Mercedes-Benz M-Class Plant
$600-Million Expansion Will Make the Best, Better
Inducted in 2002
Just like the SUV that prompted its construction, the M-Class manufacturing plant near Tuscaloosa is a thing of beauty, housing an abundance of supremely advanced technical processes. With a million square feet of space, light, and contemporary white-and-glass sleekness, the plant shatters the usual automotive paradigm. The plant’s “shops”— body, paint, assembly — and its administrative facilities mingle under one roof, with an open layout designed to foster a team approach. The building’s architecture combines European styling with an American touch, making German and American employees (numbering 1,900) feel at home. Today, more than 300 vehicles come off the production line daily, for sale in 135 countries. While, the M-Class facility resembles a “factory,” visitors marvel at its spotlessness.
Ground-breaking for the plant and adjacent Visitor Center and Training Institute was held in May 1994. Construction began in October. American, German, and Japanese expertise merged in a world-class automotive plant. Lead architect Reiner Gors, along with the local firms Gresham, Smith and Partners and Grover Harrison, P.C., took advantage of the sloping 966-acre site to ensure visibility from Interstate 20/59, yet integrate the structure in its natural environment. The Visitor Center’s undulating roof repeats the rolling terrain and, topped by its revolving three-pointed star, has become an architectural landmark. Mr. Gors, of Albert Kahn Associates of Detroit, headed the design process, while global giant Fluor Daniel managed construction. To equip the plant’s shops, MBUSI (Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, a DaimlerChrysler company) turned to a multinational set of experts. Durr Industries of Plymouth, Michigan, installed the paint shop’s tanks and booths. Germany’s Utica Corporation installed the welding machines in the body shop. Finally, Japan’s Mitsubishi/Chiyoda created the final assembly line, where chassis is married to body. The plant was completed in summer 1996; the “Job 1” SUV was delivered in February 1997, and the M-Class has won more than 40 coveted automotive awards since that time.
Environmental consciousness is a Daimler-Chrysler tenet and pervades plant engineering at the M-Class facility. International standards are met and exceeded. Despite high costs compared to landfilling, all materials are systematically reused or recycled. All product coatings but one are lead-free and water-based; paint sludge is recycled into cinder blocks and roof tile. Many pro-environmental strategies were built into the plant, including the front fountain, which pleases the senses and serves as a “superpolisher” of waste- and storm-water. The plant’s fuel-offloading station sits above a sump pump, so not one drop is lost into the environment. Though not required to do so, plant designers chose “after-burners” for their emissions system, because this technology creates oxidants that, released into air, are actually healthy for the environment.
Sound corporate citizenship from MBUSI doesn’t stop with its environmental responsiveness. The company supports local charities through employee participation, corporate and volunteer grants, and a matching-gifts program. Benefactors of MBUSI’s philanthropy include the American Red Cross, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Kid One Transport System (providing transportation for children and expectant mothers to nearby medical care), United Way, and Salvation Army. The firm recently gave a combined $1.5 million to The University of Alabama and Stillman College in Tuscaloosa to create co-op opportunities and scholarships.
The original plant represented a $300-million investment. In making that investment, Mercedes took a chance on Alabama. Now, it has taken a stand, telling the world it believes in the Alabama worker. Not long ago, DaimlerChrysler announced plans for investing $600 million in a plant expansion at MBUSI, and another $7 million for a childcare and wellness center. Up to 2,000 new jobs will be generated as production capacity is doubled. In its handful of years, the Tuscaloosa plant has won an unprecedented reputation, becoming the learning field for the entire DaimlerChrysler corporation. The new expansion should be complete in late 2003.