There’s an eerie beauty in the dance of the machines. Huge orange arms loom large, a menacing presence dancing to an accompaniment of an industrial orchestra, metallic and sonorous.
Those massive mechanical arms, they hover and twist and turn in a careful choreography conceived by human minds, written by human hands. Each movement is micron and millisecond perfect, completed with a precision, a fluidity and ease of movement us mere humans cannot even fathom, let alone hope to emulate. A modern ballet performed on an industrial stage, a majestic dance of the machines.
There are humans here too, some 6600 of them, and they dance among – with – the machines to their own choreography, precise in its own way, metronomic.
Above and alongside the robots and the humans, loom the skeletons that are the reason for this 24-hour-a-day, six-days-a-week industrial ballet – the carcasses of unbuilt Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans.
The stage for this dance, this melding of man and machine, is Mercedes-Benz’s 688,000 square metre industrial complex in Düsseldorf, right on the western edge of Germany. It’s here, in the industrial heartland of Germany, alongside the major artery that is the Rhine River, that Mercedes-Benz builds its best-selling Sprinter van.
The site for the current-day industrial complex just five kilometres from the centre of Düsseldorf, dates back to 1889 when munitions company Rheinische Metallwaren und Maschinenfabrik AG set up shop.
By 1950, the same site, having been rebuilt following heavy damage inflicted by Allied bombers during World War II, received its first taste of automotive manufacturing when Auto Union moved in and started producing its front-wheel drive, 684cc, two-cylinder DKW Meisterklasse F89 compact sedan that pumped out a massive 17kW (at 4500rpm) on its way to a claimed top speed of 100km/h.
Mercedes took over the plant in 1958 following parent company, Daimler-Benz’s acquisition of 87 per cent of Auto Union. Daimler promptly shifted its commercial vehicle and bus operations to the site before handing it over to Sprinter production exclusively in 1995.
Since then, some 3.4 million Sprinters have rolled off the production line, completing a dance that has seen the ubiquitous ‘white van’ become the leader in its class worldwide.
One can only wonder at what the workers back in 1889 would think of the automation needed to build today’s vehicles. Their eyes would boggle, fearfully one imagines, at the sight of 770 robots dancing with metal and glass and fire through 197 different processes.
Mercedes says around 200,000 Sprinter vans roll off the production line in Düsseldorf every year (including every Sprinter on Australia’s roads). It takes just two days for a Sprinter to complete the dance from start to end, a dance that produces 700 of Merc’s top-selling load lugger every day.
Stand at the end of the production line, and you’ll witness a Sprinter passing the ‘Tor Finish’ line every 100 seconds.
To get to the finish line, each Sprinter van has gone through a remarkable engineering and logistical process. There’s just a single production line, and all closed variants of the hauler – panel vans and crewbuses – roll through the dance of the machines, and in any order. A short wheelbase panel van can follow a 17-seater Tourer and be followed by long wheelbase Crew Van.
It’s a random production flow, generated by customer orders. And it presents a logistical challenge for the robots and humans who are responsible for the 197 different processes along the line.
That’s why Mercedes-Benz’s 600 suppliers dispatch 250 semi-trailers every single day to the Düsseldorf plant. It’s a sight to behold, a giant carpark filled with colourful trucks awaiting their slot to move into the Supplier Park to unload. And those suppliers have to be ready to roll at any time, with Merc only giving as little as four hours’ notice of its requirements for any given day.
The Düsseldorf plant’s location so close to the city centre provided another challenge for Mercedes-Benz. Despite sitting on almost 700,000 square metres of land, expansion has never been an option due to the site being hemmed in on all sides by residential areas.
Instead, to meet the ever-increasing demands of its production line, Mercedes-Benz has, over the years, expanded upwards, with the assembly operation now spread over three storeys.
Inside, a seemingly endless sprawl of lifts, cranes, pulleys, robots and yes, even people, all work together to ensure that every single one of the 14,000 possible parts that potentially make up a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter (depending on variant and options – and there are an astonishing 1700-plus different combinations of Sprinter!) are fitted in the right place, at the right time.
Unsurprisingly, it’s the robots that complete the bulk of the work, some 80 per cent of it, their majestic choreography manoeuvring, positioning, installing and welding (each Sprinter has 7650 welds).
But despite their precision work, measured in thousandths-of-a-millimetre, the dance sometimes has its missteps. To mitigate this, every Sprinter goes through several ultrasound scans along the production line. These scans check tolerances and the quality of each of those 7650 welds.
Vehicles that fail a scan at any stage are marked and subsequently isolated in a holding bay. Here, humans take over and correct the missteps of the dancing machines, before sending the vehicles back down the production line for final assembly and finish. In such an automated age, it's comforting to know even robots make mistakes, and it takes a human touch to rectify those mistakes.
My tour of Mercedes’ Düsseldorf plant didn’t encompass every stage of the production process, limited to body assembly and interior fitment. I missed out on the paint shop for instance, where emu feathers, robots and people combine to clean, undercoat, seal and paint every van.
Emu feathers? Yep, our beloved national bird, propping up one half of our Coat of Arms, plays an integral part in the finish of each and every Sprinter. To ensure no dust particles are left on the van’s aluminium shell prior to painting, each Sprinter is cleaned by our national feathers on rotating rollers.
All up, 17.4kg of paint is applied to the 95-square metres of surface area of every Sprinter, and, interestingly despite being available in a choice of over 400 colours, over 70 per cent of Sprinter vans that roll of the production line are finished in white.
As each Sprinter nears the end of its two-day journey, the “marriage station” looms large, where the assembled bodies meet the assembled drivetrain, which comprises the engine, drive shaft, exhaust system and front and rear axles.
It’s a fascinating consummation, the completed bodies lowered gently like aluminium angels until they connect with the completed drivetrain. The whole process takes around 90 seconds before the now happily married couple move down the line for the final dance.
Here the wheels and fluids are added before engine is started for the first time. The final test takes place on a rolling dyno where in just 90 seconds, the wheels are aligned and the headlamps calibrated.
Once the Sprinter receives a pass mark, the van is driven off the production line by a human, parked and readied for distribution, but not before one final pass through the ‘Light Tunnel’ for a yet another series of scans and checks to ensure everything is tickety-boo.
With 700 Sprinter vans rolling off the production line daily, the need to shift metal to the far-flung corners of the world is pressing. That’s why over 300 trucks and eleven rail wagons laden with Sprinters leave the Düsseldorf factory each and every day.
It's a relentless movement, the final steps in a never-ending choreography. And as the predominantly white vans leave the Düsseldorf factory destined for service across the world, the strangely mesmerising dance of the machines inside continues unabated.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Rob Margeit