Currently reading: Land Rover Defender: The story behind the 4x4's production
The Defender has finally been reinvented for the 21st century – and so has the way it’s built. We pay a visit to JLR’s new plant in Nitra, Slovakia, to learn more
Rachel Burgess
News
6 mins read
29 February 2020

When production of the Defender ended in 2016, it felt like the end of an era. Never before had such an impressive send-off been organised, as the world’s press gathered at Jaguar Land Rover’s Solihull plant to watch the last example roll off the line after 68 years of production.

Four years later and following much hype, the all-new Defender is here, billed to be as tough as ever but with on-road comfort too. And it’s being built at a new plant in another country: Slovakia.

The factory in Nitra has been up and running since October 2018, when it began building the Discovery, which also relocated from Solihull. A bit like Nitra’s operations director, in fact: Russell Leslie is a friendly Brummie who moved to Slovakia after 26 years working around the world for JLR, including managing the Defender line. He explains that getting production moving at Nitra was easier than usual, because the Discovery already had an established engineering process, but now the real challenge begins: “The eyes of the world are on us. We’re hugely proud to be building the Defender.”

Of course, some purists cried foul that the new model isn’t being built in Britain. Leslie comments: “We’re on a global expansion journey. We’re committed to the UK as our design and engineering base. We needed to find space in the factories in the UK for future products and therefore there was a need to move. And actually this [plant] gives us access to markets we didn’t have before, and it helps with currency fluctuations.”

At two million square feet, the purpose-built facility is almost twice the size of the Solihull plant and has clearly been a boon for the area; miles of perfectly smooth new roads lead here, passing a host of supplier factories. The figures back it up: local unemployment has fallen drastically. JLR employs 2800 people, more than a third of them women – unusually high for a vehicle plant. Its processes were ergonomically designed, it says, so 97% of people can do the job.

Nitra has an annual capacity of 150,000 cars; last year, around 38,000 Discoverys came off the line, plus up to 2000 Defenders. JLR won’t comment on volume predictions, but the fact the site is at just a quarter of its capacity suggests there’s an awful lot resting on the new Defender.

Leslie says: “We always build facilities with a three-shift capacity [there are two shifts at present]. You have to design a facility to enable a certain jobs-per-hour rate. We have what we believe we need for both today and tomorrow.”

As well as the Discovery, Nitra is set up for the 90 and 110 wheelbases alone, but a family of Defenders is coming. Due in the next few years is a Mercedes-AMG G63-rivalling luxury model, the 130. This will be crucial in creating a cost-effective and profitable model line – a feat the previous generation failed to achieve.

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The Discovery and Defender run on the same line, back to back, and there’s total flexibility on how many of each is built. Leslie explains: “There are nuances of the cars being slightly different. For example, we purchase the Discovery’s tailgate and make the Defender’s tailgate. But in general, we drive for a standard process in order to drive efficiency on the manufacturing lines. We put the seats in both cars in the same station, for example.”

This high-tech site is a world away from the line in the West Midlands, but what are the main differences in producing the old and new Defender?

“The technology is significantly different,” explains Leslie. “We build both Defender and Discovery in a bodyshop with 642 robots. I don’t know how many we had in the Defender bodyshop back in the day, but it was probably single figures.

“There’s a highly technical paintshop now with environmentally friendly kit and the trim hall is worlds apart from the one I used to run back in Solihull. All in all, [the old and new production lines] are almost like chalk and cheese.”

Among a number of firsts for JLR in Nitra is an innovative conveyor belt, running through the bodyshop, that’s most easily explained as using similar technology to a maglev train. This marks the first European use of the Kuka Pulse, which is claimed to move parts 30% faster than traditional set-ups, able as it is to run at a hasty 3.7m per second.

The system helps to transport 400 parts that together form the shell of the car. The first major step is assembling the underbody, bodysides and roof header, creating a box that’s instantly recognisable as the Defender. Bodyshop director Christian Classon says: “Everything here has to be perfect to half a millimetre of accuracy. It takes two minutes to put a bodyshell together.”

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To achieve the required stiffness in the aluminium structure (and this Defender is claimed to comfortably be the stiffest Land Rover yet), 3600 rivets are used, plus 170 metres of glue. Classon comments: “The beauty of building an aluminium structure is that it’s cleaner and quieter than welding shops. But riveting is very sensitive; it’s not as forgiving as the welding process.”

The only human-led part of the bodyshop is the cladding line, on which the doors, fenders, bonnet and boot door are applied. Finally, the car goes to be checked. “There are three stations to rectify any issues,” says Classon. “In the UK, the line is much longer, so we’re proud because we have to get it right first time.”

Bypassing the paintshop, it’s time to head to the trim and final hall – easily the largest, at 134,000 square metres. The first job here is removing the vehicle’s doors so that workers can easily fit the interior. But far more mesmerising is a glass-fitting robot that lifts, glues and places a sunroof in less than a minute.

Trim and final director Ulas Bagci walks us through the major stages, including where the engine and radiator are fitted. “This is where the body finds its soul,” he says.

At each of the 250 stations in his hall, there’s a subtle yellow cord. Pull it once if you need help from your team leader, twice to stop the line. “Stopping a line when you have two minutes per job is very serious,” warns Bagci. But the biggest challenge of the build process, he says, is “bottlenecks in electronics because of its complexity. Everything is electronic.”

Leslie concludes: “Launching a new car is always an experience. Launching it in a new country with a new team? It’s a bumpy road. You learn lessons as you go. The Defender was designed and engineered in the UK, but this is the first time we’ve put a new car into a new factory. But we’re on target; we’re on the ramp-up curve exactly where we should be.”

As our tour ends, hundreds of workers arrive for the shift change, fresh off seven buses paid for by JLR. There’s not yet public transport to get workers to the site. Conversations are ongoing with the local council to rectify that, but having witnessed how perfectly choreographed the whole production process must be, you’d hope Slovakian public transport is more punctual than our own…

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The automotive impact on Slovakia

What comes to mind when Slovakia is mentioned? Maybe beer or castles, but probably not the car industry. Yet, remarkably, since 2007, this central European country has been the world’s biggest producer of cars per capita. Last year, 202 cars were produced per 1000 inhabitants, with a total of 1.1 million vehicles built.

Alongside Jaguar Land Rover, other big players include Kia, the PSA Group and the Volkswagen Group, which builds the Volkswagen Up and luxury SUVs including the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne there.

The car industry is estimated to generate around 275,000 jobs. In Nitra, an area eligible for regional state aid, the unemployment rate has dropped from 11.2% in December 2015 to 2.1% in December 2019, making it the lowest in the land.

Once an agricultural country, Slovakia can now thank vehicle makers for half of its total industry.

READ MORE

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New £25k Land Rover to be followed by luxo-Defender 

New Defender makes UK debut at Goodwood Revival

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Comments
20

29 February 2020

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

29 February 2020
These are going to be fantastically built Land Rovers. You have a new, clean, factory with motivated workers. All the advantages to get the product built to the highest of standards.

The United Kingdom could learn from this.

29 February 2020
scrap wrote:

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

Lets hope, as mentioned in the article its all electronics... and its far from unusual to find a Range Rover stuck at the side of the road mechanically fine.. but a computer says no.

29 February 2020
The Apprentice wrote:
scrap wrote:

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

Lets hope, as mentioned in the article its all electronics... and its far from unusual to find a Range Rover stuck at the side of the road mechanically fine.. but a computer says no.

And when they do they can help BMW build their cars so as they're more dependable and not the bottom of the surveys

29 February 2020
scrap wrote:

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

I think that's a question for autocar to look into. We know they build unreliable products but the post below yours blaming the workforce is why the UK ended up where it did, an inability to root cause problems when instead you can blame the workforce.

Is it down to poor design ie wiring harnesses too complex or poor materials ie cheap connectors or is it poor tooling or lack of training or a shortage of QC engineers (I could go on). The book 'the machine that changed the world's was a fantastic explainer for how the Japanese built quality cars. Time to understand how a quality car is built today.

29 February 2020
scrap wrote:

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

Have you driven anything German recently? JLR quality and reliability is easily on par.

29 February 2020
scrap wrote:

Here's the question we all want to know: can they build it properly? JLR has an awful reputation for quality.

... don't build your hopes up.

29 February 2020
I thought this and read that both BMW and Audi has worst reliability in the UK last year, this shocked me with the perceived reputation for build quality that the German car brands actually have.

29 February 2020

I'd love a proper analysis of why production moved to Slovakia from the motoring press. Something that actually goes beyond 'Brexit' and 'lower wages'. 

I'm interested in the factors beyond the simplistic - the logistics issues, access to skilled labour, planning permission and local laws that impact on the decision to move a plant. Are labour laws an actual issue when deciding the location or is tax an issue.

I'm not wanting any answers below the line as it's the internet and I'm interested in facts rather than opinions but I'd love some real journalism telling us why car factories are built where they are.

I'm prepared for the answer to be Brexit and lower wages if that the truth...

29 February 2020
SamVimes1972 wrote:

I'd love a proper analysis of why production moved to Slovakia from the motoring press. Something that actually goes beyond 'Brexit' and 'lower wages'. 

I'm interested in the factors beyond the simplistic - the logistics issues, access to skilled labour, planning permission and local laws that impact on the decision to move a plant. Are labour laws an actual issue when deciding the location or is tax an issue.

I'm not wanting any answers below the line as it's the internet and I'm interested in facts rather than opinions but I'd love some real journalism telling us why car factories are built where they are.

I'm prepared for the answer to be Brexit and lower wages if that the truth...

Lower wages, cheaper land and building costs, less union involvement and local/EU incentives, absolutely nothing to do with Brexit.

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