When Factory Automation Just Isn't Appropriate

Producing the most, the fastest, hasn't always been a priority in automotive engineering and assembly. Some of history's most exclusive marques have foregone automation in the assembly process — from engines to entire cars. Such exclusivity is about to go just a little more mainstream.

High-end motorcars have often commanded their premiums since they're built not with robots and automated assembly tools, but the loving hands of craftsmen. Mercedes-Benz's now in-house performance arm, AMG, coined the phrase, "One Man, One Engine" to describe their workforce of 45 master engine builders, according to an article in Ward's Auto World, The Ultimate in Exclusivity: Hand-Built Engines.

At AMG's engine-building headquarters in Affalterbach, Germany, ' Each man in the shop builds just two or three engines daily, and none are made to feel hurried. If that all-aluminum supercharged V-8 isn't ready today, that's OK — tomorrow will do.'

Ford's Special Vehicle Team, a performance skunkworks of sorts, raised the exclusivity of the Mustang back in 1996, with each of the limited-production, high-performance Mustang Cobra versions receiving a hand-built DOHC V8. According to an article in SVT Enthusiast (Unfortunately, I was unable to locate this article on the net) magazine, 'Two of the guys who build engines for the SVT Cobra, and now for the Ford GT, have become so famous they get fan mail like rock stars.' Ford's SVT 'niche-line' is a 'modestly sized rectangular affair with parts storage on either side' and a rotating line of 21 special fixtures and 21 work stations. A member of one of the two-person engine assembly teams says, "We wanted a change from production line work, the monotony of doing the same thing over and over again. With this niche-line system, you do the whole engine from start to finish. It's a slower pace, but it's more complicated, and it takes a long time to build an engine with all of the quality checks that we do. It takes more overall knowledge and more special knowledge to build it." The niche-line now builds engines for the Ford GT exotic and, presumably, for SVT's upcoming 450-hp Mustang Cobra that also revives the Shelby nameplate.

'Newest to the hand-built credo,' according to the WAW article, is General Motors. They've invested $10M in a Performance Build Center that's similar to AMG. GM engineers traveled to and studied 'AMG and other specialty engine building operations all over the world,' resulting in a team of 50-60 engine builders who will each construct, by hand, '…the imposing 500-hp 7L V-8 for the soon-to-be-launched, Ferrari-fighting Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and the supercharged 4.4L DOHC V-8 for Cadillac's V-Series performance vehicles, the STS-V and XLR-V.' While The General produces tens of thousands of engines daily, the Performance Build Center is expected to produce 15,000 engines per year, which works out to about one engine every four hours for each builder.

Exclusivity is the name of the game, but what about quality? It's expected that the specialized engine building ops at GM will receive TS 16949 quality certification later this year. Does it work for Ford? The company says that no engine built on the niche-line ever has a warranty problem attributed to improper assembly.

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