Gone in 50 seconds

On most days in this industrial suburb of Delhi, a phalanx of robotic arms weld sheets of pressed steel into silvery monocoque body shells that emerge from the paint shop in shades of arctic pearl white, glistening grey, blazing red and midnight black. A conveyor belt pulls the candy-coloured shells past 369 workstations, where men armed with whirring tools install engines, doors, windshields, and wiring.

On days like these, a Maruti Suzuki rolls off Assembly Line A every 50 seconds in Manesar, Haryana, and the company sells every second car in India.

Then there are days when the assembly line grinds to a halt, production comes to a standstill, Maruti's half-year profits plummet by 60 per cent and market share shrinks to 39.5 percent. Last week, Maruti released sales figures for what must count as a financial quarter from hell. Tensions between the management and labour had resulted in production losses of approximately 83,000 cars, resulting in a shortfall of about $500 million, according to a Reuters report.

This summer, a dispute over the establishment of an independent union in Maruti's Manesar plant exploded, as workers seized control of the Manesar plant triggering a five month standoff with the management. Workers felt that the recognized Maruti Udyog Kamgar Union (MUKU) was too compliant with the management. A company spokesperson told The Hindu that the management felt that multiple unions would lead to “competitive union politics.”

The issue of wages was never raised during the strike, but two statements reveal the gulf between a management wedded to a particular idea of efficiency and productivity and workers exhausted by the regimentation of factory life. “Indiscipline is not tolerated,” said Suzuki Chief Osamu Suzuki at a meeting with MUKU representatives. “Authoritarianism will not be endured,” said an anonymous worker in Faridabad Mazdoor Samachar, a workers broadsheet.

On Saturday October 29, soon after the most recent settlement between workers and the management, this correspondent and a photographer were given permission to observe the Manesar factory floor under the supervision of the plant's general manager P.K. Roy. Workers were interviewed outside the factory premises where they could speak freely.

Maruti's Manesar premises are spread over 600 acres and house two separate assembly lines (with a third under construction), a separate company called Suzuki Powertrain India Ltd. that manufactures Maruti's diesel engines and a 65- MW gas-fuelled thermal plant that powers it all.

Mr. Roy said the plant was currently configured to work as a ‘50 second line,' to produce a maximum of about 1,152 cars a day over two shifts of 8 hours each. This summer, according to a company spokesperson and workers, the company hoped to produce about 1,200 cars a day, or a 48 second line.

An assembly line is a complex manifestation of the man-hour-work problems encountered in high school mathematics. Workers stand at stations in a giant covered shed as partially built cars glide by on a moving conveyor; workers step onto the conveyor, fit a specific part, step off and walk back to the front of the workspace to wait for the next car.

The automobile industry produces cars in ‘levelled lots', meaning the cars come in repeating patterns of different models and variants. “Work content is not fixed across models,” said Mr. Roy, “In one model it may take a worker only 40 seconds to fit a particular part… in another model it could take more time.” In a 50 second line, cars arrive in mathematically determined lots where cars that need more than 50 seconds per task are offset by cars that need less.

“Prior to the troubles we were making about 1070 cars a day,” said Mr. Roy, “At present we are making about 800 cars a day.”

“[Prior to the worker occupation] we were under intense pressure to withdraw our application for the union… the line was moving too fast… there were no relieving workers,” said Pradeep Foggat, a Maruti worker and one of the leaders of the proposed Maruti Suzuki Employees Union, adding that a Maruti worker spends 8 hours on the assembly, and breaks twice for a 7.5 minute tea break and once for a 30 minute lunch break. Those who arrive a minute after the shift's scheduled commencement are fined half a day's salary.

In Manesar, Maruti produces about 180 variants of three basic models: the 2011 Swift hatchback, the SX4 sedan, the low-end A Star hatchback and its European variant called the Nissan Pixo. When a car rolls in, the worker looks at a large matrix pasted on the vehicle that indicates if the car is a left or right hand drive, powered by petrol, diesel or compressed natural gas engines intended for the domestic, European or general export market. Depending on his work station he chooses from 32 different upholstered seats, 90 tyre and wheel assemblies, and innumerable kinds of wire-harnesses, air conditioning tubes, steering wheels, dashboard trims, gearboxes, switches, locks, and door trims, in an average time of 50 seconds per car.

For parts like air conditioning tubes, the worker stands between a set of parts racks. As a particular car variant rolls in, a light above the corresponding parts rack blinks with increasing urgency as the worker runs to it, grabs a part and pulls a cord to acknowledge he has chosen the right part. He then steps onto the conveyor belt, fits the part and rushes back to match the next car to the next blinking parts rack before an alarm rings.

If the line halts, signboards across the shop floor light up – flashing the number of the workstation where the line has stopped and the duration of the stoppage. Another board displays the total time ‘lost' during the shift; a scrolling ticker lists the production targets at a given time of the day, the actual cars produced and the variance.

“For every fault, the feedback is recorded and the worker has to sign against it… it goes into his record,” said a worker, speaking on condition of anonymity as every Maruti worker must sign ‘Standing Orders' that, among 100 other conditions, bar them from slowing down work, singing, gossiping, spreading rumours and making derogatory statements against the company and management. The work record is examined during yearly appraisals.

Workers said that mistakes multiply as the speed of the line increases, work intensity spikes and workers spend less time on each car. But the management feels that productivity is independent of work intensity. One gets the impression that eight hours of intense physical work is seen as the ceteris paribus of the assembly line. Given these eight man hours of work, productivity is determined by algorithms that plot variables like the pattern in which different car models are made, the length of line, the number of workstations. “The speed of a line is a design issue. A worker works for eight hours everyday. The line is designed so that the worker can safely fix a part, rest and resume work on the next car in the allotted time,” Mr. Roy said.

For a worker, line acceleration can be a harrowing experience. “When I first began working for Maruti, assembly lines used to run right through my dreams,” said a worker with a laugh, “These days I suppose I'm so tired that I don't get dreams anymore.”

The morning shift ends at a quarter to four every evening. A new shift of young men stream into the factory and take position at their workstations. The handover is seamless, each worker completes the car he is working on and his replacement starts on the next car that glides in. The unblinking clock keeps vigil as lights flash, alarms wail and the line makes its inexorable progress through the assembly floor.

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Printable version | Oct 17, 2021 7:26:22 PM |

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