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Regional Update: France

France ranks high on the list of European auto manufacturing giants.

Though it doesn’t spring to mind as the most likely place to be investing in the global automotive market, that doesn’t mean that interests in Northern France are quiescent about promoting the region’s automotive prowess and infrastructure. An economic development group, Invest In Northern France, recently showed off some of the region’s automotive assembly plants, supplier facilities, design schools, research parks, and technical centers.

Another Megane rolls down the line at Renault’s Douai assembly plant.
They are world class, for certain. And in this era of bench marking, best practice and continuous improvement, anything less simply wouldn’t do. Since French automobiles have not been sold in the U.S. for many years, many French accomplishments are largely a matter of production and sales figures. Still, those numbers do impress.

In the European picture France ranks second only to Germany in vehicle production and in the worldwide picture it ranks fourth, with the U.S. and Japan ranked first and second respectively. France produced 3.6 million vehicles in 2001 and again in 2002 and exported nearly 70 percent of domestic production.

Renault and PSA Peugeot-Citro?n dominate the French market, each with about 30 percent market share. Transplants like Toyota and Mercedes also build cars in France for domestic purchase or export. There are also some interesting joint ventures such as Sevelnord, which is a PSA/Fiat complex for producing minivans and light utility vehicles. With an output of 800 vehicles per day, it is claimed to be the only plant in Europe producing seven different cars on the same line. The models include the Citro?n C8, Fiat Ulysse, Lancia Phedra and Peugeot 807 minivan and the Citro?n Jumpy, Fiat Scudo and Peugeot Expert utility vehicles. The plant recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

By contrast the new Toyota factory at Valenciennes is dedicated to a single model, the extremely popular Yaris. Production at Valenciennes began in January 2001. Production is currently 184,000 per year, but is scheduled to increase to 210,000 next spring. It is a very integrated assembly plant, incorporating stampings as well as assembly of two gasoline engines and one diesel.

Over 150,000 employees make up the automotive sector in France. The supplier tiers employ another 135,000. Foreign suppliers account for more than 60 percent of the combined suppliers sales of about $22 billion annually.

France is a very central location and thus much of the supplier production, as much as 42 percent, is exported annually. Foreign suppliers actually export more than 70 percent of their production to other countries.

Our visits were concentrated in northwestern France in the regions of Haute Normandie and Nord — Pas deCalais, which account for as much as 30 percent of total vehicle production in France.

One of our first stops was at a wooded research park near the city of Rouen called Technop?le du Madrillet. Created by the French government and the Haute Normandie region, this center combines institutions of higher education, independent companies and public and private sector laboratories to concentrate technological capabilities in support of the aerospace and automotive sectors. There are three more Technop?les in Haute Normandie specializing in other sectors. It is in essence a technical transfer enabler, bridging the gaps between basic research, developmental engineering and application engineering. Different types of high tech groups and individuals covering many engineering and scientific disciplines can be brought together on a permanent or ad hoc basis to solve the challenge du jour.

Some of the separate disciplines include: combustion and plasma research; laser metrology applied to engine testing; mechanics laboratory; NVH testing; analysis and simulation; nano-analysis of metallic materials; high-speed machining design and research; onboard electronics; shape recognition and visionics; fluid mechanics and other digital simulation.

Not that these capabilities can’t be found scattered in auto building centers around the world, what is novel is that so many enterprises are collocated in a common park-like atmosphere and can feed off one another’s talents and resources.

Supporting the fourth largest car building nation of the world, one would expect to find most of the key global suppliers in evidence. That indeed is the case. Although our direct visits were concentrated among the French based suppliers, we could also feel the presence of Delphi, Bosch, Visteon, Denso, ArvinMeritor, Siemens, Dana, TRW, Johnson Controls, Oxford Automotive, PPG and others.

On March 1st of this year, Toyota celebrated the production of its 200,000 Yaris, built at the Valenciennes plant that was opened in January of 2001.
Like auto builders elsewhere, Renault, PSA and Toyota are in a continual process of simplifying their sourcing and logistics. Yet it still takes a brigade of suppliers to pull it together. To build the Yaris at Valenciennes Toyota draws upon 186 suppliers throughout Europe, with 47 of them being French.

Now celebrating its 80th anniversary, the French-based Valeo was one of our most impressive visits in terms of future looking product and seeing just how involved French-based suppliers are with car builders of other nations. Here we drove a pair of demonstrator vehicles, one a BMW 5-Series and the other a VW Golf.

The BMW was equipped with a soft air diffusion system, a fragrance diffusion system and an air conditioner system using CO2 as refrigerant rather than HFC-R134a. The soft air diffusion is accomplished by a twozone thermal system that removes drafts and provides homogeneous climate throughout the vehicle.

The fragrance diffusion system enables selection of a cabin fragrance and although it may sound trivial, the sensation is quite nice. The CO2 charged air conditioner is something we will probably be seeing lots of in the 2008-10 time frame at least in Europe and Japan. This is likely fallout from the Kyoto Protocol relating to refrigerant emissions.

The VW Golf was equipped with an air conditioner loop control that optimizes the operation of the compressor and other component in the A/C loop to provide a 30 percent savings in power consumption. This was teamed with an open type compressor with variable capacity achieved through swash plate technology. Power reduction with no comfort penalty is again the objective.

The big picture is surely shaped by piecing together smaller objectives and then uniting them in harmony. We visited windshield manufacturers, innovative interior trim and composite manufacturers, parts distribution centers and logistic services providers to gain an overall perspective on the French automotive industry.

France made significant strides in productivity during the 1990s and has an inherently attractive location at the crossroads of Europe. Wages are less than Japan, Germany and the U.S. and the logistics are very strong. While automakers seem to be looking at Eastern Europe to place their next bets, France is still regarded as a sure thing.

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Thu. July 18th, 2024

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