Just off Junction 7 of the M53, along a little back road, on the site of an old RAF base, you will come across the vast industrial units, and offices, which make up the Vauxhall Motors Factory at Ellesmere port. We went along to see how the Vauxhall Astra, one of Britain’s most popular cars, is made.
After a Health and Safety briefing, and introductory lecture, we don our Hi-viz Safety Vests and Goggles and head for the factory floor, firstly to the “Body Shop,” and then to “General Assembly.”
The first thing we notice about the body-shop is how dark it is, yet at the same time it seems alive with movement. This is where the main parts of the body are pressed, welded and prepared for the assembly shop. At first, the parts being manoeuvred are just abstract pieces of metal, but as we progress through the tour the passenger cells start to take shape, and it soon becomes possible to identify the models being produced.
Although each part has been designed to have no sharp edges – for the safety of those who have to handle them – a huge amount of the construction is carried out by an army of robots. Watching these machines in action is a mesmerising spectacle. They move with such finesse and rhythm that they each take on a character and charm of their own, performing their jobs with flair. The darkness is necessary to avoid too much light interfering with the thousands of sensors required to make these dexterous arms do their thing. If you have ever watched an authentic Pizza Chef in action, or a cocktail bartender putting on a show, these robots are just as fascinating to watch.
Vauxhall now operates what is known as a Build-to-Order, Just-In-Time Management system. In the old days it was common for a car company to guess how many cars it might sell, build that number of cars, and then try to sell them. This left airfields full of thousands of unsold cars as the companies in question slowly went out of business. The Built-to-Order system which Vauxhall uses means they will only build a car once it has already been ordered so every single car produced has a home to go to when it rolls out of the assembly shop. Many of the panels such as doors, and electronics will be produced by outside suppliers and shipped to the factory by trucks. These panels have to arrive exactly at the right time (Just-in-Time), and in the right order so the assembly process can continue smoothly as the cars literally come together inside the General Assembly factory.
Every car on the line is different. The vast majority were Left-Hand Drive “Opel” models destined for European delivery, but the colours and body styles varied all along the line. Even the “last generation” style Astra van was being produced along side the newer Sports Tourer (below), demonstrating how versatile the line is.
At the end of the tour we make our way back to Hooton House, the main administration building on the site. On the way, we pass a section of the old airfield used to park up finished cars ready to be shipped. As far as they eye can see, Vauxhall Astras in their thousands are lined up, waiting for the trucks to take them to their new homes.
When parent company, General Motors, sold off its European operations, Vauxhall and its plants became the first UK operation for the the French car maker, PSA Group, since it closed the Peugeot plant at Ryton in 2006, moving production to Slovakia. With every acquisition there is uncertainty and questions remain over the future of Ellesmere Port, and Vauxhall’s position in the PSA plan.