I stand on an overhead bridge amidst flying sparks, watching a line of robotic arms viciously dart in and out of a queue of car bodyshells, looking like spider legs or octopus tentacles – whichever’s the scarier.
Their motions are natural and unnatural at the same time; life-like, yet devoid of the emotion or lethargy that plagues us mere mortals, which leads one to wonder – will robots one day usurp our roles in society?
Of course, it’s just my imagination running wild, but really, seeing an automated manufacturing plant’s operation for the first time can be a curiously unnerving and slightly frightening experience.
Welcome to Proton’s state-of-the-art Tanjung Malim facility, where the Preve and Persona are built, and so will the upcoming P3-22A hatchback. The Saga and Satria Neo are built at the main Shah Alam plant; the Exora and Inspira at the MVF (Medium Volume Factory) plant, also located in Shah Alam.
Spread out over an area of 1,280 acres, Proton Tanjung Malim is now into its first decade of operation, having begun in 2003 with the Gen 2, which is now only produced for export markets.
It was designed to accommodate a maximum annual production capacity of 150,000 cars in the long term – Proton says that with the introduction of the Preve and other new models, productivity is expected to reach the maximum level in three years’ time.
At present, a manpower total of nearly 2,500 – four-fifths of which are below 30 years of age – work in two daily shifts with over 200 robots to produce on average, 180 units of the Persona and 200 units of the Preve a day. Automation is 60% in total.
The Tanjung Malim manufacturing process involves five shops or sections: ETM (Engine and Transmission Machining), Stamping, Body Assembly, Paint and Trim & Final Assembly.
We start at the Stamping section, which boasts the largest stamping equipment in South East Asia. Here, press machines ranging from 500 to 4,600 tonnes form sheet metal into vehicle parts.
The moulded parts then go to Body Assembly, where robots spot-weld them into place to result in the Body-in-White, or BIW (essentially the empty bodyshell, without doors, bonnet or boot lid). There are also roller hemming robots (joining inner and outer closure panels) and CO2 welding robots.
After the BIWs have gone through a layout machine inspection, they continue down the conveyor belt to Painting, where preliminary coating and sealing are done, before robots apply the second and top coats.
The coloured shells now arrive at Trim & Final, where all the interior and exterior trim, chassis and wheels are fitted – as you can imagine, this is the longest and least automated line. A separate Tester Line undertakes dynamic, alignment, emissions and shower tests.
The final piece in the puzzle is that complicated bit under the bonnet – the ETM shop machines engine and transmission components. The engine parts are sent to the Shah Alam plant to be assembled, before returning to Tanjung Malim for the fitment of the cylinder head assembly. A particular car will take about two days to go through the whole manufacturing process to completion.
The Proton Preve recently achieved the maximum five-star safety rating in the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) – contributing to this is the implementation of Hot Press Forming (HPF) tech in its body.
The HPF process begins with the heating of the sheet metal to around 900°C for about five minutes. The sheet metal is then simultaneously pressed and quenched at a rate of at least 30°C per second.
The advantages include high tensile strength (up to 1500 MPa from 400 MPa in the case of manganese-boron steel), formability (more complex parts), repeatability, weldability and good energy absorption (for crashworthiness).
Of course, thicker steel could be used, but according to Proton, this would bring the weight of the BIW beyond the target 300 kg. Indeed, the Hot Press-formed Preve BIW weighs 298.8 kg, including sealant.
In total, there are eight HPF parts in the Preve – all centred around the safety cell area and all integral to impact absorption. They comprise reinforcement pillars, underfloor and bulkhead cross-members and an impact beam just behind the front bumper.
A while ago, in response to customer feedback, Proton made some slight adjustments to the C-segment sedan. These include minor ECU and TCU tweaks, as well as an adjustment to the spring rate of the throttle pedal to provide more immediate response and driving satisfaction whilst in D mode. S mode however, remains as is. Earlier Preves that have been sent in for servicing have also received this update.
Proton acknowledges that it has to keep up to speed with the growing expectations amongst customers in domestic and export markets, while improving brand perception.
To that end, the national carmaker says it has set up a Quality Improvement team consisting of members from different areas such as Quality Assurance, Production, Engineering and Procurement to address as many issues as it can at factory stage.