Adapting the Henry Ford model: How military vehicle manufacturers customize production

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates ― Step into an automotive manufacturing plant in the United Arab Emirates and vehicles are rolling down the production line with wire harnesses, side rails, and handles as the paint booth illuminates one end. While the plant operates like a commercial factory, military vehicles are in the works instead.

That’s because defense manufacturers are mirroring commercial manufacturers’ assembly lines to become more efficient and cut costs in an increasingly crowded armored vehicle manufacturing industry. Parts are delivered directly to the line site in sequence, eliminating inefficiencies such as time and labor spent retrieving parts from warehouses.

“We build these vehicles and we apply the same manufacturing processes that an OEM vehicle manufacturer would apply to a Range Rover or a BMW – just-in-time deliveries, just-in-sequence deliveries … all of the usual efficiency applications that OEMs would use,” said David Perry, operations director at NIMR Automotive.

“A typical commercial automotive plant has each vehicle move down the production line. The parts go to a fixed station, and the vehicle progresses down the line and the parts are built upon the vehicle as it goes,” Perry said.

“What we’re really trying to do here is create an automotive environment rather than duplicate an old-style defense environment,” Perry said.

The need to customize

There is a distinction from the typical Ford assembly line model, however, considering commercial manufacturers mass produce their vehicles, while defense makers deliver fully customized vehicles with assembly lines that roll them out at far lower rates. NIMR’s production facility in Abjan, Abu Dhabi, for example, has three assembly lines for up to 5 vehicles to be produced, tested, and delivered every day.

“We need added flexibility because we might be making contracts of 40 of this, 50 of that. We need to be able to make different vehicles down different lines,” Perry said. “So we wouldn’t necessarily try to operate to a balanced capacity. What instead we try to is … balance the flow; we work on [eliminating] the bottlenecks.”

So what’s the key to getting rid of those bottlenecks? Local suppliers.

“Given where we are … it’s in our interest to develop [capabilities] locally so that we don’t have the supply chain [or] the inventory tied up in three months’ worth of shipping volumes,” Perry said.

As the UAE comes off its oil and gas high and faces ever more pressure to find its next-largest driver of economic growth, its procurement division has become increasingly selective. Defense vehicle manufacturers, meanwhile, are seeing great benefits from that. The government is focusing on creating a highly skilled local labor force for a more lucrative domestic defense industry. For armored vehicle makers, that means greater access to local suppliers, which will increase efficiency and build new capabilities.

“We are trying to be ready for the post-oil era with emphasis on products that are made in the UAE by UAE hands,” Saif Al Hajeri, former CEO of Tawazun Economic Council, said at the Global Manufacturing and Industrialization Summit in Abu Dhabi in March. “That is the main driver for Tawazun, and other entities are also pushing in that direction.”

“It was difficult to convince and bring the locals to the floor to operate machines. Using locals as assemblers, technicians and others was new. But it has grown very quickly. The more locals you have, the more [will come]. It’s a snowball effect,” he said.

The Tawazun Economic Council, created in 1992, oversees the UAE offset program by driving partnerships and joint ventures with international defense contractors. Tawazun Holding, the TEC’s strategic investment arm, is a shareholder in EDIC, established in 2014 in to localize the UAE’s defense supplies. NIMR, the UAE’s first military automotive vehicle maker and second-largest defense vehicle manufacturer in the Gulf, is a subsidiary of EDIC.

NIMR’s announcement at Abu Dhabi’s International Defense Exhibition in February that it would manufacture over 1,750 combat vehicles for the country’s armed forces indicates the UAE’s confidence in its domestic manufacturers’ know how. “The UAE’s decision to expand its current fleet of NIMR-made vehicles is testament to the standards and increased capability [of] our products,” NIMR Chief Executive Officer Fahad Harhara said.

Further, expanding the global market share of defense automotive manufacturers in the UAE at lower costs while growing their innovative practices provides local suppliers with the expertise to ensure the manufacturers’ vehicles are kept running.

“Part of [localization and offsets] is formed [by] enabling the local partner to do all of the long-term, in-country logistics support – providing the maintenance, servicing, spare parts, as well as the ongoing training for the user,” Miles Chambers, NIMR’s senior international business executive, said.

“That gives the user the confidence that they really do have a product that is localized and that they have their local support base formed,” Chambers said. “So by using innovative manufacturing processes, introducing best-practice commercial automotive practices, it allows us to be really competitive with our marketspace.”

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