The best bus plant in the world just gets better

By Doug Jack

Five years ago in BUSRide, I wrote on my visit to the Mercedes Benz plant in Hoşdere just west of Istanbul in the small part of Turkey that lies in Europe.

It is hard to realize the automotive industry in this country only began in the 1960s. Mercedes-Benz was in at the start with local partners, building its first bus in 1968 and exporting two years later.

The original factory was in a cramped industrial area of Istanbul before moving its final assembly to Hoşdere in 1995. When I first visited, it was in open countryside with only an army camp as a near neighbor. Mercedes Benz invested further to move all manufacturing operations to Hoşdere by 2005. The company now occupies 430,000-square-yards and includes an in-house electricity generating plant.

When I last visited in 2006, I did not hesitate in describing it as the best bus factory in the world. At that time, it was building a range of buses and coaches on a line system and docking stations so that luxury coaches requiring more work and material would not hold up city buses with simpler specifications.

I returned to Hoşdere at the beginning of June to see it is even better than before. A combination of factors makes me confident about my earlier opinion. Let me explain what has happened since my previous visit.

The Hoşdere factory works closely with the two main German factories, namely the Mercedes Benz city bus plant in Mannheim and the Setra factory in Ulm. Setra was already building some interurban versions of the Citaro bus range.

The decision came down for the three factories should work even more closely, and to common manufacturing standards to better able to handle major international orders.

As part of this strategy, production capacity at Hoşdere increased to 4,000 vehicles per year, which exceeded the capabilities of the docking system. In any case, the large air-operated docking platforms, worn and needing replacement, prompted the management team to undertake a complete appraisal of the production process.

An inspector uses a mirror on the end of a stick to look underneath a vehicle.

The Hoşdere factory builds four basic models with a number of variations of each. The Conecto is a low-floor city bus available in solo and articulated versions. The Intouro is a multi-purpose coach. The very popular Tourismo coach features two axles on the 40-foot model; three axles up to 45-foot, 6-inch. The Travego is top of the range, designed principally for express coach services in Turkey with enormous luggage capacity under the high floor.

All the vehicles feature complete integral structures, carefully designed to maximize strength and minimize weight.

To treat against corrosion, the structures receive a total immersion in large chemical treatment tanks. Small holes drilled in pillars allow the liquid to penetrate the insides of the steel beams. No further welding takes place after this stage.

The anti-corrosion plant works around the clock. While it might seem expensive, with the high volumes the treatment system makes sound economic sense. The price of mild steel in Europe is currently just under $1,000 per ton, compared with aluminium at around $6,500 per ton. The treated frames structures come out ready for paint in any color combination or standard white for application of transfers by customers.

To move the structures around, the factory designed electric motors to fit in the location of the front and rear axles. These portable lifts are in two heights, one high enough for employees to work on the underside of a structure.

Vehicles proceed rearward down two parallel lines and transversely at the end for installation of complete drivelines brought in from Germany. They then move forward on two parallel lines until the final stage for the installation of seats and final inspection.

The massive logistics store located next to the assembly lines supplies as many as 20,000 items at any one time — as small as a fastener or as large as a complete engine.

The store picks parts for each vehicle three to four hours before required on the lines, places them in trolleys for a tow into position. They also regularly replenish the line-side racks of fast moving parts such as nuts, bolts and fasteners. The lean system ensures workers at each station will have all the materials they need for their allotted 60 minutes before the vehicle moves to the next station and the next trolley of parts.

Assembly workers do not walk through the factory carrying parts from stores. Working instead to Japanese Kaizan quality principles, the lean operation creates space round the vehicles, which reduces the risk of any accidental damage during assembly. Notice boards situated at various stages along the lines monitor quality, rectification of any defects, and present other information to help employees. Suggestions are also strongly encouraged.

A super high-deck tri-axle Travego coach straight out of the paint shop. Note the homemade electric carriers for moving shells.

Despite the economic crisis, the factory built more than 3,000 vehicles last year. Fortunately, Turkish banks are more tightly regulated than those in some Western European countries. Production was building up to a target of more than 3,300 this year, with output scheduled to rise to around 13-14 vehicles per day in the second half of the year. The general yardstick in Western Europe is one bus per employee per annum. Yet, Hoşdere is exceeding two per annum.

The next surprise is the headcount. The factory is building complete vehicles, including a wide range of seats with total manufacturing headcount of 1,900, of which around 1,500 are blue collar. The average age is 30 to 35 years, and around 72 percent have a higher education, mainly in technical colleges.

The total cost of hourly labor in Turkey is around one fifth of that of Germany or most other Western European counties. The company provides bus transportation to and from the factory for the majority of workers, and offers free meals, as well as extensive sport and recreation facilities for employees to enjoy with their families on weekends.

A more recent addition is a well-equipped laboratory with equipment capable of testing practically any component that goes into the vehicles. The facility is also open to suppliers wanting to improve their products.

Last year, Hoşdere produced nearly 1,800 vehicles for export. Most went to the demanding markets of Western Europe. On the Turkish market, two out of every three coaches carry the Mercedes-Benz badge.

However, Hoşdere also has a research and development center that employs a further 300 people, and not just on projects for the bus factory. Hoşdere is also the Center of Excellence in Daimler Buses for jigs and tools.

The timing of the improvements to Hoşdere and the new manufacturing processes may well be inspired. The price of fuel is still very high in most European countries. The future for buses and coaches therefore looks very good. If my calculations are correct, Hoşdere is in a prime position to supply top quality products at competitive prices.

If you think I am biased, the management also invited a very good friend and business associate. He spent much of his career building and selling buses and coaches and has been in many factories around the world. As we left Hoşdere, he simply said, “That was incredible – that is the benchmark for building buses.”