Jason Hoff - [http://wardsauto.com/car-management-briefing-seminars/mercedes-manufacturing-gets-more-say-vehicle-development]

According to WardsAuto Mercedes-Benz is putting more emphasis on how design and manufacturing engineers can collaborate early in vehicle development.

The previous singular attitude was “the car is designed, and then we build it,” says Jason Hoff, president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, which runs the automaker’s assembly plant in Vance, AL.

The new approach is that manufacturing engineers get more involved “at the very first development stage of every new product,” he says at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here.

It’s called “design for manufacturing,” but Hoff says it’s not a flip-flop that makes manufacturing engineering superior to product engineering.

“We don’t want to take the creativity from the designers.”

The German automaker has built vehicles in Alabama since 1997, starting with the ML320 CUV. Today, the plant builds the GLE-Class CUV (the M-Class successor), GLS-Class CUV, GLE Coupe and new C-Class car.

Last year, Mercedes announced a US$1,3bn, 300-job expansion of the plant. That includes building a new body shop and expanding the CUV assembly line in anticipation of a next-generation model.

The plant recently set new objectives. One of them is to give the operation greater flexibility to build vehicles based on market demands “without three-month shutdowns to do it,” says Hoff, who oversees a staff of 2,500 employees.

“Even in the luxury business, it changes (as to) what models are more important at the moment,” he says during a conference session on world-class manufacturing.

“We’ve implemented flexible technologies, equipment and work environments.”

Sophisticated programming of vehicle-painting robots allows the Vance plant’s paint shop to handle different models sequentially, he says. “It gives us flexibility there, as well. We are building different models, but in a standardized way. The paint shop reacts very quickly to market demands.”

A new C-Class body shop in Alabama is identical to one at a plant in South Africa. That’s part of a common manufacturing approach Mercedes is pursuing.

The Alabama plant is non-union, as are many transplant auto factories in the U.S. Hoff likes it that way. “We don’t have a union to deal with – or let’s say interact with – and that’s a huge advantage.”