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article imageCarmaker Audi Bucks The Market's Downward Trend

By Frank Heidmann     Jan 6, 2002 in Technology
NECKARSULM (dpa) - When most car enthusiasts think of southwest Germany prestige makers Mercedes and Porsche come to mind. But they aren't the only motor manufacturers in that corner of Germany - there's another large carmaker and employer based here too.

This year 210,000 Audis will roll off the production lines in Neckarsulm, where almost 14,000 people are employed. The "Chancellor limousine", the A8, is produced here by VW's flagship company, the Audi AG, as is the successful A6.

And with the compact A2 comes the first series-production car with bodywork entirely of aluminium. The groundbreaking manufacturing techniques used to produced the thrifty runaround are just two years old.

"Many a milestone in automotive engineering has been laid here, and that continues," says works manager Otto Lindner. The factory certainly boasts a long tradition, inextricably linked with many an unforgettable product.

Christian Schmidt began producing bicycles here in 1886. Two years later he built the frame for the first steel bike for Gottlieb Daimler. Then, in 1900, NSU (the abbreviation is for Neckarsulm) became the site for Germany's first motorbike factory.

Although NSU was soon building cars too, the works' global claim to fame was always its motorbikes. A series of racing victories, not to mention a 1956 world speed record for Wilhelm Herz and his 500 cc supercharged NSU (339 kilometres per hour), are monuments to the glorious era of motorbikes.

After the war, growing prosperity in Germany made the car business an increasingly attractive market for NSU. A passenger car appeared in 1964, the NSU/Wankel Spider or RO 80, which remains a favourite among fans to this day. In 1969, the merger of NSU Motorenwerke AG with Auto Union GmbH produced Audi NSU Auto Union AG with headquarters initially in Neckarsulm.

The unwieldy name was scrapped in 1985 and the company's offices were moved to Ingolstadt in Bavaria. Most directors were based here anyway as was the biggest factory. In Neckarsulm, of course, there was ill-feeling about the decision and concern for the factory's survival. Yet even today, the short form for Audi shares on the stock-exchange is NSU.

As history has shown, the fears were unfounded. The workforce has grown rapidly in the last few years from 9,000 to the almost 14,000 today, and production of the new A8 beginning next year is bound to ensure stability for the staff, especially since the small A2 is picking up after a weak start in 2000. This is also evidence of the boom in diesel, as almost half of the little aluminium car features prove. "This year we'll produce 50,000 of the A2," Lindner said.

Among the most recent milestones achieved in Neckarsulm are the development of the turbo-diesel TDI engine and, in particular, the establishment of the "aluminium centre". Highly stable aluminium weighs substantially less than steel "and allows us to make considerable reductions in the number of parts," said Wolfgang Ruch, who heads the centre.

That factor also leads to greater bodywork quality. Wide-ranging research and development work is required here all the time, and that alone keeps around 100 employees busy. "The fact is, you can't simply exchange one steel part for an aluminium one," says Ruch.

The methods used to build the A2 shell come as a surprise to most visitors as most of the work is performed by robots. Around 30 metres of the A2's aluminium bodywork are welded by laser and first-time observers cannot help but stare at the curious dance of automated arms. The human staff who oversee the work here are mainly highly- specialised engineers responsible for the A2's brand new assembly line technology.
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