Last year, Nitra pumped out 38,000 Discoverys and up to 2000 defenders
The Defender has finally been reinvented for the 21st century - and how it's built. We will visit the new JLR factory in Nitra, Slovakia to learn more
With Defender's production ending in 2016, it felt like the end of an era. Never before had such an impressive send-off been organized as the world's press gathered at Jaguar and Land Rover's Solihull plant to watch the latest example roll off the line after 68 years of production.
Four years later, after a lot of hype, the all-new quarterback is here, credited with being just as tough as ever, but with on-road comfort too. And it's being built in a new plant in another country: Slovakia.
The plant in Nitra was launched and has been operating since October 2018, when it began to be built in Nakhodka, which also moved from Solihull. A bit like Nitra's Operations Director, actually: Russell Leslie is a friendly Birmingham resident who moved to Slovakia after 26 years of working around the world for JLR, including managing the quarterback line. He explains that the start of production on Nitra was easier than usual because Discovery is already an established process, but now the real challenge begins like this: “The eyes of the whole world are on us. We are very proud of building a defender.”
Of course, some purists were outraged that the new model was not being built in the UK. Leslie comments: “We are on the path of global expansion. We aim for the UK as our design and engineering base. We needed to find places in the UK factories for future products and, therefore, there is a need to move. And actually this [plant] gives us access to markets we didn't have before, and it helps with currency fluctuations.”
At two million square feet, the purpose-built facility is almost twice the size of the Solihull plant and is undoubtedly a boon to the area; kilometers of perfectly flat road lead here, bypassing many suppliers. Figures back up: local unemployment dropped sharply. JLR employs 2800 people, more than a third of them women who are unusually tall for a vehicle. Her processes were ergonomic, she says, so 97% of people could get the job done.
Nitra has an annual capacity of 150 vehicles; last year, about 000 Discoverys entered the line, plus up to 38,000 defenders. JLR won't comment on volume predictions, but in fact, the site at just a quarter of its capacity suggests there's a lot of rest for the new quarterback.
Leslie says, “We always build structures with three-shift capacity [two shifts currently]. You must design the facility to include a certain amount of work per hour. We are what we think we need for today and tomorrow.”
As well as the discovery, the Nitra is set up for only 90 and 110 wheelbases, but the family of defenders. In the next few years, the Mercedes-AMG G63 models will compete with the 130 luxury models. This will be critical in creating a cost-effective and profitable model line – a feat the previous generation could not achieve.
The opener and quarterback work on the same line, back to back, and there is overall flexibility in how much they are built. Leslie explains: “There are nuances to the car that are a little different. For example, we purchase trunk openings and make trunk protectors. But in general, we go for the standard process in order to improve the efficiency on the production lines. We put seats in both cars at the same station, for example.”
This high-tech site is a whole world away from the line in the West Midlands, but what are the main differences in the production of the old and new quarterback?
“The technology is very different,” explains Leslie. “We are building as a protector and discoverer in a car workshop with 642 robots. I don’t know how many defenders returned to the auto repair shop per day, but these are rather single ones.
“There's a highly technical varnisher now using an environmentally friendly kit and finishing the hall in different worlds with the one I used to run back to Solihull. In general, [the old and new production lines] are almost like chalk and cheese.”
Among the firsts for JLR in Nitra is an innovative conveyor belt running through a technical center that is easiest to explain using similar technology to a maglev train. This is the first European use of Kuka impulse robots, which claimed to be able to move parts 30% faster than traditional installations, being able to both run at a hasty 3,7 meters per second.
The system allows the transport of 400 parts, which together form the shells of the car. The first important step is the assembly of the underbody, bumper and roof beam, creating a box that is instantly recognizable as a protector. Christian Classon is the director of the technical center and says: “Here everything has to be perfect down to half a millimeter of accuracy. It takes two minutes to assemble the body.”
To achieve the required rigidity in the aluminum construction (and this advocate argued it's convenient to be rigid for the Land Rover for now), 3600 rivets are used, plus 170 meters of adhesive. Classon comments: “The beauty of building an aluminum structure is that it is cleaner and quieter than welding shops. But riveting is very sensitive; he was not as forgiving as the welding process.”
The only man-sid part of the technical center is the lining line, which is applied to the doors, fenders, hood and trunk, doors. Finally, the car goes to the test. “There are three stations to clear up any questions,” says Classon. “In the UK, the line is much longer, so we're proud because we should get it right for the first time.”
Bypassing the varnisher, it's time to cut and finish the hall - the largest, at 134 square meters. The first task here is removing the car doors so that the workers can easily fit into the interior. But the far more mesmerizing glass side of the robot, elevators, adhesives and seats, hatch in less than a minute.
Finishing and final director Ulas Bagcha talks about the critical stages, including when the engine and radiator are not installed. “This is where the body finds its soul,” he says.
In each of the 250 stations in his hall, there is a thin yellow cord. Pull it once if you need help with your team leader by stopping lines twice. “Stopping a line when you have two minutes to complete a task is very serious,” Bagcha warns. But the biggest challenge in the assembly process, he says, is “the bottlenecks in the electronics because of their complexity. All electronic”.
Leslie concludes: “Starting a new car is always an experience. Launching it in a new country with a new team? It's a bumpy road. You will learn lessons as you go. The guard was designed and engineered in the UK, but this is the first time we have put a new car in a new factory. But we're on the field, we're on a ramp-up curve exactly where we need to be.”
As our tour ends, hundreds of workers will arrive for shift change, only seven buses are paid for by JLR. There is still no public transport to get workers to the site. Discussions are being held with the local council to rectify this, but having seen how well orchestrated the entire production process must be, I hope Slovak public transport is more punctual than our own…
Automotive influence on Slovakia
What comes to mind when you think of Slovakia? Maybe beer or castles, but probably not the auto industry. However, it is noteworthy that since 2007 this Central European country has been the world's largest car manufacturer per capita. Last year it was produced per 1000 inhabitants, a total of 1,1 million vehicles 202 cars.
Alongside Jaguar Land Rover, other big players include Kia, the WAB Group and the Volkswagen Group, which builds the Volkswagen AP and luxury SUVs including the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne.
The automotive industry is estimated to generate around 275,000 jobs. In Nitra, a district eligible for regional state aid, the unemployment rate fell from 11,2% in December 2015 to 2,1% in December 2019, making it the lowest in the country.
Once an agricultural country, Slovakia can now thank the car's creators for half of its total industry.
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