Changing the gears

Hyundai’s state-of-the-art vehicle assembly line is leaving rivals trailing in its wake

Hyundai’s state-of-the-art vehicle assembly line is leaving rivals trailing in its wake

If Henry Ford could have lived long enough to see Hyundai’s car assembly plant at Ulsan in South Korea, it’s safe to say he would have been dazzled by its speed. The inventor of the automotive assembly line, Ford was able to turn out a Model T in 93 minutes, a huge improvement on the 14 hours it had taken before the great inventor figured out it was much faster to bring the car to the worker instead of the other way around.

But not even Ford could have envisaged a car coming off the line every 13 seconds, the speed Hyundai achieves at its most advanced plant. Out of this single facility roll, 5,600 brand new vehicles are created a day, making a grand total of 1.52m a year. It’s numbers like these that send fear into the hearts of European and American manufacturers who have watched with alarm as Hyundai and Kia, South Korea’s other big automotive companies, have steadily moved their brands upmarket and developed a reputation for quality.

Confined mainly to its domestic market for most of its commercial life, Hyundai now sells in 193 countries and is growing fast. Last year the company manufactured over four million vehicles, up by over 12 percent on its 2010 numbers, from its South Korean and other plants in the US, China, Czech Republic, India and Russia. In the mass production league table Hyundai now lies fourth behind Toyota, GM and Volkswagen.

But it’s the Ulsan plant that symbolises the brand’s fast-growing power in the global marketplace. In scale as well as technology, the factory is epic. Every day 34,000 workers pour in and out of the gates. Also on site is a fully equipped hospital and several schools. While the original Ford factories were seen as dark and grim places in which to work, the Ulsan plant sets the standard for environmental sensitivity with water-recycling and other sustainable infrastructure. It’s even set in the middle of a vast, man-made forest.

Its assembly lines represent the apotheosis of a 100-year evolution. After Ford figured it was much faster to have the man standing beside a table with his nuts and bolts at the ready while the car did the moving, the next big breakthrough came from more efficient delivery methods of the parts under just-in-time methods that have been continually refined. These days delivery trucks and trains pour in and out of vehicle assembly plants all day, saving on warehouse costs.

The next development in manufacturing was “modular assembly” with separate or parallel lines for chassis, body and interior that fed into the final assembly line. Thus several processes could take place simultaneously.

In the early eighties, Swedish companies Volvo and Saab pioneered team-style production to humanise the assembly line. In this methodology, a group of workers followed one vehicle from the start to the end of the line, taking ownership of it.

Finally, robots began to take over from the eighties. It was the conversion of programmed machines to the process of assembling cars that led to today’s phenomenal speeds. With robots, a single “cell operator” could handle three or four quite different tasks at once.

Much maligned by unions at first who feared wholesale job losses, robots actually released workers from highly repetitive tasks. Whereas Henry Ford’s assembly-line pioneers could spend years handling a single screw or bolt, machines were doing all the donkey work of welding stitching and other tasks.

The irony is that the high speed of the Ulsan plant owes much to Henry Ford. When the factory was first established 45 years ago, it relied heavily on the expertise of Ford’s assembly-line engineers.