The World’s Most Intelligent Business Sedan at the Starting Line


World premiere of the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class on January 11, 2016 in Detroit. The market launch will be in the spring. Klaus Zehender is Head of Procurement & Supplier Quality (MP). We spoke with him. About the suppliers' contribution and the critical phase of the ramp-up.

The world public has already been allowed to see the new E-Class but not to drive it. What about you, Mr. Zehender, have you already taken a few turns with it?

Zehender: Yes, of course. I have already driven with camouflaged prototypes in many different regions. And, since we will be taking on a pioneering role in autonomous driving with the new E-Class, I have also let go of the steering wheel a few times.

Dr. Klaus Zehender
Klaus Zehender, Executive Vice President Mercedes-Benz Cars Procurement & Supplier Quality.

Is that allowed?

Zehender: Well, yes, on the test track. In public traffic not everything can be realized at this point. Because the car is smarter than the registration authorities will allow. But this will change quickly enough. As a pioneer, you’re the one to ride ahead and explore the terrain. And then, at some point everybody will ride behind you. Including the lawmaker.

But, what do we do with a car that can drive autonomously but is not allowed to?

Zehender: In principle, the board computer can be adapted to the current legislation. The car already brakes independently for pedestrians and crossing vehicles from the factory. And, in the event of an impending collision, the E-Class supports the driver for an avoidance maneuver if he signals his intent to avoid the collision with a steering impulse. In the absence of a steering impulse, the system tries to avoid the accident by applying the brakes to the fullest extent.

The new E-Class is ready and waiting with a great number of innovations. To what extent are customers prepared to pay for all this?

Zehender: For the customer, it’s quite simple: He gets more car for almost the same money. Who can say no to that? A key element in this was that from the very start we made great technological strides through high-priced investments together with the suppliers. With the clear goal of: higher functionality at lower costs. This would not have been possible without our collaborative approach. It only works when we pull in the same direction with our suppliers.

Pulling in the same direction, getting suppliers on board early on. How long have you been working on model series 213?

Zehender: We go back a few years in this. The first contracts were already awarded in 2009 and their number had reached a total of more than 1000 by 2014. Not only for the Sindelfingen production site but also for China and India, as well as for AMG. After the sourcing, we were active as a permanent companion for our suppliers, key word “VDA-RGA Process”. Long before the start of production we already tested whether the supplier can deliver in the required top quality. We have tested whether the tool is at the site and have done the “Run-at-Rate-Tests” in order to determine if the machinery can produce the required capacities under full utilization. This is the activity area of our 400 quality engineers who are working around the world.

E-Class design
Tenth-generation E-Class delivers stylish highlights with its distinct, emotive design.

To what extent has the digital transformation led to changes in the vehicle?

Zehender: In recent years it has already been seen that shorter product cycles in the digital area create new challenges for us. We currently have around 1500 suppliers worldwide. This number has remained very constant in recent years. However, the supplier set itself has changed. It is to be expected that it will continue to change. For this, we are actively engaged in innovation scouting. Not only at the well-known trade shows like the IAA or the CES, because for the first time we were also represented at Korea’s largest automotive show, the KOAA Show in Seoul. Incidentally, as the only premium manufacturer. There, we were on the lookout for innovative suppliers from the area of electronics. We are also keeping an eye out for small startups. These are pioneers, they explore new territory and provide us with important impulses for innovations.

E-Class interior
Also the interior of the new business saloon is characterized by its distinct, emotive design.

The SOP, or start of production for the E-Class is coming up soon. You are now in the middle of the ramp-up, so it can be assumed that the work of MP is thus coming to an end.

Zehender: Certainly not. Our suppliers are now in a crucial phase. All parts have to be delivered not only in the required top quality but also in the right quantity and at the right time. This means that our suppliers are subjected to continuous monitoring. This is where our collaborative approach is called for as well. If a supplier should encounter some problems, we expect immediate notification. Together, we can always find a solution. But only if something can be done at the right time.

And how does the ramp-up work?

Zehender: There are always some minor snags in this phase. That’s unavoidable. But we have enough experience with ramp-ups. In particular for the E-Class and the T-Model station wagon, of which we have sold more than 13 million units in total. Now, it’s about getting around 2 million parts on the line every day. This can only work with the joint efforts of the colleagues from Development and Production and, most of all, with the support of our suppliers.

Mr. Zehender, thank you very much for the interview. We wish you great success!

Jan 25, 2016
Rasmus Muttscheller