Saab regears to cut costs, raise quality, and make workers other than cogs

Saab-Scania AB thinks it has found a better way to build a car. To begin with, the Swedish carmaker has scrapped the traditional assembly line. The new system is based on the mini-line and preassembled modules.

The three targets are cost reduction, high and consistent quality, and motivation and job satisfaction for the work force.

Workers preassemble the drive line, including the engine, gearbox, cooling system, steering gear, and brakes; dashboard; doors; rear hatch; rear axle; and the upholstery inside the car.

With full and free access to a module from all sides, the job is made easier and much more attractive to the workers. Further, it allows for assembly in parallel outside the car. The body is assembled on the main assembly line and then the mini-line-built modules and body come together at a special point on the line.

``This gives us flexibility as well as short lines,'' says Anders Molinda, manager of final assembly on the Saab 9000.

The assembly process is broken down into small, relatively autonomous production units of 20 to 30 people working in their own, well-defined sectors.

The system also includes interconnecting buffers, each of which can accommodate six cars or a collection of components. The buffers enable each group to vary its working pace by 10 to 15 percent in relation to the planned production rate of the plant. Furthermore, a problem in one area will not shut down the entire operation.

Workers in each group can rotate their jobs, and each group is responsible for the maintenance, material inspection, quality inspection, and adjustment requirements in its own sector of responsibility.

On the final assembly line, the job cycle is 18 minutes, compared with three minutes on the normal assembly line. Cars are even tilted on their side to make the job easier on the worker.

``Today we don't employ people to do one job,'' explains Mr. Molinda. No one, for example, is hired only as a welder.

``Man is a resource among other resources,'' explains Anders Svensson, manager of personnel development in the paint and final assembly operation at the plant.

In fact, to show that its new approach works, Saab is now drawing more-skilled, better-educated workers to its assembly plants; last summer it had 150 engineers working in such groups. Under its old production system, Saab had long found it hard to draw good assembly-line workers, according to production manager Sten-Ake Aronsson.

Saab-Scania, far smaller than Volvo, operates three car-assembly plants, the main one here in Trollhattan, a second one in Malmo in southern Sweden, and a third in Finland. The goal within the next few years is to boost total output in its three plants to 150,000 cars a year, up significantly from today's level.

``The production facilities have been expanded to accommodate growing volumes, strict quality demands, increased efficiency, and, above all, the need for greater flexibility,'' explains Molinda.

Saab spent $250 million alone for tools, production equipment, and plant for making the new Saab 9000, which is just now coming to the United States but has been on sale in Europe for more than a year.

As part of its redesigned assembly process, a computerized measuring and monitoring system checks that every finished body part fits, says Siegfried Weichenhein, manager of quality in the press and body shop.

If the values are outside the permissible tolerances, a red warning light alerts the work crew. The measurement system, which covers a total of 91 points and is the last station in each work area, is designed to reduce or eliminate the chance that such things as doors do not fit properly. Saab has long had trouble with the door fit on some of its cars.

Saab applies the term ``social technology'' to its innovative production system. In other words, it's a human-engineering approach to building automobiles. The system, however, would probably not work in a high-volume assembly plant, such as those at Ford Motor Company or General Motors.

When he was chairman of Ford in the early 1970s, Henry Ford II, excited by a visit to Volvo's then-new plant for producing cars at Kalmar, Sweden, said it would only work for a relatively small-volume manufacturer such as Volvo.

In a walk-through of the Saab 9000 assembly plant, one sees no one in a hurry, and production is running far below the ultimate production goal for the Saab 9000 even as demand for the car is on the rise.

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