Mercedes-Benz South Africa (MBSA) has added another milestone to its journey and proud heritage of almost seventy years in the country with the one millionth Mercedes-Benz passenger car produced at its East London plant. The one millionth Mercedes-Benz passenger car is a white right-hand drive C200 Mercedes-Benz C-Class.
It was on 31 January 1958, 57 years ago, when the first Mercedes-Benz passenger car, a W121 Nap Vista Blue Mercedes-Benz 190, came off the line of the then Car Distributors Assembly (CDA) in East London. CDA, the company that would become Mercedes-Benz South Africa, opened its doors 10 years earlier and was contracted in 1958 by Daimler-Benz to assemble Mercedes-Benz products. This first unit was dispatched to John Williams Motors in Bloemfontein. Since then, MBSA has entrenched its place in the South African story, having produced 24 different models with the number of units produced per model steadily climbing to where the East London plant is on track this year to produce a record number of units – for the domestic market and for export.
Mercedes-Benz South Africa CEO and Executive Director Manufacturing, Arno van der Merwe in front of the one millionth Mercedes-Benz passenger car produced at its East London plant
“MBSA will continue to create jobs, developing the economy and essentially transferring skills. Over the years, we have always placed emphasis on superior quality in the products we deliver to our customers. For us, excellence is the norm and should not simply be an expectation of something that can be achieved in the future. It is also befitting that the one millionth Mercedes-Benz passenger car produced here today is the latest generation C-Class, which was deservedly announced as the 2015 World Car of the Year in April 2015,” says Mercedes-Benz South Africa CEO and Executive Director Manufacturing, Arno van der Merwe.
“South Africa is an important location in our global C-Class production network. One million Mercedes-Benz passenger cars made at the East London plant illustrate the remarkable development this location has seen over the years,” says Markus Schäfer, Member of the Divisional Board Mercedes-Benz Cars, Manufacturing and Supply Chain Management.
Schäfer also praised the plant’s team members for their performance and their continuous focus on efficiency, flexibility, and top-notch quality: “With their knowledge and their dedication, the entire team of the East London plant is making an important contribution to the global success of our highest-volume model series.”
Models produced over the years
The model line-up from the plant over the years include, amongst others, various models in the Ponton series from 1958 to1962, the W110 and W111 Fintail from 1962 to 1968, the “new generation” W114 and W115 from the late 1960’s, the W116 (the first true S-Class) from 1973 and the W124 (the first E-Class) from 1986, the latter winning the Car of the Year title in 1987 for the Mercedes-Benz 260E.
The C-Class production era started in 1994 with the production of the W202, the first official C-Class. The W205 C-Class currently being produced is the fourth generation C-Class from the East London plant and is being exported in left- and right-hand drive to countries on every continent in the world as part of Daimler AG’s flexible production network. East London is one of four plants in the world producing the C-Class (East London in South Africa, Tuscaloosa in the USA, Bremen in Germany and Beijing in China) – four continents, one passion.
Mercedes-Benz South Africa plant in East London
The story of the C-Class, since the W202 came off the line 21 years ago, has become one of pride and success not only for MBSA, but also for the Buffalo City Metro Municipality and for the Eastern Cape. With the first ever export C180’s from South Africa being loaded for Australia on Sunday 15th of November 1997 this international success story started seventeen years ago: Out of Africa, for the World.
Responsibility as a corporate citizen
From its start as CDA in 1948, through the years until the name of the company first changed to Mercedes-Benz of South Africa in 1984 with the purchase of 50.1% shares by Daimler-Benz AG, and now after the local company became a wholly-owned Daimler AG subsidiary in 1998, MBSA has always conducted its business in South Africa as a proud responsible corporate citizen.
At the end of the previous financial year the group of companies employed 6 302 people and contributed more than R2.3 billion in duties and taxes to the country’s fiscus in that year.
The group of companies recorded total annualised revenue of R45.32 billion, up by 5% from the previous year, thus strengthening the company’s journey of sustainable growth.
“The run-up and change-over period to the production of the new C-Class concluded smoothly and we are now on track for record production from the plant this year,” says Van der Merwe.
Cutting-edge technology through the decades
The C-Class production history at the East London plant is a story of steady technological advances to where the new state-of-the-art W205 production line places MBSA at the forefront of production technology, not only in South Africa, but also in the world.
For the W202 in 1994 the new semi-automated welding line made use of Special Turning-Over Devices (STODS), to make the final welding process more operator-friendly. The technology on that line also included a Steifelmeyer measuring machine to check body accuracy.
With the arrival of the W203 C-Class at the turn of the century in 2000, a new water-based paintshop with climate control was put in place as well as a new bodyshop with the latest computer-aided clamping- and welding robots and laser in-line measuring stations.
For the W204 in 2007, specialised robots implemented new technologies such as laser welding and –brazing, high-strength steel welding and structural gluing. The C-hanger system implemented with the W204 in the assembly line was height-adjustable to suit the optimum working height of each individual work station, making the mechanical operations much more ergonomic. New rolling road and wheel alignment equipment was also introduced.
With the announcement that the W205 C-Class would be manufactured in South Africa, came the need to completely overhaul the manufacturing process in line with the new technologies that were required, resulting in the largest single-project investment in the automotive industry in recent history with more than R5 billion invested between 2011 and 2015.
Along with the investment into the plant, the new C-Class also saw MBSA employees being groomed to work on this advanced production technology with R68 million being channeled into training initiatives, resulting in over 1 400 training interventions, which included assignments to various international plants.
“Producing the one millionth Mercedes-Benz passenger car is a remarkable achievement for us. It is the result of the collective work effort that has been displayed by everyone involved with the company over a long period of time. Certainly, this would have not been possible without the dedication of our employees. The production of this unit is simply the start of a new, even brighter era for us. We will maintain our levels of excellence and even surpass the accomplishments of the past,” says Van der Merwe, referencing the various accolades that the East London plant has received. These include six consecutive JD Power Initial Quality Survey awards from the United States-based global market research company, as well as being consistently recognised locally by Ipsos as the best passenger car plant in South Africa.
The cutting-edge production technologies linked to the new C-Class include components and processes such as aluminium skin panels, complex laser welding, roll forming for complex structural profiles, advanced rear axle carriage assembly, aluminium pre-treatment and natural fibre pressings.
These technologies have also empowered the local supply industry. Last year, the East London plant produced more than 45 000 vehicles since the production launch of the new C Class in May of that year. At the end of 2014, more than 3 000 people were employed at the plant specifically.
Our passion drives us to be the best
Van der Merwe touts the dedication and passion of the plant’s employees and healthy labour relations as one of the key factors in the success story of the company. “Our attendance rate at the plant, sitting at close to 99% for the last five years, shows the dedication of the people who physically build their own energy and commitment into every car that leaves our premises,” he states.
The strength of this culture was particularly evident in 2013, when one of the longest automotive industry wage strikes in 20 years hit the country. The solid foundation set over the years at MBSA saw workers return to the production lines with renewed vigour immediately after the strike ended to realise a full catch-back of all volumes lost during the strike.
This healthy relationship also ensures that the Mercedes-Benz East London plant is on par in terms of quality, delivery and cost with the mother plant for C-Class production in Bremen, Germany.
“Mercedes-Benz South Africa prides itself in being a pioneer in the automotive sector and look forward to producing another million units,” Van der Merwe concludes.