Van production at the Vitoria plant - Top-class products made in Vitoria: Production of the new van generation from Mercedes-Benz

  • Top quality thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Production System
  • Bodyshell: the solid basis for top quality
  • Precision is the key: paint coat is only 0.1 mm thin
  • Assembly: highly qualified personnel and millions of variants
  • Thoroughly trained workforce – the precondition for quality
Ultra-modern yet highly experienced: The Vitoria plant in Spain's Basque country is the oldest van plant in Europe. Vehicles have been produced here for exactly 60 years, and around 900,000 units of the previous Vito and Viano alone since 2003. It is on this long experience that production of the new-generation Mercedes-Benz Vito and V-Class is based, assisted by the latest methods, processes and equipment, and above all by a thoroughly trained workforce. The aim: top-quality products made in Vitoria.
Vitoria: six decades of vans, and nothing but vans
A site area of almost 600,000 sq. m., production area of 257,000 sq. m., around 3500 personnel and a capacity of over 470 vans per day produced in two shifts. The Vitoria plant is located just under one hour's drive from the city of Bilbao, and is one of the most important plants of its kind in Europe.
In 1954 the plant commenced production of the F 89 L by Auto Union, and was taken over by the then Daimler-Benz AG a few years later. This made Vitoria the first foreign plant for vehicles bearing the Mercedes star, with the exception of heavy trucks. In 1995 a new era began for the plant with the Vito and V-Class. It is now continuing with the new generation – the first new regular production V-Class left the line in the spring, and the new Vito in August. Vitoria was prepared for the new generation at considerable cost and effort: around € 190 million was invested in the plant, and around 300,000 hours were devoted to training the workforce for the new vehicle generation.
Over 60 years the Vitoria has exclusively produced vans, and now concentrates solely on production of the new Mercedes-Benz Vito and new V-Class. The challenges involved are complex: with three lengths and drive variants each, with longitudinal and transverse engines and numerous model and equipment variations, hardly any vehicle is the same as another.
Top quality thanks to the Mercedes-Benz Production System
One thing is always certain: the Vitoria plant supplies vehicles of top quality. The basis for this is the Mercedes-Benz Production System (MPS). It applies in all the company's plants worldwide, and defines standardised processes by which every vehicle bearing the star is produced. The result is outstanding and consistent quality on which every buyer of a Vito or V-Class can depend.
Work organisation is one of the key aspects of MPS. A major part of this is shopfloor management: all those involved in production, from the works manager down to the working groups, meet up directly at the production lines to discuss the latest production status and resolve any problems. Each of these working teams has eight to ten employees who self-organise to carry out their tasks.
Organisational models only provide a framework; they are implemented by the commitment of every individual. Anybody observing the employees in Vitoria at work will see not only systematic procedures, but also a high level of individual commitment. The will to work not only correctly, but well.
Bodyshell: the solid basis for top quality
The bodyshell of an automobile provides the basis for the quality of the entire vehicle. The bodyshell of a Vito consists of around 500 parts. Mistakes made when manufacturing these parts, cutting the metal panels or joining the bodyshell together cannot be rectified afterwards. Extreme precision is therefore the watchword in bodyshell production.
Lasers cut and weld the body components
The body components are delivered ready for installation. The window apertures are cut out of the side walls at the plant, however. Owing to the numerous different versions with or without glazing, or with varying partial glazing, this approach increases flexibility in production.
The cutting operation is carried out by a laser in a separate booth. Depending on the version, the length of cut can be up to 15.5 metres per vehicle.A laser is not only used for cutting, but also to weld on the roof. Other connections are made by MAG welding and adhesive bonding.
More robots than workers: 96 percent automation
Around 550 employees work in the bodyshop, and almost 750 robots. The reason is not only the difficulty in handling sometimes very large metal panels in a confined space. It is also because of the extremely high repeat accuracy required – the bodyshop works with a level of precision down to fractions of a millimetre. Each bodyshell has up to 7500 welding points. In addition, there are welding seams and bonded connections, as well as many bolts as attachment points for equipment installed later.
The changeover to the new model has been accompanied by an increase in automation to 96 percent in the bodyshop, and by a commensurate increase in precision. This is visible in the very narrow and precise joints in the bodywork of the Vito, for example, which present a challenge in view of around 500 bodyshell parts per vehicle, and the wide range of body variants.
This challenge is met with measures such as a new production line for the side members, an investment which became necessary because the newly introduced front-wheel drive for the Vito added further complexity. The new line on the ground floor of the two-storey bodyshop is a prime example of advanced automation: it has only eight workers, but 137 robots with 94 welding tongs and 87 grippers. They now produce nine different front-end modules. The workers fill the magazines with parts while the robots carry out the manufacturing process.
The framing station is a new installation. This is where the sides, floor and roof carriers are joined together. The bodyshell is created from prefabricated metal components, a process also referred to as the "marriage" in the bodyshop. Six robots are involved in this complex process.
400 testing points on each bodyshell produced
Trust is good, control is better. The bodyshell is produced on nine production lines. A total of 22 robots at eight measuring stations check each module by laser. This adds up to around 400 testing points for each individual bodyshell.
A new 3D measuring machine checks individual bodyshells, and also the tools and measuring instruments, in the measuring centre.
The resistance-welded connections are continuously inspected using ultrasound. There are also visual inspections and manual inspections by hand. Five bodyshells per day are audited and minutely inspected to the last detail.
Precision is the key: paint coat is only 0.1 mm thin
The protective and decorative paint finish on a Vito, for example, weighs around 40 kg. It is made up of several layers:  phosphating, cataphoretic layer, filler and top coat together produce a layer thickness of 0.1 mm, roughly that of a human hair.
Fully galvanised sheets form the robust basis for the bodyshell from the floorpan to the roof. Nonetheless it must be protected against environmental influences by a sophisticated procedure. Ten stations alone are devoted to paint preparation, including the impressive cataphoretic dip priming station with its 340 sq. m. immersion bath and current of 700 amperes.
150 metres of sealed seams per van
The seam sealing process is one of the special features of the new-generation Vito and V-Class. It seals the welding seams against environmental influences and above all the ingress of moisture. Depending on the seam position, either robots or the sensitive hands of the workers apply the seals. Observing this procedure leaves an overriding impression: it is carried out with care and great attention to detail. The length of sealed seams amounts to around 150 m per vehicle.
The large paintshop area also carries out the installation of noise insulating material, underbody protection and cavity sealing. These jobs are handled mainly by robots, of which there are 55 in the paintshop.
Not every van is white: choice of 150 colours
Even if it sometimes appears so when seeing commercial vans on the roads: not every Vito is white. Around 150 different paint colours are applied in Vitoria. Fleet customers in particular attach importance to their individual house colours. Before a paint is approved it has to absolve an extensive series of tests. The tested parameters include adhesion, colour-fastness and resistance to UV light. After all, the paint must protect a Vito throughout its long working life.
Mercedes-Benz also uses high-solid paints for the top coat of the new vans. These are particularly durable and scratch-resistant paints with a high solid content. They are ideally suitable for the rough working life of a commercial van.
Painting under clean room conditions
Like the bodyshell, the paint finish unreservedly meets passenger car standards. This is partly due to the clean room conditions in the four painting booths of the paintshop in the Vitoria plant. This eliminates contamination of the finish by even the finest dust particles. Protection is provided by continual, slight overpressure, which prevents dust particles from entering the painting area. Other measures include filtered air and entry only permitted for specified personnel wearing special outfits with head covering, after passing through an airlock – the greatest care is a precondition for top quality.
The so-called blower cleans the prepared bodyshell before the top coat is applied, an enormous fan with an output of 18,000 cu. m. per hour. The bodyshell is then brushed with emu feathers. The soft feathers of this Australian ostrich species are electrically charged, and remove even the finest particles that may still be present.
The top coat is applied electrostatically. Spray bells rotating at 50,000 rpm atomise the paint. This is applied from top to bottom of the electrostatically charged bodyshell by air movement alone.
Despite every precaution: following application of the final paint coat, the bodyshell is thoroughly inspected on a white background. The freshly painted van bodyshells are placed on a light-coloured floor.
Very intensive lighting illuminates every nook and cranny of the bodyshell. The sharp eyes of highly trained and experienced personnel examine the quality, and they also check the surfaces manually with gloved hands.
Assembly: highly qualified personnel and millions of variants
The assembly shop is the most work-intensive production area. This is where the painted bodyshells become fully roadworthy vans. Approx. 1550 personnel are employed in the assembly shop. They carry out their daily work with care and precision: assembly of an almost limitless combination of variants. The possible combinations of bodies, engines and equipment multiply into millions of variations. This great variety is not only a challenge for the individual workers, but also for the logistics, as a fully functioning Vito panel van requires completely different working procedures from a Vito Tourer with passenger seating, or a V-Class with complex equipment.
A 40 kg innovation that comes in a bag
The great technological advances in the new vehicle generation have led to production changes. Depending on the level of equipment, the number of electrical and electronic components can be double that in the previous model. The complex electrics and electronics are the reason why the wiring harness individually prepared for each vehicle by an external supplier can weigh up to 40 kg. It is delivered in a robust protective bag. Owing to its great weight, the wiring harness for the new Vito is installed in the body by handling equipment similar to a crane, through the windscreen aperture.
The electrics and electronics are the first stage of the production sequence in the assembly shop, followed by the cockpit and windows. In a new assembly station, the preassembled, fully working instrument panel is swung into the body via the co-driver's door and bolted in place by a robot, in a camera-controlled, fully automatic process. The robot carries out this precision work in a confined space absolutely reliably and at breathtaking speed. At the same time another robot installs the rear window in models with a glazed tailgate. The other windows and the floors in the load compartment or rear are then installed, also by robots. They work with a fascinating precision down to 0.1 mm.
This is followed by the interior panelling and seats, all delivered just-in-sequence and as individually specified for each vehicle. The industrial park on the Vitoria site provides the necessary support. Four on-site suppliers produce the seats, cockpit and suspension components exactly in the right sequence for the assembly shop.
The powertrain is assembled in parallel with this, now in no less than three versions for the new Vito – front-wheel, rear-wheel and all-wheel drive. Once again, this also increases the complexity. The body and powertrain are then combined in what is known as the "marriage".
It is only now that the prefabricated doors are installed on line 10 – they would be in the way during assembly, and even be a potential hazard. All movable body parts such as doors, flaps and engine cover are also precisely adjusted on this line, with measurement of the door closing forces. At quality gate 10 each vehicle is also examined at 149 geometric points.
The exterior is then completed, including the bumpers.
Intensive tests – each new van undergoes an extensive test drive
Despite every care taken in production, and despite intensive quality control during production – every new vehicle is thoroughly tested before it is delivered. This begins with a visual and tactile examination under bright light in the assembly shop. Mandatory tests include the dynamometer with defined testing of the powertrain, operation of the controls and electrics/electronics, and the waterproofing test in the rain chamber.
During production start-up, every single van is also driven on the roads on defined, up to 13 km long test routes. The personnel carrying out these tests not only check all the functions in real traffic conditions, but also have a sensitive ear for any noises.
Extensive documentation work also goes on in the background. For example, the actual torque values for the roughly 200 electronically controlled bolted connections in each vehicle are documented for the individual vehicle. In the unlikely event of a problem occurring in the long working life of a Vito or V-Class, the Vitoria plant is able to follow it back to the vehicle's production and the name of the employee concerned.
Thoroughly trained personnel – the precondition for quality
The workforce has been intensively trained for the introduction of the new model series. Separate training areas were set up directly in production for this purpose. The workers learned the necessary assembly tasks in simulated workplaces. Merely attending was not enough, however: each training unit was accompanied by an examination. During the start-up phase for the new model generation, each worker was trained in four workstation tasks. At the end of the production changeover this will be increased to eight. The jobs are rotated during the labour time, avoiding monotony and one-sided employee stress.
It doesn’t stop there though: The Vitoria plant also keeps its personnel fit, for example as part of the Ergomix programme. This takes the form of back exercises on professional training equipment – during working time and under the guidance of physiotherapists. The reward for this effort is a low sickness rate: in view of the current sickness rate of only 2.3 to 2.4 percent, it would be more apt to talk about an employee health rate of just under 98 percent. This too is part of top-class production made in Vitoria.
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Mercedes-Benz Vito, production, plant Vitoria
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