Some readers may be interested to learn that the UD Trucks Croner range which will be available in Australia over the next few months is actually manufactured at a modern plant located at Samutprakarn just outside of Bangkok in Thailand. The automotive industry in Thailand manufactures more than two million vehicles each year, as wide ranging as UD Croner and Quester trucks and Volvo buses, and pick-up trucks such as the Ford Rangers and Toyota HiLux utes which are currently so popular in Australia.
Helen Savmyr has a background in chemical engineering. She joined the Volvo Group in 2000 and has been in charge of the Thai-Swedish Assembly (TSA) operation for the past three years. In what was once a Volvo and then Ford passenger vehicle plant, Helen oversees a complex operation which involves multiple checking points, and an adherence to high quality standards which, for example, sees UD vehicles receiving the same paint procedures as the Volvo units, and every completed vehicle being dyno tested and laser wheel aligned prior to despatch.
PM: Why does Volvo build many of its UD trucks in Thailand?
HS: I believe that the main reason that Thailand was sought out by the Japanese UD management was the very good quality and good competence linked to the Thai automotive industry. I think the adherence to quality schemes is better in Thailand. It’s quite easy to get good quality here. The component supply chain is good here due to there being so many manufacturers.
PM: Does the vehicle build quality here have to be at least equal to that in Japan?
HS: It has to be comparable for sure. We don’t produce Croner in Japan, only here, as well as the (heavy duty) Quester. The Quon is produced in Japan. Quester and Croner are very much linked to this type of market of developing countries including Thailand and Vietnam.
Of course, it’s a combination of how to secure a good footprint from a manufacturing perspective, and then you have to secure good quality wherever you are. That’s why the Volvo production system is really important for us to ensure that every operation is following certain standards. When it comes to quality we have a Global Quality Audit manual which all Volvo plants worldwide follow. We have seen that we are very competitive when it comes to our quality standards.
PM: The Bangkok plant has ISO 9001/14001 accreditation and also achieved gold standard on the Volvo production quality scale. What is the significance of that?
HS: When we started with this assessment process we said that the minimum standard globally should be gold. Then we know we have a very good standard globally and every plant should come to the gold level. The ones ahead can support the others with benchmarks. We are all assessed globally and we get external people coming here to interview and observe us.
PM: Is gold the top of the quality scale and, if not, do you intend going for a higher level?
HS: The Ageo facility in Japan is platinum, and ladies like diamonds….
PM: What are you main goals here?
HS: My mission of course is to ensure that we achieve good performance. My second mission is to develop the organisation and to develop the leadership and to ensure that we have a sustainable performance and improvement. We might not always have a (Swedish) ex-pat in charge. We are going the extra mile in our world class operation for our customers’ success. It is our customers who tell us we produce and deliver trucks that exceed their expectations.
PM: Walking through your plant we can’t help but notice how happy and engaged the workers seem. Is that part of the strategy?
HS: Behind everything we do it is people and it is our aspiration to be one of the most attractive employers in the Thai automotive business. We try to engage our colleagues as much as possible. We have recognition programs relating to quality. We also have yearly health checks and random drug testing. We have our own soccer field which employees use for training and to play soccer. Our annual sports day pits employees against management in friendly competition. We also have a spirit house shrine and garden which is important for good spirits and peace on our site.
PM: Is getting good staff a problem in Thailand?
HS: We have a mix of permanent and temporary employees in order to be flexible. So far we have not experienced any difficulty in attracting industrial workers. Of course, we are training them so we put in a lot of effort which I would say is a bit different from Europe. I think we have better training centres here. For white collar employees it is attractive to work here. Volvo people are seen as good people. Volvo has a reputation for a culture of good work/life balance.
PM: What is the capacity of the facility?
HS: We can currently produce up to 20 Complete Build Up UD trucks per shift, plus 10 Volvo trucks per shift from kits. We also produce the FM, FH and FMX cabs for export to Volvo in Australia.
PM: The Thai government provides some duty concessions via the Regional Value Content scheme which requires a minimum of 40 per cent ‘local content’. Is it a challenge to achieve this?
HS: We have set the goal to never go below 45 per cent and we are actually quite higher in the range of 50 to 60 per cent. It’s quite easy for us as suppliers to come much closer. A Ford logistics manager once told me manufacturing is only the disruption in the flow of components.