In just four years, Kia has turned its plan to build a plant in Slovakia into reality. And as Mark Bursa discovers, the Zilinia plant is setting new benchmarks for innovation and efficiency of car assembly.

Central Europe has been the big opportunity of the past decade as far as the European auto industry is concerned. Western markets have stagnated even in the good times, but the expansion eastwards of the European Union, embracing a swathe of former Communist states from the Baltic to the Black Sea, offered genuine prospects.

And so it has turned out. As well as providing new growth for automakers, it allowed carmakers to take advantage of lower labour and land costs. And for several automakers, the chance to start afresh on a Greenfield site was a lot more tempting than taking over an existing, former Communist carmaker.

That option could be made to work - and work well. Just look at Skoda and Dacia. And then again, look at the problems Renault faced when it took over the Romanian automaker. Just ask its chairman, Christian Esteve, who I spoke to when I visited Dacia recently.

For Korea's Kia Motors, however, the decision was a no-brainer. Its Central European plant would be a Greenfield development. And after a lively bidding war among various Central European governments, a site in Zilinia, Slovakia, was chosen.

Zilinia does have one thing in common with Dacia's monolithic Pitesti plant - it's a very long way from anywhere significant. The arrow-straight motorway scythes through sparse agricultural land, the distant Tatra Mountains the only relief from the endless flatness. Eventually, after several hours, we reach Zilinia.

You can see why the local city authorities wanted the Koreans to come to town. This is a town that had seen better days. Evidence of its grim past is still there - a bleak concrete observation tower next to the motorway now serves as a billboard and a mobile phone mast. But until the fall of the Berlin wall, the tower was there to guard Zilinia's main assets - armaments factories, churning out weapons and ordnance to be stockpiled in Cold War bunkers.

After 1990, that business dried up. Factories closed. Unemployment soared. Other cities wanted carmakers to build factories in their cities - Zilinia needed one. And eventually Kia chose Zilinia over a site in Kobierzyc, Poland for reasons of "logistics, supplier proximity, infrastructure, workforce and economic considerations".

These "economic considerations" included business-friendly labour laws and flat 19% taxation for firms and workers alike. Average wages are lower than in neighbouring Czech Republic and Poland - though higher than Romania. And high unemployment levels worked in Zilinia's favour - there was a wide available pool of skilled labour. That endless motorway helped, too.

From an announcement at the Geneva Show in 2004, the plant was rattled up in rapid order - it was finished by late 2006. And this despite a six-month delay because by a the Slovakian Government had to pay landowners three times the original offer for the 56 hectares of land on which the plant was to be built. The landowners had effectively held the Government to ransom, and as the Kia deal was a done deal, the authorities had to cough up.

This incident is long forgotten now, as Kia focuses on winding up its new toy. The plant is now running close to flat out. The plan for this year is to produce about 220,000 cars, the maximum possible on two-shift operation, and well up on 2007's 145,000. The factory currently makes three flavours of the Kia Cee'd compact - five-door hatch, three-door hatch and five-door wagon - as well as the Sportage compact SUV. A third model will be introduced in 2010, by then a third shift will be introduced at end of 2009 to cope with this.

It's an impressive site - clean, bright and futuristic - and very heavily automated. It's a far cry from Dacia, which still has high levels of manpower. It's instead modelled on Kia's newest Korean plants, such as the equally robotized Hwa Sung plant.

The body shop is perhaps most impressive of all. It's 100% automated, with more than 310 robots - mainly Hyundai robots, of course. Eight different body versions can be welded on the compact welding line at the bodyshop. At the main buck station, the floor meets the side outer panels, the cowl and the roof railings. This is followed by a roof station - by which time you've got something that looks like a car.

The line runs constantly - even when the final assembly line shuts for meal breaks or shift changes, the robots keep on welding, and the numbers on the LED board that denote the day's output keep on clicking over. The plant is synchronised to cope with this, with buffer zones between body shop and paint shop and between paint shop and assembly line, with the capacity for 120 car bodies.

The only people in the bodyshop are there to check quality. A coordinate measuring machine room checks about 1,200 points - one car is randomly picked from each shift and is checked to make sure that the bodies meet the specific measurements.

Large body panels - about 60 different types - are all pressed on-site in an equally impressive stamping shop. Smaller panels come from local suppliers. About 200 dies are kept on site - each panel takes 3-4 different dies. There are two identical main four-station presses, each with a capacity of 5,400 tonnes. Blanks are turned into finished panels in about 20 seconds.

The presses produce runs of 600-700 units of one panel, then the dies are changed, a process that takes 15-20 minutes, and another 600-700 pieces of another panel are stamped. The panels are stored on a simple-but-clever pallet system - there are racks of four different colours, denoting panels for each specific body style. When required in the bodyshop, the panels are transferred by an overhead monorail system to the appropriate welding station.

This makes Zilinia look like a very vertically integrated operation - it also has an on-site engine shop churning out four types of engine - 1.4-litre and 1.6-litre gasoline and 1.6 and 2.0 diesel engines. Zilinia is the only one of Slovakia's car plants to have such a facility. But one of the secrets of its efficiency is the large amount of work that is done off-site. The final assembly shop is relatively small - and that's because 42.7% of each car is made up of modules assembled buy suppliers and delivered to the line on a just-in-time basis.

In total, 15 major modules are assembled by local suppliers, including major systems such as a front-end module that integrates headlamps and radiator; front and rear suspensions and dashboard. Much of this work is carried out by Zilinia's biggest supplier, Mobis Slovakia. This has a large facility located near the engine shop. In fact, engines are transferred from the engine shop to Mobis, where the supplier attaches the front suspension and Mobis-supplied front end module, and then feeds the entire front-end system in to the production line.

Modular assembly reduces the number of workstations on eth final assembly line - where most of the plant's 2,700 workers are employed. Again, this is highly robotised, with camera-aided robots that 'learn' how to fit the dashboards taking that particular job. The second floor is used to transport modules to their relevant assembly station, saving clutter on the factory floor.

Painted bodies enter the assembly line on height-adjustable skillets, and proceed down the trim lines, where the interiors are fitted The skillets can be set to different heights on almost every station, to suit the workers. The line is fast - 60 units per hour, so at 100% efficiency Kia produces a car a minute. "Currently our efficiency is between 90% and 95%," said Kia Motors Slovakia spokeswoman Martina Petrasova. "It differs with day and night shifts - night shit is 91-92% and day shift is above 95%. Our goal for this year is to keep the efficiency above 95%."

After the trim line the cars are lifted off skillets and placed on overhead hangers for transfer to the chassis line, where the chassis marriage takes place, and other underfloor parts such as brake systems and fuel tanks - both supplied as modules - are fitted.

At the marriage station, the entire "bottom half" of the car - engine, suspension, front-end module and fuel tank - arrives on automated robot skillet and is raised into position below car body, which is  suspended on the overhead conveyor. Finally, the front and rear glazing is fitted by robots, in a slick, choreographed multi-robot operation involving sealing, glueing and fitting. Add oil, water and brake fluid, and your father's brother's name is Robert, as the old Slovak proverb goes.

Each car is tested by the quality department - the workers in yellow overalls rather than red. You'll see these people on the line too, keeping an eye on quality, along with other workers in blue overalls - with a different logo on the front. The H of Hyundai - these workers are from neighbouring Czech Republic, and are learning on-the -job how to make cars, so they'll be ready when Hyundai's own Nosovice plant goes live in a year or so.

And there you have it. The model of an efficient, modern emerging markets plant. It's hard to see how this model can be much more efficient - indeed, most attention is now on elements such as logistics, with increasing numbers of cars leaving by rail - about 30% - rather than road, a level that will rise. "Our goal is to switch the ratio around to be more environmentally friendly by using more trains," said Petrasova.



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