September 07, 2016 @ 06:57 PM

Take a look inside the oldest car factory in Malaysia Part 2

We continue our tour in Volvo's factory located in Shah Alam to discover what are the changes that have been done in the pass 50 years.


Words by: Chris Ng
Photographs by: Aaron Lee


I start at the body shop where a V40 is being put together by man and machinery. The materials are manually handled through the line, with the operators welding selected spots in the car. 

Then Fredrik stops at what looks like a huge white box that looks out of place in the line. It seems newer than other installations but I am more interested with what’s inside. I take a peek into the box, almost like a child opening his presents during Christmas. Inside, familiar robotic arms are working on a car, specifically the V40’s roof.  

“Here we have the robots to do the laser welding of the roof. It’s a very complicated weld, which is why we need the robot,” Fredrik says. The welding spots for the roof need a higher degree of precision and to eliminate any human errors, robots are employed for the task. Despite the appearance of the robots and its laser tools, humans are still very much in control.  

We leave the V40’s body shop, turn around the corner and walk back down the aisle. On my right, I could see the new XC90 in various stages of the build. We stop at the end of the aisle, or rather, at the beginning of the aisle. Fredrik points out a corner to me where completely assembled shells of the XC90, fresh from Europe, are placed, awaiting disassembly.

The XC90’s assembly really starts here, where the operators take apart the doors, bonnet and boot of the SUV, then places them carefully away from the body-in-white. The hatches move to the next aisle where it is fitted with the wires and hoses that usually go into the car.  The body moves down the line and the operators go to work on the insides. 

Frederik explains that it is easier to get access inside the vehicle when the doors are taken apart; I see why. In the subsequent stations, the completed dashboard and the centre stack gets fitted into the car and the unobstructed portal makes it easier to slip in these large and flat surfaces. Then the steering goes in. 

Further down the line, bundles of wires and hoses get plugged into the various components of the XC90. Because the XC90 is one-part electric vehicle, the amount of wires that passes through is immense, the SUV appears to have the sinews of a human’s nervous system. 

The tour briefly stops at a skeletal structure, freshly painted in yellow, that seems out of place in this factory. It is big as it is tall, scaling up nearly as high as the roof of the factory. 

Here, both halves of the XC90, the body and underbody meet. The underbody here has been assembled in a nearby area of the factory, where the XC90’s hybrid battery, engine, exhaust, spring and dampers, disc brakes, fuel tank and more wires are being machined into place. 

Carefully, both side of the body aligns itself then joins in the middle. Without a second to lose, the operators let loose their tools and begins work to secure both sides of the car. The XC90 takes shape.

This is part of the factory’s adaptation to Volvo’s new Scalable Platform Architecture, or SPA for short. With this, the Shah Alam factory now has the capability to continue producing Volvo cars, present and future, that are based on the SPA. 

The XC90 is the first to be built on the new generation’s platform with the S90 following as soon as it arrives in Malaysia, which is sometime this year. In a sense, this is Volvo future-proofing themselves and ready to accept newer models with better features and capabilities. For the workers here, their jobs are secured.

Next, the interior gets decked out with carpets and seats. And then; the doors, bonnet and boot get reunited with the XC90. At this point, Wendy Chan, the Communications Manager of the plant, points out to me an operator that wears a uniform of a different colour; the rest have blue overalls while she has the purple on. 

Wendy explains that VCMM the uniform is worn by operators with impairment. In this instance, the operator is hearing-impaired. Wendy tells me that VCMM employs four operators with disabilities, which is a darn good thing in my books. 

Since the XC90s come painted, unlike the V40s, the plug-in hybrid SUV is carted off to do its final calibrations on the cameras, and checks on the body and paint. The V40 instead goes into the paint shop and there it will remain for another two hours to get its colours done.

In fact, at every station, the XC90 is checked and rechecked by the operators before handing it off to the next station. Problems found are rectified on the spot. But if the problem is major enough, the SUV is taken off the assembly line. 

Once given the green light, the XC90 is driven onto a very short test track that simulates the conditions of the road. Here, the test drivers look for anything that’s not right with the car, whether the fittings are secured and if there are weird noises coming from the cabin. The XC90 gets blasted with water, too, just to check if the SUV is properly sealed. 

At the current rate, VCMM is able to put together six cars a day, a number that is well below their maximum capacity. When the demand for Volvo cars goes up, the factory will be able to produce up to 16 cars a day with the factory’s current configuration. It doesn’t sound a whole lot but a mass market car brand isn’t what Volvo is about. Quality has always been a cornerstone of their assembly. 

And just for good measure, the XC90 is given another pat down before getting the passing grade for delivery. At present, two countries will get the XC90; Malaysia and Thailand. Side note: the XC90 SUVs bound for Thailand gets power from diesel engines.

I must admit, the finished product doesn’t seem like it was assembled here in Malaysia. I keep looking for some magical portal that’s really teleporting cars over here. But the reality is this, Volvo has been doing this for the past 50 years and they are really good at what they do. 

If you need future proof, a great majority of Volvos you see on the road today, from the 144, the 240, the 740, the 850 and the S40 right up to the V40 and XC90 are put together in Shah Alam. It’s a great effort from a factory this old in this part of the world. This is history that you cannot – must not – forget. 

To read part one, click here.

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