Some of my thoughts from being an exchange student and working for Daimler-Benz in West Germany are a little hazy — after all, it was 37 years back. The business beer trolley lady may have had something to with it also. On my long-awaited return to the Mercedes plant in Sindelfingen near Stuttgart in mid-November, I ask if employees online are still served beer, and my young tour guide, Claudius, thinks I am joking. But his elderly colleague Gaby laughs knowingly. “Ach so! Yah, in former times employees would drink beer, but that ceased in the early 1990s.”
Back in the 1980s — when I was a 120-pound 19-year-old — my workmates who were departing for their generous summer vacations would purchase a beer for each person on our section of the assembly line. While sparks flew around and Werkmeisters (line foremen) whizzed by on bikes, I saw my world gradually move along on conveyors with a native Dinkelacker brew in my hands. There was always a glass of subsidized suds out there from the canteen at lunch or dinner. Price: about 12 cents.
Times have changed. On my latest factory tour, with the odor of freshly ground steel bringing on fresh waves of nostalgia, I am amazed to discover that my entire preliminary chassis assembly line is currently 100-per-cent operated by exact, laser-welding robots.
Daimler offers guided tours of the mill floor of the Sindelfingen plant, in English, free to the public Monday to Friday. (They are also very popular and thus don’t appear without emailing ahead at email@example.com to book.) Antje, a group tour guide, discovering my fascination, reads my thoughts. “Guide welding is very rarely — it is not like in former times,” she says, then adds, “Mercedes developed laser welding, but the future belongs to adhesive.”
Farther along the line, I see more robots expel exact traces of glue and envision what a mess I’d have made with a enormous glue gun. Automobile bodies travel several kilometres only within the body shop, while the motors come from Stuttgart or elsewhere. Nevertheless, the ultimate second remains “the union.” With laser precision, the body is gradually lowered from above while the chassis rises from below — until they meet to be a meticulously fitting clam shell, with openings measured in micrometres.
Mercedes’s biggest plant employs roughly the same amount of people that it did throughout my Cold War stint: 35,000. Just in the media, paint and body shops, more then 20,000 operate in three shifts around the clock. (Daimler AG employees amount 280,000 worldwide.) A 35-hour workweek in Germany is further improved by six weeks vacation in a worker’s first year, plus seven to ten holiday vacations. Jobs are rotated every 2 hours and the huge majority of employees are trained likewise so a worker from Bremen can swap tasks with one in Sindelfingen or even South Africa. In 2015, the Sindelfingen plant celebrated its 100th anniversary making its 20 millionth vehicle.
Over 300,000 vehicles roll out the doors in Sindelfingen annually such as the Mercedes E-, S– and CLS Class, the CLS Shooting Brake, Maybach and the AMG GT. “We are as large as Monaco — but we’ve got more luxury cars,” manual Gaby says of this sprawling three-square-kilometre plant.
I can’t recall what versions I worked on, or indeed which were constructed in Sindelfingen in 1980 and not surprisingly, the question stumped my guides. I do recall that the job offer fell in my lap in late April and by early May, I had been flying Wardair into the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (BRD or West Germany) along with 10 other Canadian university students who were soon widely dispersed throughout the mill.
As widely as English is spoken now, the language (in addition to French) was virtually non-existent at Daimler-Benz at the moment. Hand signs and repeated loud instructions were deemed sufficient instruction to learn assembly line regular. And learning how to speak German proved an illusive goal with not just one German federal working in my line. (Really, when I finally returned to Canada, I talked more Turkish, Italian, Spanish and Greek.)
As an alumni in my November trip, I was able to finagle my way to a lunch-time schnitzel (no beer) at one of the mill’s massive cafeterias which was another trip down memory lane. As I look around at the faces of many employees, I am told that about 20 percent of today’s workforce comes from 60 different countries, in addition to many second and third generation children of Germany’s guest worker program, once dominated by Turks.
As I afterwards learned, lots of the German phrases I did pick up were in Schwabisch, the dialect spoken in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg, where Stuttgart is the capital and where a large Mercedes celebrity sits atop the key train-station tower.
The place itself is easy to get to. On my trip, I came in neighbouring Boblingen in the Frankfurt Airport in just under two hours with a Rail Europe pass, valid on trains and local transit. A five-minute walk in the Boblingen train station and a 10-minute walk into Mercedes’ Welcome Centre is your nostalgic and beautifully appointed V8 Resort, complete with vehicle-themed rooms. Section of Motorworld, the website is at a reclaimed airport full of hundreds of models, makes of museum quality and revived “old timers” — many for sale.
Meanwhile, Stuttgart, that is a 20-minute train ride away, provides enough distraction for days, from wineries, to castles, to museums, to more automobile production. (Porsche’s roots are also in the region.)
Definitely, the most impressive of those institutions is the colossal and architecturally significant Mercedes-Benz museum in the Neckarpark. The building holds an overwhelming historic collection that starts with a replica of the world’s first car — Karl Benz’s three-wheeled, single-cylinder, four-stroke car built nearby. Leave yourself plenty of time to walk through the 16,500-square-metre area, full of about 1,500 displays.
On tour of this museum, I fill my laptop with direct Vivien’s remarks, but her paraphrasing of Daimler AG’s Chairman of the Board of Management Dieter Zetsche keeps resonating as I wander about on my own afterward: “We will see more changes in cars in the next 10 years than we have seen in the previous 100.”
Should you go
The walk into the Mercedes plant from Motorworld and the V8 Hotel is about 10 minutes. There is also a free bus that runs frequently from the train station. Even better, purchase a Benz in Canada on the “Tourist Delivery Programme,” collect it in Sindelfingen and spend a week or three buzzing around Europe, then return it for shipping to Canada. After the plant tour, plan another day for the Mercedes-Benz museum that’s on the opposite side of Greater Stuttgart. Adult admission is $10 ($15 Canadian), with an English tour, $15. Evening admission is $4.50. Curiously, Mercedes-Benz Museum ticket holders get a 25-per-cent discount in the Porsche Museum.
Courtesy: The Globe And Mail