Invites from car-makers generally fall into two categories. Either we are asked to come and drive an all-new car or we are called to attend a press conference; it’s that simple. Occasionally, however, we do also get invited for celebrations; like the one for Renault-Nissan’s millionth car produced in India. What was different this time though, was that Nissan wanted us to help assemble it. Really! Surely, they weren’t serious? Of course, we accepted. But had we bitten off more than we could chew? Probably.
Things don’t really get off to a good start. It’s a sunny day in Chennai but already, I see dark clouds gathering. Assembling a car is some way out of my comfort zone. And what makes it worse is that I’m going to be producing Renault-Nissan’s millionth car from this plant! Pressure: hah! Will I be able to jump from station to station and help the guys and gals (yes there are many) assemble the Micra? Will I know what to do, which tools to use? And will I manage to do it correctly, first time out? Surely not. Still, they’ve promised to help. What’s also giving me the shivers is that the assembly line is going to be live, running at full steam. This could end in disaster. I can almost see the headlines: “Journalist from Autocar halts production at Nissan”. Oh no!
Checking into the 650-acre plant is difficult enough. Landing up at the facility is easy, you can’t miss it. But which gate should we use? This place is bigger than Mumbai airport. And how do I get directions? “Where’s the production line?”, isn’t really going to help.
Once inside this mini-city, we get lost again and the local taxi driver is no help. We don’t understand each other and the driver seems to be asking the guys at the plant all the wrong questions. As a result, we drift from one massive building to the other, enraging security guards everywhere; this facility employs 12,000 people (40,000 indirectly), produces 12 distinctive models and is the second largest exporter of cars in India. A few phone calls later, we land up at the correct gate, only to be grilled further by the security.”So, you are here to assemble a car? Really? Show us your ID card. Are you a joker?” Luckily, someone from public relations comes and rescues us; security wants us to empty our bags, confiscate our cameras and lock us up for attempted espionage.
Finally, we meet the team that’s waiting for us and are taken to the area called the body shop (no not that one), where every car coming out of this plant originates. Housed in a hangar big enough for several 747s, this is where the 20-tonne rolls of steel are stored in row after endless row. Walking in here is a surreal experience. We are dwarfed by the scale of things as we wander around. The five-storey high ceiling, the forest of steel coils and the heavy presses thumping down with thuds every few seconds. Then, I literally duck for cover as I see a 30-foot-tall claw descend from the ceiling to pick up the next roll of steel, right next to me. The steel roll is headed for the cutting machine, and we follow it. Watching it get loaded onto the blanking machine is no different from watching a roll of paper get loaded onto a printer, but the scale is so massive, it makes for fascinating viewing. “This is where it all begins”, says the man on the watch, as the 800-tonne Korean Rotem blanking machine chops the roll into useable ‘blanks’. These are then loaded onto the stamping presses that use brute force to bend and shape the metal. How much? 5400 tonne of heavy metal. And what a sound they make; the thump goes right through you and resonates in your chest cavity. Don’t think you need a defibrillator here, there’s enough to give you a kick start.
This is where it all begins, from cold rolled steel. From here it goes to a blanking machine where it’s chopped
We then walk over to the next station, within the same pristine neat and pristine Japanese building for the next process; welding the various bits of origami together. Known as the vehicle body assembly, this is where several sections are welded together to form the steel box or monocoque. While several robots are used here, especially in places where precision, dexterity and muscle are required, there are many hand-held welding stations as well, where I can actually get stuck in. Job number one for me is an otherworldly experience. The welding gun is extremely heavy to begin with, even though it is suspended from the top, it buzzes as the charge flows through it and feels nothing short of operating a lethal weapon. It does have a huge amount of electricity coursing through it. So scary an experience is it, I feel my heart racing after every bout of sparks and welding. What a high!
The first stage I get involved in. Welding the body isn’t for the faint hearted, what with all the sparks flying at you.
Once the basic body shell is welded, we move over to the next facility, the paint shop. All I can do initially is observe as our bare Micra shell is dipped through an electro deposition tank. But I do help in the next process, which includes sanding down any excess pre-treatment sitting on the body shell. And then it’s over to the robots again for a coat of primer and two coats of shiny red paint.
Robots give the car a coat of primer and two shiny coats of red paint, deposited using a negative charge on the body.
Once the shell is painted and baked for a few hours, it joins a line of Renault-Nissan alliance cars that stream into the Vehicle Assembly area. Every bit needed on the cars is put on here, from the engine and suspension, (assembled separately) through to the bumpers, dashboard, seats and trim. And the great thing is that I lend a hand at every single process, even helping with some of the sub-assemblies earlier in the process.
Finally, with the completed car, seats, doors and all. Earlier this morning, this was just a sheet of metal: simply amazing!
Incredibly, it’s almost midnight when we leave the plant. Shifts have changed and supervisors are different, but we still get plenty of help and co-operation. And what a feeling it is, what a high, to have seen the car come to life from a mere roll of steel. I even managed to drive the very model I’d helped birth – a left hand drive Micra – around for a bit. It was a terrifying experience, of course. I was worried that one of the doors would fall off, or the engine mount I had fitted would give way, but obviously the supervisors did their job perfectly. What an experience, what a plant and what a treat! Here’s to the two millionth car – and soon.