Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner begin van production in South Carolina

Mercedes-Benz, Freightliner begin van production in South Carolina

Amazon delivery service order kicks off expansion of facility that had assembled pre-built vans from German-built kits.

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September 6, 2018
Edited by Robert Schoenberger
Assembly Cars/Light trucks Manufacturing

North Charleston, South Carolina – Mercedes-Benz Vans has opened its Sprinter plant for the North American market. Announced in 2015, the South Carolina facility was a $500 million investment that employs 900 people. That number is set to grow up to 1,300 by the end of 2020. According to estimations, suppliers will create an additional 600 new jobs in and around North Charleston.

"The USA is already the second largest market for our Sprinter today. With the new, state-of-the-art production site in South Carolina, we will be able to supply our customers in North America even faster and with more flexibility in the future," says Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans.

"Our priority at Mercedes-Benz Vans during the planning process for this facility was maximum flexibility. This enables us to react in an agile and anticipatory manner to current developments and customer desires," says Frank Klein, head of operations Mercedes-Benz Vans.

Mercedes-Benz Vans officials also announced it will be producing Amazon branded Sprinter vans for the retail company's new Delivery Service Partner program at the plant. Small business owners will work with third-party fleet management companies to procure their customized vans and get special leases to keep their startup costs low.

Dave Clark, Amazon's senior vice president of Worldwide Operations, says, "Thanks to the tremendous response to Amazon's new Delivery Service Partner program, we are excited to increase our original order of branded Sprinter vans to 20,000 vehicles so new small businesses will have access to a customized fleet to power deliveries of Amazon packages."

Since 2006, the North Charleston site has built Sprinter vans from finished-vehicle kits imported from Germany to get around a 25% tariff on imported trucks and vans, known as the chicken tax. The plant added Metris midsize van knockdown kits in 2015. The upgrade – adding a body shop, paint plant, and final assembly lines – means the facility will build those vehicles from scratch instead of assembling pre-manufactured pieces.

The expansion has tripled the site’s footprint, now covering 222 acres. Like other locations within the Mercedes-Benz Vans production network, the plant in North Charleston is equipped with driverless transport systems – which can travel more than 40 miles in one shift. They are controlled through networking with the plant's IT system and via RFID technology. The associated transponders, incorporated into the factory floors, receive the necessary driving commands. The vehicles can also use Bluetooth to communicate with one another and coordinate automatically, thus guaranteeing smooth traffic flow.

The position of a specific component can be pinpointed precisely at any time with contactless, automatic identification and localization. This information allows employees in logistics and production to feasibly adjust to process changes. Quality assurance personnel can ascertain that the correct part has been installed in the correct vehicle.

Mercedes is augmenting conventional methods with digital training tools. Due to the diversity of body types, powertrain concepts, body lengths, tonnages, cargo-space heights, and equipment options, the new Sprinter is available in more than 1,700 variants. Employee must learn around 900 individual process steps in a specific order to enable them to build the new Sprinter.

In assembly, employees can use an on-screen approach similar to that of a computer game to familiarize themselves with procedures and components. Previously, training for assembly work was conducted purely on pre-production vehicles. Training of paint-shop personnel is likewise aided by digital techniques. For example, they can virtual reality (VR) spectacles and VR paint guns for realistic simulation of the painting process.

The new Sprinter carry the Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner brand names.