Atos. Or Santro as India came to know the hatchback that made Hyundai a household name is back and gleaning from just the first full month of sales, it is evident that customers are warming up to it rather well. In 1998, when the rest of the automotive industry was seemingly still confounded about what customers really wanted, Hyundai had hit the nail on the head. The original Santro had everything the customers wanted. It had acres of space, a very refined and capable engine, comfortable suspension setup and to top it all off, it was a fairly good car to drive. Hyundai in successive years continued adding to the Santro and in a few years it became the entry level hatchback that was the perfect first car for a variety of people. Back in the day, the Santro gave a tough competition to the likes the Maruti Suzuki Wagon R and now, the third gen Santro competes with other cars like the Tata Tiago, Maruti Suzuki Celerio, the third gen Wagon R and the Renault Kwid.
“It is a rebirth of sorts for the Santro – different avatar but with all the same virtues”
In 2014, after more than a decade of strong sales, Hyundai decided to retire the Santro. Yet, less than four years later, it is back. Reinvigorated with fresh styling, peppy new engines and with all the attributes that made it a grand success still found in good measure, it looks like Hyundai has a winner on its hands yet again.
Less than a month ago we received a brand new beige Santro to drive and we have been taking turns to have a go at it ever since. We have found out over the course of a few short weeks that much has changed in the Santro from four years ago but a lot of what made the Santro such a great city car continues to be present in this new-gen car. It is a rebirth of sorts for the Santro – different avatar but with all the same virtues. So understandably when Hyundai presented us with a chance to visit the Hyundai plant outside Chennai and witness the birth of the Santro, we couldn’t say no. The Chennai facility at Sriperumbudur is an integrated unit where all of Hyundai India’s cars are made and it produces 700,000 units every year. The festive season is upon us and Hyundai has its order books full. The recently launched Santro is among the cars most in demand and it shows. Scores of Santros roll out of the plant every single day.
It all starts at the body panel workshop. Rolls of stainless steel arrive at the workshop where all eyes are on the 5400-tonne capacity press that bears down on the sheets of metal to produce individual body panels. The dies to produce these panels are made months in advance and trialled for a full three months before production actually begins. This, Hyundai engineers at the spot told me, was to ensure that by the time production begins, the panels are created with a very high dimensional accuracy.
At the plant, the name Santro is replaced by the code-name AH2 and the orange colour code makes Santro parts easy to spot in the massive facility. After the gigantic press cuts out the metal parts, it goes through a few other processes in the same machine before shiny new panels are ejected out to the plant workers who stack them up. One in every 50 panels is checked for defects and an oil stone is used to check for deformities. If an imperfection is found, the entire lot is re-examined.
“The robots have an efficiency of more than 98 per cent and errors are kept to a minimum”
After the panels are made, they are transported to the next stage of the process, the body shop, where the magic really happens. More than a hundred industrial robots take up the job of machining and welding parts on to the body panels. The robots have an efficiency of more than 98 per cent and errors are kept to a minimum. There seemed to be fewer human operators than robots in this part of the plant, with their role visibly limited to feeding the parts and components to be put on the rig for them to be welded together with the body panels. Are humans becoming obsolete in the body shop then? Not quite. The critical job of programming these robots is handled by skilled operators. Technicians at the site informed us that the robots can easily reach spots that are difficult to find and have a high accuracy for repetitive tasks.
After the body panels have all been fabricated and put together to form the body of the car, it is now time to get the cars painted. All the car bodies are taken to the paint shop where the cars are given an anti-rust treatment followed by multiple coats of paint and finally the clearcoat which gives the cars that great shine. The painting is done by robots and due to the presence of hazardous chemicals no one is allowed inside the paint shop during operation.
The assembly shop was easily the most human intensive part of the process. The underbody chassis elements are first attached and then the body panels are precision welded. Then comes an extremely critical part of the process called chassis marriage. Here the driveline components are attached to the chassis of the car. Mechanised platforms carry the engine components while the body is lowered from a conveyor for extremely skilled operators to attach the two in a matter of seconds. Oh, and by the way conveyors are everywhere. Every component and part to be attached is transported by way of gigantic conveyors across different levels of the assembly shop. After the driveline is married to the chassis, everything else is attached sequentially by workers manually. There are numerous steps involved where sub-assemblies are seamlessly attached to the body by skilled technicians at each station. The cars on the assembly line are constantly on the move and operators only have a few seconds with each car to get it right before another car arrives. The fact that the assembly line includes a variety of cars and operators work on different cars one after the other without missing a beat is rather commendable and demonstrates how streamlined the entire process is.
“A staggering 97 per cent of all cars that get to the PDI clear it in the very first attempt”
After all the components are assembled together, the orange protector panels are removed and at the end of the assembly line the car is switched on for the first time. After a few stutters every car on the line starts up and is driven to the holding area for the final step of the process – the Pre-Delivery Inspection. My question about cars not starting up at the end of the line was met with a grin from the technicians who said maybe a car or so every couple of months. Moving on to the Pre-Delivery Inspection line, every car is tested and every function and feature is evaluated. Only when the car passes every test is it sent to the customer. Hyundai executives stressed on how important driving every car they produce is. A staggering 97 per cent of all cars that get to the PDI clear it in the very first attempt. The rest do so soon after.
A car rolls out from the assembly line every 72 seconds at the Hyundai plant and it takes exactly 21 hours to build a car from scratch. Even with such high production numbers, the fact that Hyundai can deliver remarkable levels of quality is a testament to the enormous faith that Hyundai places in its processes and its personnel.