On the factory floor

Can an enthusiastic amateur keep up with seasoned professionals on the assembly line at a bus manufacturing plant in Musaffah?

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More than 20 minutes into a routine occupational health and safety briefing at my temporary workplace and the presentation has become comfortably reassuring. Bob McCulloch, the general manager, has already outlined the vision of my employer and explained all the corporate "bigger picture" stuff and now Edward Tezon, who is the firm's quality supervisor, is telling me about how the company I will be working for "is committed to a safe and healthy workplace". Sounds great, when can I start? I am sat in a bright upstairs office at Hafilat Industries bus manufacturing plant in Musaffah, outside Abu Dhabi. The office has picture windows that look out onto a dusty landscape speckled with signs of industry, and I must confess my mind is starting to wander, distracted by the view and thinking ahead to a first exchange of pleasantries with my new colleagues. Once Edward has finished this breeze through "occupational health and safety in the workplace" I will be joining the rest of the staff downstairs on a regular Thursday shift building a bus that, once completed, will be used on the roads of Abu Dhabi.

Only two years ago, this plant did not exist. It was a sandy outpost on an empty corner of the sprawling industrial zone. Now, a 10,000m2 purpose-built factory, or "shed", has risen from the dust and, inside, a band of 30 or more Filipino workers are engaged in a sometimes noisy, always industrious mission to manufacture vehicles that are as safe, modern and environmentally friendly as any other passenger bus on the roads, anywhere in the world.

This year, the factory will output more than 30 buses, and next year it is expected to produce up to 200 vehicles - each built to individual customer requirements. It is the misfortune of my co-workers to be joined for the day by a man who can competently screw together a moderately difficult piece of Ikea furniture, but whose attempts to hang a curtain rail usually end in marital discord. Without question, my DIY skills have a finite reach.

Oddly, it was flat-pack furniture that had brought me to the shed today, however bizarre that proposition may sound now. The starting point had been a conversation about Hafilat's manufacturing techniques with Iyad Al Ansari, one of the company's directors. "The buses are bolted together," he told me some time ago. Like a piece of Ikea flat-pack furniture?, I asked hopefully. "Yes, like a jigsaw puzzle. Only two matching pieces can be screwed together. Our manufacturing process is both systematic and accurate." I've been pestering him ever since to let me loose on the line.

By now though, back in the upstairs room, Edward's presentation has moved on to explaining the tasks I will be performing today: grinding, welding, framing, painting and, finally, quality checking the buses in production. It all sounded like fantastic fun until the briefing began to turn a little dark. Edward tells me that there should be no horseplay on the job (fair enough) before Bob warns me that it is my responsibility to advise my co-workers if I feel uncomfortable with the grinder or, for that matter, any other tools. "It's a dangerous piece of kit and could easily chop your hand off if it's used improperly," he says.

This is followed by some mutterings about the pitfalls of the torque wrench I'll be using in the framing section. In short, this is no easy-going operation and it's certainly not one that intends to be compromised by a temporary worker blustering his way through the day. While it manufactures in Abu Dhabi, Hafilat's methods have their roots in Australia and Europe. The company uses Co-Bolt, a manufacturing system developed by Hess of Switzerland, that joins a lightweight aluminium framework to a big-name chassis of the customer's choosing.

Usually this means the bus chassis is sourced from Mercedes-Benz, MAN, Scania or Volvo and then Hafilat builds the body on the chassis at the factory in Musaffah to the requirements of the customer. The frame is locked together, largely without welding, before being bolted to the chassis - which is where the slight comparisons to flat-pack furniture can be made. "It is almost the Ikea of buses," McCulloch tells me, "but not everyone can pick up a screwdriver and do it. The bus industry is still very much about custom-built products, so you need an extremely skilled workforce and substantial investment in the associated technology."

With the aforementioned aluminium frame in place, the finished bus is safer, lighter and stronger than a conventional steel bus and less likely to fail when put under the strain of continuous vibration - an occupational hazard for a working bus - than its counterpart. Most of the company's staff spent several months in Australia at one of the bus building plants owned by Volgren, Hafilat's commercial partner, immersing themselves in their manufacturing techniques, before starting on the line in Musaffah.

Both Volgren, and now Hafilat, have painstakingly forged a reputation for building buses of the highest safety standards that also meet the latest low carbon emissions tests. The technical partnership between the two companies also means Hafilat can lean on decades of expertise and standard operating procedures, which include a recording and tracking system that can identify if a fault enters the manufacturing process - like any bolts I may screw in badly.

With that cheery thought in mind it's time to pad down to the production floor where there are two buses under construction, a further five ready to begin production and one bus awaiting collection by the customer. The vehicle I will be working on is a prison bus that will be used to transport inmates. Once fully assembled, it will be equipped with a host of bespoke features including caged windows, PA system, surveillance cameras and easy-clean, wash-down seats, all of which comes at a price to the client not too dissimilar to an exotic Italian supercar.

And, just like that flashy, exclusive sports car, a Musaffah bus is a bespoke and relatively exclusive animal requiring huge chunks of time to build. In fact, each bus takes more than 1,000 man hours to move it up the line and out of the gates. Out in the vast emptiness of the middle of the factory floor, as I stand in the searing heat of the shed - the ambient temperature is in the high 30s and most of the guys on the line change clothes repeatedly during the day - it is quickly apparent I am out of my depth.

Jefferson O'Negranza, a welder, and Roehl Cruz, my supervisor, run through my first task, which is to grind parts of the steel chassis of one of the buses currently under construction. The staff use more than 100 technical drawings and countless manuals to build each bus, the data acting as a road map to move the project from embryonic chassis to fully completed vehicle. To my untrained eye these plans look simply baffling.

Fortunately Jeff and Roehl are exceptionally patient teachers, happy to tolerate my mistakes as I bumble my way through. Both are skilled workers who learnt their trade on the floor of a Toyota factory in the Philippines. Jeff's welding is a work of art, while mine is the crude effort of the amateur I am. Roehl meanwhile offers words of encouragement. They will, inevitably, correct my defective work when I am off the line.

Later I join Roderick Balla to frame a chassis and then Dante Rodrigo in Hafilat's vast paint shop, before spending the last part of my shift carrying out a final assembly inspection with Edward, the quality supervisor, by which time my head is spinning and my body struggles to cool down. Both literally and metaphorically, the heat of the line had got to me. I can't say I hadn't been warned, McCulloch had told me the day would be tough. "Although a bus is a relatively simple product, it is still complicated to manufacture. You need a lot of expertise to build one properly," he said.

The whole day has been a chastening experience, one that only serves to underline how manufacturing remains the work of largely unsung industrial artisans and is not, emphatically, the domain of the unskilled enthusiast. It is also impossible not to admire the product that rolls out of the factory here but, having caused enough havoc, I resolve to leave the experts to it. nmarch@thenational.ae