Saab Factory Tour

Wow. What a day I’ve had here. I don’t want to brag, but……..

Most of the visitors to the festival are able to book into a short factory tour on either Thursday or Friday. This will be an hour-long affair with no cameras allowed and minimal opportunity to ask questions.

Today, I was a guest at Saab, and toured the factory with their Media Relations Manager, Christer Nilsson.

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This is Christer, and as you can see from the sign he’s pointing at, there’s no cameras allowed beyond that point. Thankfully, I was allowed a little grace in this area and was able to bring my camera along and capture some of the processes to share here on the site.

Click on most of the following pictures to enlarge.

Ladies, gentlemen, and all in between – your car starts here:

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These giant rolls of aluminium come in by train. The biggest ones weigh in at around 25 tons. They’re stored here until required, at which time they’re put through a rather large machine that unwinds them and most importantly, ensures that the metal is completely flattened.

Below is an image of the huge press that is used once the sheet metal is flattened and cut to size. The actual machine is a too big for me to fit in the lens of my little point and shoot camera, so this image will have to do.

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This is the biggest pressing unit in the factory. It’s huge and we spent a considerable amount of time watching it in operation. There’s a whole bunch of dies that are used with this press to push out panels for the 9-3 and 9-5 variants, as well as the BLS sedan and wagon.

In this image, they have finished the production run for that particular set of dies, so the press opens up on one side and these dies come out. The dies for the next run are loaded in from the other side and work begins again.

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As you can see, above, the dies are enourmous and there’s literally stacks of them behind the press. Modern technology means that the dies now take about 10 minutes to change from one run to another. It used to be around two hours.

The dies are lifted from this ‘exit’ position back into the storage area (see image below).

The press has around 3200 different sensors in it to ensure that everythings working smoothly. After the dies are changed, the first few panels are checked manually. They’re rubbed down to ensure that they’re smooth and free from defect. After everything’s given the OK, the run continues. I forget the number, but manual checking is done once again a little later on once a certain number of panels have been pressed.

Below are the stacked dies awaiting their next use:

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The sequence below shows how the pressing process works. The first picture shows the sheet metal after its flattening and initial cut. The subsequent photos show the metal after each stage of the pressing process. Each stage forms a new shape and trims excess material from the sheet metal. Fascinating stuff.

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This is the final panel, ready to use. The 9-3 and most other modern vehicles use this technique, which is called a mono-side panel. Producing the side in one big piece possibly makes for a crash repairer’s nightmare, but in terms of production and the final product, it means better, more consistent fittings and resuced noise.

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The various panels and parts produced from these presses are then stacked in racks, and the racks stacked for future use.

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The area where all of this raw metal work is done is called the “body in white” area. The cars are yet to be painted and are pieced together. There’s minimal human content in the work here as most of the work is done by robotics. When you see the robots working on these it really is a curious sight. The precision involved is fascinating and the engineering behind all this is quite remarkable.

Organisation is key principal here. From the big things like on-time parts delivery (50 trucks a day) and making sure the dies come in in the right order to smaller things like having ancillary equipment like brooms, bikes and protective clothing in the right place. They’re all contributing factors to meeting the day’s production targets (they were six ahead when I left at the end of the first shift at 2pm).

Safety is also a big issue and they’ve had 380+ days so far without an incident. Christer and I were actually pulled up by one of the foremen on the floor for not having long sleeves.

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This car has a minor issue with the pillars. It’s been picked up during one of the various quality control inspections.

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As you can see, there’s a heck of a lot going on in the body-in-white section. All of the large panels are fitted together with the smaller panels. It’s a very involved process given the number of pieces involved, all of which contribute to Saab’s high safety level in the 9-3 and 9-5.

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The cars move from the body-in-white section through to the paint shop (no pictures) and then on to general assembly. In general assembly, there’s a whole bunch of things going on prior to the body getting ‘married’ to the rest of the car.

This body (below) has come from the paint shop and is about to begin its fit-out. The first thing that’ll happen is the removal of the doors. This makes it easier for employees to gain access to the interior. The doors continue on a different production line where they’re fitted with skins, windows etc and then later on, they’re married back to the original car they were removed from.

The car below is an Anniversary model and these are obviously quite popular as there was plenty of them getting made today.

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Below you can see a dashboard coming together. They are suspended and move along an assembly line where various employees attach differrent pieces until the full unit is constructed at the end of the line.

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Here’s the dashboard and front carpeting after its initial installation:

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For many of the components, such as fuel tank etc, the car is flipped 90 degrees to allow for easier installation. This guy’s thinking “I didn’t sign up to be photographed!!”

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A view from the other side…..

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Meanwhile, on the other side of the world….

This is a 9-3 Re-axs rear axle being pieced together. This picture actually shows it a fair way along the line, but it’s pieced together from scratch. Completed axles then join the rest of the drivetrain assembly on the main drivetrain line.

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I asked Christer if he could ship this one to Tassie for me to slot into the Viggen….

It’s a 2.3 BioPower engine for a 9-5 that’s being assembled today. The engines come into the factory in a basic form and are completed along this assembly line. Again, they’ll join up with a bunch of other bits (technical, eh?) on the drivetrain assembly line.

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This is an almost complete drivetrain unit getting ready for its marraige to the body from the other assembly area. Both areas are separate but prepare specific cars in the same order so that when they’re married up everything’s OK.

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And here’s the drivetrain and body coming together.

If you’ve ordered a RHD SportCombi recently (fusion blue) then this could be your car!!!

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After everything’s married up, the car is fired up and taken outside for a lap on the short test track. This ensures that everything’s fitted and working OK.

After that, the car comes in for final preparation for delivery. In this image below, a 9-5 sedan is getting spacers fitted to the front springs for transport. Many of the cars are also covered in a special material to protect the paint during delivery.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this quick look through the Saab factory. I’m no technical guy and am relying on memory from this afternoon for a lot of the detail here. I’m pretty sure all I’ve written is correct. The only problem will be the things I’ve omitted.

As photography and access to the factory is usually restricted, I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Christer Nilsson and Saab Sweden for allowing me the opportunity to bring all this stuff onto the website for you to see.

It was a fascinating tour.

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28 Comments

  1. Wow. I’m very, very impressed! Great, great stuff!

    I am glad to see that you’ve been afforded the ‘VIP’ treatment.

    I can’t wait to see your pics from the rest of the trip.

  2. One additional note: notice how the sedan follows the wagon in the picture above? ‘Mixed’ model production like that was very impractical without computers to coordinate the parts supply. The automation required is substantial to avoid handling and re-handling parts to get the right ones matched with the right vehicles. This is the wave of the future, and one reason why the plant in Germany could assume Saab production even though it is primarily an Opel plant, and why Trollhattan could survive making other cars mixed with Saabs.

    For those of you with older cars like my 1988 900, look at the finished powertrain. The radiator is mounted to the engine rather than on the body. This eliminates the need for lengthy hose runs, but makes replacing those hoses a royal pain in the a**.

    Finally, take a look at the light blue racks and the stand that holds the axle assembly. Those are specifically made for that purpose — perhaps even specifically made to fit that specific part. In many cases, this type of infrastructure can be a significant cost of model development, and developing these tools alongside the dies, stamping process, painting process, etc. is the reason that taking a car from drawing board to production can take as long as it does. Re-tooling for a new vehicle means that EVERYTHING has to be reviewed and redesigned if necessary.

    When I look at the process and how all of this is done, I’m amazed that you can buy a car for the relatively small price that car companies charge. There is a huge amount of capital invested before even one vehicle rolls off the line.

  3. Nice work Swade, the place hasent changed at all from 98, I would love it if you can go over to the development area. This area was off limits to us but maybe you could go over there, don’t forget to go for a ride on the race track.

  4. Steven,

    Awesome work!

    Very cool of Saab Sweden to give you, and by extension – us, that kind of access.

    Thanks for the update!

    -jim

  5. the blogumentary keeps getting better and better. thx for the virtual tour. great “back-stage” access. well done swade and saab!

  6. To expand on what eggsngrits wrote, the auto industry is really just a front for the tooling industry.
    If you take the tooling costs for a new car and divide it by the projected sales, you come to understand how a $30,000 car can have $300 in scrap value.
    The presses and robots and racks are where most of our money goes when we buy a new car. The metal, rubber and plastics are just small change in comparison.

    Thanks for the pictures Swade. I see my t-shirt money is well spent.

  7. Great piece Swade. I love getting to see around factories and how they work and that was great. Eggs is right about the assembly back in the 80s there were cars coming out of the factory that were Vauxhalls at the front and Opels at the back!
    I am glad you showed the tooling presses – it does show that making different body styles is not as easy or cheap as it may seem.
    It was interesting to see how much of the car is assembled in the factory, in a lot of car factories the dash and suspension would be fully built by the supplier – the factory would merely bolt them in place. Very few (anybody correct me if I am wrong) even stamp the panels. I am pretty sure even Ferrari panels are out sourced. Swade, if you get the chance it would be great to find out how much of the car is assembled / built in house.

  8. Are you sure those rolls are aluminium? most of the car is made from steel. I think it’s only the hood and trunk outer skin that’s Alu of the big body parts. The monoside is definatly made from steel.

  9. Mats, I thought that too and it may still be so. But when I mentioned steel once again later in the walk around, Christer corrected me and said it was aluminium.

    It may be a memory error on my part as I wasn’t taking notes as we went. I think I’ll send Christer an email and make the correction if required.

  10. Too Cool. Thanks for giving us a glimpse behing the curtain! Can’t wait to see what the rest of your trip brings. Thanks for being our eyes and ears on the ground.

  11. I’m so haapy for you Swade, you deserve every moment of it.
    I remember every bit of that tour like it was yesterday, it was great to see cars like my own going along the line, all be it the Third Generation 9-5 estate (mines a first), i could imagine it was my car being built.

  12. Thanks Swade and Saab,

    Great virtual tour of the assembly line. Aluminium is used for hoods of sedans and, hoods and tailgates of the sport-combi. Rest of the main panels are steel of varying grades.

    Anyway, a beautiful facility.

  13. I would have never guessed that my car built in Trollhattan might have been assembled by someone sporting a Mohawk (2nd pic from last) πŸ™‚ Or am I misinterpreting the picture? The rest of his head resembles mine—no hair.

  14. Or assembled by someone on their ipod… lol…

    Yea that aluminum got my attention. I thought most were steel. Audi is doing aluminum nowadays eh? I guess bit and pieces of ALU makes sense…

  15. I wonder what the future of the Trollhattan plant is with all the consolidation going on globally in the automotive industry. As much as I am dead-set against GM owning Saab, the fact they do means that the brand has at least some chance of re-asserting itself (if GM’s marketting knobs leave Saab alone!) and modernising production is one way to help. I bet my classic 900’s were not built in the same way(s) that cars are made today. 😎

    Craig.

  16. This was awesome. I was denied a factory tour when I was in Trollhatten. They were assembling the 9-5 with the new front-end in the summer of 2005. But I did get the see the factory from the outside.
    Maybe those were rolls of Aluminum and the rolls of Steel were somewhere else.
    Thanks

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