Mercedes Evolution

For more than a year, the Mercedes-Benz U.S. International (MBUSI) automotive assembly plant in Vance has experienced shifts in branding, product offerings and even the physical facility itself.

One major shift came in 2014, when workers at MBUSI began assembling the newly redesigned C-Class sedan, the first sedan to come from the Vance plant since it opened in 1997. The plant had previously produced only SUVs and crossover vehicles.

“This (2015) is the first full year of the production of the C-Class, so that [will take] our production numbers up to 300, 000, ” said MBUSI spokeswoman Felyicia Jerald in December. “That’s where we anticipate being by the time we leave on Dec. 23, which is our last day of production for the year.”

In fact, MBUSI produced more than 232, 000 vehicles in 2014 and announced last September that it was “on track to exceed 300, 000 in 2015.”

Mercedes-Benz also launched a rebranding campaign in 2015, declaring it “the year of the SUV, ” to unveil four new sport utility vehicles, including the GLE Coupe, a model MBUSI workers started producing last year. The vehicle has a sporty design and the capability and power of an SUV. 

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Mercedes-Benz has, in fact, renamed its SUVs so the names all start with “GL.” This includes the M-Class sport utility vehicle, which the company redesigned and renamed as the “GLE-Class” for 2016. The M-Class was the first Mercedes model the Vance plant produced when it opened in 1997. 

Mercedes-Benz also formally moved production of the R-Class crossover — a vehicle sold primarily in China — from the Vance plant to AM General in Mishawaka, Indiana, last year. The AM General assembly plant once produced the Hummer H2 for General Motors. 

“We’re still controlling production of the R-Class, ” says Jerald. “We still control all of the parts, and we are sending them to AM General. That allows us to build more of the other higher volume SUVs.”

To boost production at MBUSI,  Mercedes-Benz began construction last fall on a $1.3 billion expansion of the MBUSI plant. Nicknamed “Project Gateway, ” the building project will include a new 1.3 million-square-foot body shop, expansion of the SUV assembly shop by 139, 930 square feet, as well as upgrades to the logistics and IT systems.

The project, set for completion in 2017, is expected to modernize the plant and to create 300 new jobs, Jason Hoff, president and CEO of MBUSI, said in a press statement last September. 

As of last fall, Mercedes-Benz has made more than $4.5 billion in capital investments at the Tuscaloosa County plant. 

“Our plant was built originally 20 years ago, ” Jerald says. “I think what we’re seeing now is modernizing our plant in a way that’s really going to enhance our ability to build quality, innovative vehicles for the future.” 

As MBUSI evolves, officials there are also seeking ways to create and grow a pipeline of skilled workers for the future. The Mercedes-Benz Automotive Systems Technical Program is a partnership with Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa and the University of West Alabama. Students in the program can earn 61 credit hours learning subjects such as heating and air conditioning, braking, steering, drive trains, axles, electrical and electronic systems and participating in co-op experiences at MBUSI. 

MBUSI has even participated in community programs targeting younger students. Last October, MBUSI sent representatives to the Worlds of Work career expo sponsored by West Alabama Works, a division of the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce. The event, held on Shelton State’s campus, aimed to inform students in grades 8-12 about various career options. For a discussion about automotive careers, MBUSI representatives invited Shelton State students in the automotive program to demonstrate how an assortment of vehicle parts are installed, Jerald says. 

“We saw this as an opportunity to expose our middle and high school students to automotive manufacturing and what they could potentially do in roughly five to six years, ” she says. “I think we’ve got a good future ahead of us, and, hopefully we’ve inspired some young people to get a feel for what it might take to build a vehicle.” 

Gail Allyn Short is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. She is based in Birmingham.

Text by Gail Allyn Short

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