At the smartville plant, logistics expert Christophe Balthazard is responsible for supplying the entire smart fortwo production chain with parts. Just-in-time and just-in-sequence, from the very first pressing all the way down to the final screw.
Right place, right time – while the just-in-time formula for supplying parts to the production line might sound simple, it requires highly complex planning. Here, project leader Christophe Balthazard and his team safeguard the seamless interplay of system partners and production. At the smart Hambach plant in France, this follows a progressive philosophy: With suppliers based directly on-site, assembly and logistics operations are highly efficient. At its opening in 1997, this particularly lean production concept was considered revolutionary. Today, after 1.5 million smart fortwo and an investment of 200 million euros in the new smart fortwo production, smartville continues to set new standards in automotive production.
smart magazine: Mr. Balthazard, you are currently producing two different models – the new smart fortwo and its predecessor – on a single line. Is this the pinnacle of logistics challenges?
Christophe Balthazard: It is certainly quite a unique situation: We need to get both the outlet curve and the ramp-up curve on the right track. With two different vehicles on the line you are also dealing with twice the number of required parts. The biggest challenge was to find room for all these different parts, especially in the tight area near the actual line. To this end, we needed to precisely fine-tune our logistics supply processes to ensure that everything ends up in just the right place at just the right time.
smart magazine: What are the exact models and variants currently passing through production?
Christophe Balthazard: For a few months now, we have been manufacturing the new smart fortwo, plus some variants for China, the US, Mexico, and Brazil as well as a right-hand drive version. This also amplifies the new model’s overall complexity. At the same time, we are scaling back some variants of the old model: Now, we are only building a fortwo convertible and electric drive of the previous model.
smart magazine: To make it all work, you have organized and scheduled the parts supply around an extraordinary principle. Could you break it down for us?
Christophe Balthazard: It’s quite simple. From a bird’s-eye view, the central smart factory is built like a plus sign. It’s four beams, or branches, are surrounded by separate halls for the system partners. To make the process work, smart is assuming overall control of the plant, the production, and the product, while at the same time drawing on the expertise of specialized suppliers.
smart magazine: When exactly does your work as a logistics expert start? During which particular phase of production?
Christophe Balthazard: Right from the start. First up, we order the pressed parts for the body from Sindelfingen in Germany, where they are manufactured by Daimler. Then, our partner Magna welds all of the pressed parts together to create the complete body. All of this happens right next door and is carried out by 500 robots. That’s a lot faster and cuts down on the distances these parts need to travel. Automated conveyors then transport the finished bodies to the paint shop where they receive their coat of paint. Now, they move on to interim storage and finally leave for the assembly line according to production requirements.
smart magazine: The right time and the correct sequence – just how do you manage these complex processes?
Christophe Balthazard: We see production like a pearl necklace that is rethreaded every day. It determines the sequence of vehicles to be produced. These vehicles then pass the production line’s different ‘branches,’ i. e. the four arms of our plus sign-shaped plant. At Branch 1000, the cockpit is fitted, while the so-called wedding follows at Branch 2000. This involves “wedding” lower parts like the rear axle and rear wheel drive module with the upper part, i. e. the body. Further down the line, at Branch 3000, windscreen, wheels, and operating liquids join the proceedings. Then, at Branch 4000, the vehicle is started for the first time and later leaves the line, after several final checks, at the final assembly line.
smart magazine: So, the real gem emerges right at the end of the pearl necklace. Could you give us an example of an equally precious and perfect working day?
Christophe Balthazard: On a perfect working day, my phone won’t ring since this means that everything is going well. This tends to happen more frequently when we are only producing one model and when all of the processes have become routine. Our current mixed production requires increased communications.
smart magazine: Compared to other automotive plants, the Hambach site with its 800 employees is relatively small. Does this also affect the working atmosphere?
Christophe Balthazard: Well, a small plant seems right for a small vehicle, don’t you think? An obvious advantage is that after a few years, pretty much everyone knows each other. Furthermore, there is only one cafeteria where everyone meets on a regular basis. This really improves the overall mood and atmosphere. I am also really pleased by the way we are living the European idea: Many employees commute a lot between Hambach and Böblingen. And almost everyone here speaks three languages: French, German, and English.
Watch our video “Behind the scenes in smartville” featuring logistics project manager Christophe Balthazard, paintshop coordinator Alexandre Zettl, engineer Claire Mutin who schedules the production process and quality control manager Raphaël Schuster.
All the images, incl. the header image: Philipp Wente