Inside Vauxhall's new police car factory
16 December 2016
Author: Debbie Wood
Vauxhall has opened the largest blue light factory in Europe at its manufacturing plant in Luton, a move that is set to deliver significant savings for blue light fleets.
Already a leading provider to police, fire and ambulance fleets across the country, Vauxhall has moved its Special Vehicle Operations facility from its previous home at Millbrook, also in Bedfordshire, in a bid to streamline the manufacturing process and allow for future growth.
According to Dick Ellam, Vauxhall's manager of special vehicles, the move took nine months to plan and just one week to execute. A total of 2,500 vehicles are converted each year for police, fire and ambulance services - however, moving in-house means this figure could easily double if the demand increases.
"Cost and efficiency were the big draws to the move, but transporting a business is challenging and no matter how much you plan to make sure everything runs smoothly, there are always challenges. It's how quickly you can react to be able to fix these problems that is important," Ellam tells granitekitchen.
"Because you're moving the entire business, staff need to be told, the whole production process and suppliers need to be informed, parts need to be delivered to different locations, and a new IT system needs to be set-up. It's been quite an upheaval."
An eight-hour build
Around 2,000 of the cars and vans currently built are for the police, while 300 are converted to fire service vehicles and 200 for ambulance fleets.
Everything from the Corsa to Vivaro is converted at the plant. The Astra is the biggest volume seller, at around 1,200 each year, and it takes, on average, eight hours to transform into a police car on a 12-stage production cycle, which includes the testing and fitting of specialist equipment plus modifications to the brakes to meet Government safety tests.
Moving in-house meant Vauxhall could increase the number of workstations from the previous four at Millbrook to 12, which has resulted in a more streamlined production process and fewer delays during conversion.
"We design, develop, test and validate, and we build the vehicle down a production line and deliver it quicker. It's a massive saving to us and our customers," says Ellam.
Every vehicle has its own set of requirements and standards to meet. The most complex and time-consuming are the riot vans, which require a great deal of extra equipment and different materials. The process takes 350-400 hours.
As well as a TV and a cell inside, polycarbonate sheets and panels are used in the windows of riot vans to keep the officers protected, while high-strength steel body panels are fitted that can withstand a washing machine being dropped onto the roof from a significant height (it's been tested).
There are 50 people working within the Specialist Vehicle Operations department including engineers, a purchasing team, production managers and 15 employees on the production line.
Delivering cost savings
No other European manufacturer has this set-up, and the vehicles spend a maximum of three weeks on-site. Cars and vans come straight off the vehicle production line less than 200 miles away at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire and then arrive at Luton to be converted to specification.
"Typically, if you buy a police car from one of our competitors they would take it to a third-party converter, and then it needs to be tested and finally it would come into service. With us, we deliver the finished product fully tested to industry standards. It's a one-stop shop," says Ellam. "The biggest thing is keeping the customer happy and making sure the specification is correct from when we take the initial order."
As well as increasing the efficiency of the production of blue light vehicles, having a UK-based operation means Vauxhall is able to source equipment locally - around 90% is currently acquired from around the UK - which again speeds up the conversion process.
Meanwhile, managing the purchasing in-house means greater buying power, which delivers significant savings too, as Ellam explains: "We've been so successful winning tenders because we control the complete process. We control the purchase of the parts and because we are a global manufacturer, we have good buying power and can pass these savings onto the customer."
Another benefit is around servicing and maintenance. Vauxhall runs a Blue Light Curriculum for its technicians in aftersales to make sure the cars can be easily serviced and maintained at the dealerships.
"The customer buys the car from us and it goes into our servicing and maintenance programme, not only for the car but for the equipment also. We run a Blue Light Curriculum for technicians so they know the product and how all the equipment works."
A one-stop shop
Vauxhall is so far the only manufacturer to offer a one-stop-shop for blue light vehicles. Everything is done in-house - from testing to converting and even remarketing of de-commissioned vehicles, an area Ellam is particularly keen to grow moving forwards.
"Because the Government made budget cuts, many of our blue light customers are finding that back-office staff have been reduced and they're looking for a birth-to-death scenario where they not only take the vehicle from us but also return it. We can then de-content it, take off the high-value components, fit to a new vehicle and then take the car to auction for them," says Ellam. "It's an area of the business that we want to grow, most definitely.
Although Vauxhall is currently the only manufacturer to offer such a complete service for blue light fleets, Ellam is keen to stay one step ahead of the competition and will look to introduce further innovations.
"We don't stand still because the competition will want to catch up and we must continue to look at innovation and optimising our production line down here. These are things we want to keep doing," he says.
A complete offering
The back offices of the nation's police, fire and ambulance services have been in consolidation for some time now, which has brought greater buying power for the blue light fleets and a reduction in admin costs to help meet budget cuts from the Government. But it does mean that winning tenders is even more difficult for car manufacturers, and without a complete service, like Vauxhall's offer, many fail to get the business.
The manufacturer is currently the biggest supplier of low and intermediate police cars and holds 60% of the market. High performance is the only area where Vauxhall cannot offer a product; however, when the new Insignia arrives next year, that will change.
Ellam is already preparing for the launch of the new Insignia and plans to launch a police version simultaneously when the new model comes to the UK.
"Because we interact with our main design platform, we already know the architecture of the vehicle and the body shape. We are already predetermining how the police equipment would fit in the new Insignia," Ellam tells granitekitchen. "My objective is that when the new car is launched, we will bring the police car out at the same time so there isn't a delay in the police ordering the vehicle."
Vauxhall has a range of demo vehicles available for its police customers, ranging from the Corsa to the Vivaro riot van, and Ellam plans to get a converted Insignia into operational demo service as soon as possible.
"We're going to give a number of Insignias converted to police standards to fleets that can put them into service because the police would never buy a vehicle without driving and evaluating it to make sure it's a good road-holding vehicle," he concludes. "Police vehicles are driven hard and used hard and they need to ensure that these cars are fit for purpose."
In the driver's seat
When granitekitchen visited Vauxhall's Luton site we were given a rare opportunity to get behind the wheel of a police car to see how it really differs from the standard Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer.
During the conversion process great care is taken when integrating the police equipment so it can be easily removed at the end of the cycle, thus limiting damage and helping to improve values at auction.
Inside, the standard infotainment system is removed to make way for a police radio and a switch panel that controls the sirens and other bespoke police controls. Also included is a data recorder, which captures information like the car's speed and when doors are opened to protect the police officer if their behaviour is called into question.
The cabin is actually quite basic in comparison with the standard car, and when you're behind the wheel you can easily forget that you're driving a police vehicle - until you notice the very good road manners of other drivers around you.
Besides the modifications to the brakes, the Astra Sports Tourer we drove had no alterations to the engine and performed exactly the same as the standard car. If we get the chance to get behind the wheel of the high-performance Insignia version when it arrives next year, that'll probably be a different story, though.