90 Years on the Production Line

90 Years on the Production Line

The main reason why cars are not just the preserve of the rich is conveyor belt production, a system that dramatically reduces the costs of the car assembly process. The Mladá Boleslav plant implemented its first such system 90 years ago. Find out what it looked like at the time and how it has changed since.

25. 7. 2019 Škoda World INNOVATION & TECHNOLOGY

The process of assembling a car from individual components is a fantastic spectacle in which everyone and every machine has a clearly defined place. Cars were initially assembled manually and were very expensive. In the first few decades of the 20th century, manufacturers started looking for ways of making cars cheaper in order to spread the customer net.

Then and now: Body parts warehouse

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Some thought the solution would be to invent some brilliantly low-cost engineering design. In the end, though, the key lay in one of the basic rules of economics: high production quantities make products cheaper. The answer, then, was conveyor belt production, and the Mladá Boleslav plant launched its first conveyor belt system 90 years ago.

Then and now: Engine production

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Compared to the present, the numbers of cars sold in what is today the Czech Republic were very low. For example, over the first three months of 1925, the year Laurin & Klement became part of the Škoda Plzeň group, cars sold in Prague included 17 Laurin & Klements, 59 Pragas and 31 Tatras, to name just the best-selling brands. In late 1925, there were 12,580 registered passenger cars in what is today the Czech Republic according to research reports by Masaryk University in Brno. Today that figure stands at over 5.6 million.

Then and now: Coupling the body with chassis and the engine

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Maintaining automotive production when volumes were so low was possible only thanks to the government’s protective policy that limited imports of foreign-made cars into Czechoslovakia. Yet Václav Klement, one of the company founders, knew how to make the business grow. Carefully monitoring international competitors, he saw that some of them were starting to use conveyor belt systems. To do the same thing, L&K needed major investment, and that was one of the reasons why the brand teamed up with ŠKODA.

Then and now: It’s the wheels that make the car, 90 years ago and today

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The first step towards series production was a new four-storey body shop built in Mladá Boleslav. Completed in 1926, this new centre consisted of a storeroom in the basement, the production of wooden bodywork components on the ground floor, and upholstery and saddlery workshops on the first floor. On the second floor, wooden components were assembled to form whole car bodies, which were then metal-plated on the third floor and painted on the fourth.

Then and now: Final assembly

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This system, however, just gave a foretaste of conveyor belt capabilities. In April 1928, the Company lay the foundations for another building. Named Mechanics, this was a hall 200 metres in length and 130 metres wide. Construction was completed shortly before the end of 1928, and the site was put into operation in 1929. The building was used to assemble chassis and produce engines and gearboxes. The two buildings were subsequently interconnected – bodies finished on the fourth floor of the body shop were transported via a bridge to the Mechanics building, where the engines and chassis were mounted. This meant that the conveyor belt production system was complete, making ŠKODA one of the world’s first automakers to produce cars precisely yet cheaply. That was a heavy blow for all local competitors, and the company soon wielded absolute market dominance. In 1930, the production line was able to produce 25 vehicles a day. ŠKODA made a few tweaks and launched three-shift operations to increase daily capacity to 85 vehicles. The foundations for today’s success were thus laid 90 years ago.

Then and now: Dispatch to customers

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Conveyor belt production in figures

Artificial intelligence has arrived, but it won’t work without people

Marek Jancák
Head of ŠKODA Vehicle Production

How important are today’s conveyor belt systems in car production? Why can’t we do without them?

You are right in saying there is no real substitute for conveyor belt production. It is a fully-fledged mechanism that enables us to produce large volumes of cars within a short span of time, even with relatively low-skilled staff. The sequence in which the cars are arranged on the assembly line is fixed, and they pass through standardised points where they undergo identical operations specific to the model concerned. In this way, the whole car assembly process is divided into a number of small actions, each performed by the same people and the same machines. This ensures that each car is produced to the same standard. Conveyor belt production is more than just assembly: it is essentially a logistics system in which materials and parts are always delivered to the same spot and exactly when needed on the line.

What do you do to prevent staff from repeating a single monotonous assembly action on the line their whole lives?

Conveyor belt production reduces the demands placed on employee skills on the one hand, while posing a risk of monotonous work and one-sided strain on the other. As this would not be in our interests, we focus on flexibility and proper ergonomics. Our employees are trained in multiple operations and they regularly rotate within their team in order to avoid becoming negatively stereotyped. Prevention is one of the key aspects when it comes to ergonomics, and in our more challenging work we also use mechanical handlers to help us with big components, such as wheels and dashboards. Automatic systems assist us with the most difficult operations.

Can staff take a break while the line is running? What happens in such a situation?

We have teams made up of ten people plus a floating coordinator. When a situation like that happens and one of the team members needs, for instance, to pop off to the loo, they are replaced by the team coordinator, who is properly trained in all of the required operations.

Looking ahead, what lies in store for conveyor belt production? More extensive use of robots?

Things are developing rapidly here. The welding shop is a good example: you will hardly find any manual point welding operations in our production system today. The new welding shop that we are now building for electric cars will be equipped with over 1,000 robots, with automation nudging 85%. And this process is not only about eliminating hard physical work. We also deploy automatic control systems, and artificial intelligence is already knocking on our door, too. The first area to be covered is that of check-up operations: for example, the surface of bodies painted in our paint shop is already checked by automatic scanners. We use Augmented Reality and failure prediction systems for maintenance operations. We will always need people, though. Believing that car production will do without people one day is like believing that at some point articles similar to this one will be generated by an automatic system.

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