A visit to the Volkswagen factory in Mexico

Vast auto plant outside Puebla combines sparkling cleanliness with prolific output

by James M. Flammang

Main entrance to factory, at km. 116
on Mexico City-Puebla highway

PUEBLA, Mexico - Far more than in most parts of the world, Beetles are everywhere in Mexico. Not just the New Beetles that debuted for 1998, either, but the original rear-engine models. The reason is simple: Volkswagen continued to manufacture, and to sell, the original Beetle design long after it disappeared from the market in the United States.

Built on the outskirts of Puebla, the second largest city in Mexico, in 1965, the Volkswagen plant began to turn out cars in 1967. This year, the state´s governor attended the 40th anniversary event. So did countless employees.

At Puebla, Volkswagen turns out Bora and Jetta models - along with New Beetles.

Training comes first, to maintain quality standards

Whenever a company establishes a factory in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, a selection of stereotypes emerges. Analysts fret about quality control, wondering if a fresh workforce with little or no experience in factory methods can get the job done right.

A tour through Volkswagen's plant quickly dispels such concerns. In part, this is a matter of history. After all, Volkswagen has been manufacturing cars at Puebla for four decades, so they're far from newcomers to the field.

From the beginning, training has been a strong point at the Volkswagen factory, to attempt to keep quality on par with German-made VW models. On-site schools teach potential new workers to operate the 800 robots on the production floor. But workers might also learn German at some point. Conversely, German employees may learn Spanish. Portuguese and English are taught, too.

Mainly, though, Building 40 contains a training institute for mechanics. Training is similar to that offered in Germany, in that 80 percent of the instruction involves practical skills. Students come from all over Mexico, according to communications representative Janina Haidtke, and can learn to operate the 800 robots that dot the factory. Some 10 percent of the students are girls.

More than a thousand applications for training are received each year, but only 150 are admitted. Each student receive a symbolic award of 100 pesos (about 10 dollars) at the conclusion of training. A job at Volkswagen is not guaranteed, but the successful student might instead be hired at one of the many suppliers that have established themselves near Volkswagen's factory.

Officially called Volkswagen de Mexico, S.A. de C.V., the factory sits on 300 hectares of land. Suppliers occupy the nearby FINSA Industrial Park. Volkswagen operates under the "just in time concept," which means that components must be scheduled to arrive at the assembly time when they are needed. If parts come too soon, they take up excessive space along the line. And if they're too late, the assembly line is subject to shutdown until the components catch up with assembly.

Inside the factory: starting with the Stamping hall

In the Stamping Machine Hall, which began operation in 2004, six presses are busy turning out body panels. One of the presses is fully automated, undertaking its task in six steps. The stamping presses can apply pressure as great as 7,500 tons. Though noisier than other parts of the factory, as expected considering the job being done here, the stamping area is not overpowering with sounds. That's partly because doors are installed to keep noise concentrated within the presses.

Stamping "tools" are color-coded: yellow for Bora models, blue for Beetles. Tools can be changed without the use of manual labor. Because demand for the Bora is so strong, its stampings are done on the newest (and fastest) machine. What communications manager Luis Miguel Briones calls the "old-fashioned one" delivers the same quality, but is a bit slower. In contrast, the oldest stamping press demonstrates German technology from the 1950s.

Bringing the biggest press to Puebla turned into quite a battle. Getting it across the ocean and through the Gulf of Mexico by ship was no problem. But to get the press from Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast, to Puebla, some new bridges had to be built to withstand the heavy load.

A stamping press also is used to produce spare parts for the original-style Beetles. Because the last one left the assembly line only four years ago, in 2003, spare parts will still be needed for a while.

Volkswagen assembly procedures: 30 hours, start to finish

In the Body Assembly building that turns out Bora A5 models, 700 to 800 robots engage in spot welding, laser welding, and gluing of exterior parts. Almost 60 laser robots are used, because they're considerably faster. Previous bodies were spot-welded at 5,000 points. With the laser, that total is down 50 percent.

This assembly hall is 80 percent automated. "Workers put steel into the machines, or robots," Heidtke said. "Robots guarantee a high quality. They work very fast and are practical."

In the area where Body Assembly of Jetta A5/Golf models takes place, bodies come from the paint hall complete with doors. Then, doors are removed to ease installation of carpets, seats, and other parts. Carpets come from a French-German supplier and installed as a single piece, which weighs 120 kilograms.

An Assembly Form (dubbed a "birth certificate") is attached to the back of the car and stays with it through the process. Both left-hand-drive and right-hand-drive models are assembled here.

At one point along the line, the body and chassis are united. In a process described by Briones as a "marriage," the Bora's chassis comes up from below, in a single step. Sensors at front and rear guide the mating, and tolerances are claimed to be about 0.1 millimeter. For other models, the body/chassis joining takes place in a series of several steps.

Doors are reattached later in the process, after interior elements have been installed. White paper is applied to the nearly-completed car for protection; it will be taken off later, at the dealership.

Near the end of the line, a computer is placed on the steering wheel, to check all electrical components. Wheels are attached, and each car gets 12 liters of fuel (gas or diesel). Four-fifths of the wheels come from the U.S., but 20 percent are made in Mexico. All told, it takes 30 hours to assemble a typical Volkswagen at Puebla.

Every Volkswagen gets a test-drive before shipment

Every car is tested on the 3.5-kilometer track, which contains several pavement surfaces and curves as well as straightaways. The track is used 24 hours a day. Volkswagens also get a seven-minute water test, to find any leaks.

About 80 percent of the Volkswagens built in Puebla are exported - half of them to the U.S. Some cars are shipped to Veracruz or Acapulco, where they will be loaded onto ships. Others go north by train, for a 60-hour trip to Houston or San Diego. Ships hold 6,500 cars.

Like a small city in itself, the Puebla plant has its own fire station, along with a medical center, five banks, and a travel agency. Three lakes may be seen on the premises, supplying recycled water for the fire station. More than a hundred buses provide free rides to workers who live in the Puebla area. Volkswagen even boasts the biggest restaurant in Latin America: eight separate units; preparing and serving some 14,000 meals each day.

Beetle stands tall in Volkswagen history

Not far from the plant entrance is a Beetle monument, commemorating the importance of that model to Volkswagen's history and development. Nearby is the "Memories of Tears" Hall. The last original-type Beetles rolled off the line at Puebla on July 13, 2003.

Some 3,000 units of the last edition were produced. "The history of this plant is the Bug," said Luis Miguel Briones.

In October 2007, Volkswagen celebrated the 10th anniversary of the New Beetle. To mark the 10th anniversary, a Barbie special-edition has been introduced. Another special edition, said to be "for boys," also is expected to emerge.

Attention Editors: The full Volkswagen factory report, based on a tour conducted in a roofless VW Komti, is available for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2007 by Tirekicking Today
Text and exterior photo (top of page) by James M. Flammang; interior factory photos supplied by Volkswagen de Mexico.
Home | New Cars | Used Cars | Comparisons | Newsletter | Consumer | Industry