In the middle of nowhere, a hi-tech Chinese car company takes on the world

Lynk & Co’s SUV plant in Zhangjiakou relies on a legion of robots to weld, glue and bolt vehicles together

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 July, 2018, 8:22pm

While car workers in Germany and South Korea fight to save their jobs, one of China’s youngest car brands is gearing up to build sport utility vehicles at a new factory with digitally connected robots and a fresh workforce of 1,800 people.

A three-hour drive from the Chinese capital Beijing, the Lynk & Co plant in Zhangjiakou combines technology and manufacturing know-how from the Geely and Volvo Cars units of Chinese car giant Zhejiang Geely Holding Group.

The 12 billion-yuan (US$1.89 billion) investment is a bright, freshly painted example of the challenge confronting long-established car factories in mature industrial economies.

As carmakers adopt a new generation of manufacturing technology, industry officials are confident that they can deploy the same packages of robots, assembly line designs and digital quality control systems anywhere in the world – and train people to do the tasks robots cannot yet perform.

Plant manager Tong Xiangbei is in the vanguard of a tech revolution that enables carmakers to put new factories in remote places like Zhangjiakou, a city of 4 million people in Hebei province and far from many of Geely’s parts makers.

“With this team, we could go anywhere and replicate this factory,” Tong, 42, who previously worked at Ford Motor, said.

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The ability to build cars in almost any location that has electricity and decent roads is one factor behind Peugeot’s clash with German workers over proposed cost-cutting at Opel brand factories once owned by General Motors.

GM this week agreed to invest US$3.6 billion in its money-losing South Korean operations only after unions representing workers at its plants agreed to allow the shutdown of a factory in Gunsan, South Korea, and gave concessions GM said would save US$400 million to US$500 million a year.

With Lynk & Co, Geely is targeting younger and less-affluent buyers than typical Volvo customers, but who still demand more sophistication and technology than a standard Geely Automobile car for the mass market in China.

Lynk & Co vehicles already are competing with GM, Peugeot and other carmakers in China. The brand plans to begin production at a plant in Belgium next year, and begin sales in Europe in 2020. Geely and Volvo have said they plan to bring the brand to the United States, but have not said when.

The Zhangjiakou complex will build the Lynk & Co 02 SUV and a sedan called the 03 for the Chinese market. The plant now has about 1,800 workers on one daily shift, labouring alongside nearly 300 robots.

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Tong said that when the factory went to a second shift, it would employ 3,000 people capable of building about 200,000 cars per year. Those are employment and production levels consistent with mature market car plants.

The factory uses Kuka robots to weld the bodies of its vehicles – the same brand used by Daimler to build Mercedes-Benz cars.

US firm Rockwell Automation and Germany’s Robert Bosch supply the technology used on the final assembly line.

A robot from ABB glues windscreens into each Lynk & Co 02 sport utility, relieving human workers of that messy job.

US tool maker Atlas Copco provided what plant manager Tong describes as a “huge-ass nut runner” that bolts wheels on vehicles, records the force used and sends the data to a cloud server.

The Zhangjiakou factory’s advanced systems are evident in both its robots and other things that are missing.

Unlike many older car factories, there are no natural gas-fuelled forklifts or tug vehicles operated by drivers to haul parts to the assembly line. At Lynk & Co, parts are brought to work stations by unmanned machines.

For its human workforce, some of whom live up to 500km (311 miles) from the plant, the company was building housing for its employees, Tong said.

But he also saw benefits in the plant’s remote location.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “We can expand any direction we want.”