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Mercedes-Benz Vans makes progress on campus

Manufacturing
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German automaker Mercedes-Benz Vans has started hiring for the 1,300 positions it expects to need once its North Charleston campus expansion is complete. (Photo/Provided)

The final steel beam has been laid on Mercedes-Benz Vans’ new paint shop structure as the automaker’s $500 million campus expansion progresses in North Charleston.

The roof of the body shop and assembly extension also have been completed. The exteriors of the existing structures should be mostly complete by next month.

Equipment installations will start in the next few months, company spokeswoman Alyssa Bean said in an email.

The final steel beam is in place for Mercedes-Benz Vans’ new paint facility, and the body shop and assembly buildings are making progress. Equipment will be installed on the North Charleston site in the coming months. (Photo/Provided)The German auto manufacturer broke ground on the project in July. Plans include construction of an assembly line and production facility, paint building, body shop and administration space, covering 1.5 million square feet. A marshalling yard measuring 2.8 million square feet will house finished vehicles.

The completed site will cover about 229 acres, or more than 170 football fields, the company said.

Automation will play a big role in future van production to alleviate ergonomic challenges for workers. Robots will be tasked with lifting the bodies of the vans and taking them between buildings.

“The new plant will be one of the most advanced automotive manufacturing facilities in the U.S.,” Bean has said.

The company’s investment will more than double Mercedes’ existing Lowcountry footprint and overhaul its decade-old supply chain.

The company currently builds the vans at facilities in Europe before breaking them down, ship-ping them to the Port of Charleston and trucking the parts to the North Charleston plant for re-assembly. This complex, expensive process helps the company avoid U.S. import tariffs, com-pany officials have said.

The company’s Metris vans will continue with that reassembly process for now, but the North Charleston expansion brings the entire manufacturing process of next-generation Sprinter vans to the United States, forestalling the need to assemble the vans twice.

This makes van production for the North American market much more efficient, Mercedes-Benz Vans President and CEO Michael Balke has said.

The company plans to hire 1,300 more workers as its Lowcountry footprint grows. The compa-ny has partnered with readySC to provide initial training for existing employees and new hires to ensure a smooth production ramp-up.

Employees in Germany come to the Lowcountry to train new workers, and local workers will travel to Mercedes facilities in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Duesseldorf, Germany, to gain firsthand experience, officials said.

Hiring has been ongoing since March 2015 for engineers and for finance, human resources and information technology personnel. Recruiting and hiring have now also started for manufactur-ing positions.

“Within the last two years, we have doubled our workforce to more than 200 team members,” Balke said in a statement. “In total, we will create up to 1,300 jobs. This is a really exciting time for all of us.”

The decision to invest in the Lowcountry campus was fueled by a desire to shift the 10-year-old site from a van reassembly operation to a full-scale production facility, Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, said during the groundbreaking last summer.

Rising sales also influenced the company’s decision. The Daimler Group sold a record 3 mil-lion vehicles globally in 2016, up 5% from the year prior. Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz Vans divi-sion also hit a record last year, selling 359,000 units globally, up 12%.

Europe remains the company’s largest van market, with 222,000 units sold last year, according to the latest sales data. Germans bought the most vans of any one country, at 88,000, followed by the United States at 32,000. Company executives hope the expanded U.S. footprint will buoy North American sales.

Balke has said he expects the first van to roll off the new assembly line by the end of the dec-ade. No specific year or production rates have been disclosed.

A permit application filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston District, shows that the Mercedes marshalling yard will have capacity to store 2,700 finished vans, represent-ing 10 days’ worth of production at projected volumes once the expansion is complete.

Reach Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119.

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