13,500, of which roughly 6,000 were involved in bus production.
Restructuring of the plant premises
The bisection of the plant by public roads finally came to an end in 1979. Up until this point, the plant premises had been split in two by Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Straße (known prior to 1977 as Untere Riedstraße). This road had bisected the site ever since the plant’s opening – probably because the new plant premises were commissioned in several stages throughout 1908 and 1909. For the next few decades, however, this gave rise to a public road running straight through the middle of the plant, a situation that necessitated a large number of plant gates. As a result, bus production remained separate from the rest of the plant.
But the successful construction of a dense network of major trunk roads throughout the 1970s provided the strongest argument to make the road part of the plant in early 1979. The city of Mannheim gave up Hanns-Martin-Schleyer-Straße as a public road and it became part of the plant site. This meant the number of plant gates on the west side could be cut from six to one. The solution also improved road safety for works traffic.
The Mannheim plant has seen many significant changes over the years – and as a result administration has had to change at the same pace. A new administration building went up in 1981, accommodating the sales department, a computing center, the company medical service and occupational health and safety.
Products from Mannheim bought all over the world
Products from the Mannheim plant have attracted buyers all over the world. In February 1983, for example, the first of an order of 187 O 303 touring coaches was shipped to Saudi Arabia for use in commuter transportation between the oil fields. A comprehensive range of additional equipment features ensured that the temperature inside the buses remained acceptable, even if the temperature outside hit 50 degrees Celsius in the shade. These features included a sunroof fitted a few centimeters above the actual roof along its entire length, special colored glazing and a high-performance air conditioning system. The O 303 became something of a legend in its own lifetime in any case. In total over 38,000 complete buses and chassis were built between 1974 and 1992, making it the best-selling bus worldwide.
In July 1983, the plant was able to celebrate another milestone in its long history: the two millionth commercial vehicle diesel engine to come off the production line since engine production was resumed in 1949. This anniversary engine was a special unit from large-volume production – the twelve-cylinder turbo engine had a 21.9-liter displacement, developed 530 hp (390 kW) and was destined for use in a heavy-duty vehicle crane.
Conversion to district heating
In October 1983 the plant was connected to Mannheim’s district heating system. The background to switching to this form of energy was a study conducted in 1979, which was followed by a special agreement with the public utilities. Consistent with this change, the seven boilers and five turbines in the plant’s own heating plant were dismantled. And since internally produced electrical current disappeared along with the generator, the plant was given a new 110-kilovolt input station. Early reports were positive: district heating was deemed to be both economical and reliable, and contributed to an improvement in air quality at Mannheim-Waldhof. The system featured two separate heating networks – primary steam for industrial use, but also ambient heat drawn from Mannheim’s central power station.
Continual investments safeguard competitiveness
The Group continued to invest regularly in the Mannheim plant. In 1984, for example, 80 million marks were spent equipping the bus plant for the future. This involved creating a final assembly facility for coaches and regular service buses, unique in bus construction, with transport on two levels, adjacent pre-assembly bays and assembly-line parts supply, as well as order-related materials procurement. The goal of all this was to create leaner workflows and at the same time create the capacity to react with greater flexibility to specific customer requirements. It spoke volumes for the advanced design of the facility that final assembly workstations for the O 303 touring coach and regular service and interurban buses were integrated into a continuous production process, whereas many other manufacturers were still pushing bodies from one workstation to the next on trestles. A bus produced at Mannheim went through around 50 assembly stations before it was finally finished.
Continuous modernization of the Mannheim plant also included the regular introduction of new production methods. For example, in 1986 the foundry’s “hot box” approach was finally replaced by the “cold box” process, in order to improve working conditions for employees. The “cold box” process considerably reduced problems with heat and odors in the foundry; partial automation also reduced some of the more unpleasant manual tasks.
Ideas for the urban bus of the future
The O 405 N low-floor bus, a design study presented in October 1990, was intended to inspire new ideas rather than being a prototype. It attempted to show how local public transport might be made more attractive. On the outside it remained very much the familiar people carrier, with a racy body design incorporating elements of the Munich city plan. But the interior incorporated several innovative ideas. The traditional impersonal seat arrangement – one behind the other – was abandoned; here the leather seats, mounted onto white-painted perforated sheet metal and with individual bag storage, could be turned to face any direction, allowing passengers to sit in groups of four facing one other. Seats at the rear could even be turned into a cozy corner arrangement, bringing “a touch of bistro ambience to the bus,” as the trade magazine Omnibus-Revue put it. The conventional safety poles down the center of the vehicle no longer reached from ceiling to floor, but instead were designed as hanger-shaped handholds at waist height, offering safety without obscuring the line of sight. And recessed halogen ceiling lights featuring various colors and structural effects guaranteed a homely lighting environment in the O 405 N. A coffee machine, newspaper distributor and public telephone underlined the service nature of the design study. The driver’s working environment featured full air-conditioning and was equipped with two color video monitors instead of rear-view mirrors.
Eco-friendly water-soluble paint technology
In 1990, the company installed a new paint process at the Mannheim plant, cataphoretic dip priming, the first such system in Germany to be used for buses. As a result, bus products now entered the age of eco-friendly water-soluble paint technology. The paint used was made up of 80 percent water, the remaining 20 percent being solid particulates, in other words anti-corrosion pigments and binding agents; organic solvent content was cut to one or two percent, which meant that solvent emissions were also reduced accordingly – one of the principal reasons for moving over to water-soluble paint technology. The total investment was put at 35 million deutschmarks.
By late 1992, investments in the foundry totaling 100 million deutschmarks were complete. This included the realization of two final projects: a technologically updated and more eco-friendly metal shop and a new production line for axles. The existing facilities went back to modernizations in the year 1965, when the old equipment – originally set up by Benz & Cie. as far back as 1909 – was replaced. The latest measures turned the foundry into an efficient and competitive operation, where only a few years previously its existence had been threatened by the availability on the market of cheaper solutions.
Birth of a new company: EvoBus
In early 1995, exactly 100 years after production of the first bus by Carl Benz and the start of a regular bus service between Siegen, Netphen and Deuz, the Group celebrated the birth of a new company. The two brands, Mercedes-Benz Buses and Setra, which had formed part of Daimler-Benz since 1995, merged to form EvoBus GmbH and took responsibility for the Group’s European bus business. In future, efficient and cost-effective production was to be achieved through an integrated production network linking several locations. The new Daimler-Benz subsidiary was to become a success story. In 2005, ten years after the creation of EvoBus, the integrated production network numbered five plants in four countries, 16 subsidiaries in all the major European markets and the service support brand OMNIPlus, with its 42 EvoBus service centers and 26 used vehicle centers.
At the International Commercial Vehicle Show in 1996,
Mercedes-Benz exhibited the research vehicle Innovisia, an O 404 SHD in which the expertise of the entire Group had been pooled with the aim of making bus travel safer than ever before. The bus incorporated numerous new features, including the innovative Active Body Control (ABC) suspension system, which made the O 404 safer as well as increasing ride comfort, the driver warning system which assisted the driver by sounding an early acoustic signal should the bus depart the lane it was traveling in, and the ART proximity control, which reacted intelligently to changing road traffic conditions and speeds. Today, technologies such as these are already standard.
Demands of the market obliged Mannheim to undertake an enlargement of the cataphoretic dip priming facility in 1999. The existing paint shop was restricted to buses up to 12.5 meters in length, and yet bus operators were increasingly ordering longer vehicles. The new facility was able to accommodate body shells and chassis up to 15 meters in length, including therefore triple-axle buses. The facility had an annual capacity of over 5,000 vehicles. EvoBus invested around 10 million deutschmarks in the redevelopment.
50 years of remanufactured engines from Mannheim
The plant celebrated a special anniversary in 1999: 50 years of remanufactured engines from Mannheim. Given the customary long service life of commercial vehicles, it has become normal practice to exchange a failing power unit not with a brand-new engine, but with one that is as good as new having been reconditioned. Here, time economy plays a vital role, since changing an engine can often be much quicker than attempting to repair a defective unit. In technical terms, remanufactured engines are equivalent to brand-new production engines, are at the latest stage of development and contain only genuine Mercedes-Benz parts. For these reasons, remanufactured engines have the same service life as new units and carry the same warranty. Annual capacity is high: in 1998, for example, the plant turned out around 6,000 remanufactured engines. Over the years this has made for a sizeable total. In 2006 the company celebrated the 500,000th remanufactured engine to come off the assembly line at Mannheim.
New collection hall and redesigned design studio
In October 2001, the Mercedes-Benz Buses product unit gave itself a new look for customers arriving at the Mannheim plant to take delivery of their vehicles. A new bus delivery center was built on the premises there with a total investment of nine million deutschmarks. With its generous glazed areas, the bright and friendly building was designed to be open to the world outside. Covering a total floor area of 2,760 square meters, the building provided twelve bays for buses ready for collection.
The completely redesigned design studio for Mercedes-Benz Buses in Mannheim was inaugurated in November 2001. The new studio now permitted design consultancy for the exterior and interior design of all Mercedes-Benz bus series to be concentrated on two levels, with around 450 square meters of floor space. These areas serve not only as workspace for the designers, but also principally as a place where customers can be advised on their individual choice of paint finishes and interior equipment packages. This is vital for the company’s image in the market, since nowadays every bus is an “advertisement” for the bus operator. Often customers make decisions about whether or not to travel with a certain operator according to the bus model, its livery, equipment, passenger comfort and its distinctive corporate identity features.
Looking to the future with “ synchronous factories”
The Group continues to invest constantly in the Mannheim location. From 2007 onward, for example, around 150 million euros has been poured into what is known as the “ synchronous factory”. For engine production, new facilities will be in operation by 2008/2009 in the foundry, for milling and camshaft production, and a new assembly hall is to be built. Each plant expansion project pays even more attention to reducing noise, emissions and plant traffic in neighboring residential areas. In the “synchronous factory” all assembly and supply processes for delivered parts are coordinated synchronously and at the appropriate time for each engine on the assembly line. This approach has launched the plant into the twenty-first century, rendering it absolutely competitive in the changed market environment.
Federal Research Minister Schavan visits the plant
January 2008 saw the arrival of an important visitor. Dr. Annette Schavan, Federal Minister for Education and Research, came to the Mannheim plant to learn more about new approaches for training skilled workers. The Minister discussed the topic with several company representatives. At the heart of the event was the ALF project (Working and Learning in a Skilled Environment), which is sponsored by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research. ALF is a community project run jointly by Daimler AG, IG Metall and Infoman AG Stuttgart with the aim of developing and testing an intranet-based learning system capable of offering permanent training for skilled production workers at the workplace.
Today the Mannheim plant, including the engine plant and foundry, has over 5,000 employees and around 220 employees in vocational training. The plant produces engines for commercial and special-purpose vehicles, industrial diesel engines and remanufactured engines; annual production is approximately 410,000 units. The foundry produces cylinder crankcases, cylinder heads and rear axle casings and flywheels for commercial vehicles, and in addition processes around 107,000 tons of high-grade cast iron. The plant covers an area of 888,344 square meters, of which roughly 320,000 square meters are given over to the engine production area, and 103,000 square meters to the foundry. Between 1949 and 2008 the plant will have produced a total of 7.5 million engines.
As per 2005, the EvoBus Mannheim plant had a production area of 183,000 square meters on factory premises covering 306,000 square meters. Within the EvoBus integrated production network, the Mannheim plant is responsible for body-in-white production of Mercedes-Benz urban and interurban buses and touring coaches, for interurban buses and touring coaches by Setra, as well as for painting, assembling and finishing Mercedes-Benz urban buses. The plant has a workforce of around 3,400 employees, including approx. 180 trainees.