The new Mercedes-Benz Vans plant in North Charleston was already ahead of schedule as it opened Wednesday, with the first Sprinter commercial van rolling off the assembly line a year earlier than planned.
"It is agile and adaptive and can respond faster to market changes and customer needs," Volker Mornhinweg, head of the van division for German vehicle maker Daimler, said of the $500 million campus in Palmetto Commerce Park.
Case in point: Online retail giant Amazon recently quadrupled the number of North Charleston-made Sprinters it's buying.
Building 20,000 vans for a single customer over the coming year illustrates the company's ability to seize opportunity, Mornhinweg said, while declining to specify exactly how many Sprinters the North Charleston site can turn out on an annual basis. Last year, Mercedes-Benz Vans sold about 44,000 Sprinters in the U.S. and Canadian markets.
The third-generation Sprinter that will be built in North Charleston is the company's most technologically advanced, with internet connectivity, fleet management software and other features that can be customized to each buyer's needs. With a base price of about $25,000, the vans will be available in more than 1,700 configurations for various commercial uses.
The plant itself is state of the art, featuring driverless transport systems that communicate with one another through Bluetooth technology while moving parts and equipment through the facility. The position of each van's specific components can be pinpointed through radio-frequency identification technology. The massive paper trail associated with manufacturing has been replaced by digital communication.
The new site also includes the technology needed to produce all-electric vehicles, although Mornhinweg said there isn't enough demand for such vans in the U.S. to make production feasible just yet.
"We believe it will take a while," he said, adding the technology is more popular in Europe, where an electric Sprinter will be produced next year.
Mercedes-Benz Vans has been at the North Charleston site since 2006, but this is the first time the company will build vans from scratch. Until now, all Sprinters sold in the U.S. have been built in Germany and then disassembled and sent to North Charleston for reassembly — an effort to avoid a 25 percent tariff on European-made light trucks.
As Sprinter sales took off in America, Mercedes-Benz Vans started looking for a full-fledged manufacturing site, eventually settling on its North Charleston location in 2015. Groundbreaking followed a year late on a project that more than triples the previous site, with new body and paint shops and expanded assembly and administrative buildings.
Building Sprinters in the U.S. costs less money than reassembling them, and vans can get to customers in weeks rather than months.
There was plenty competition for the new plant, Mornhinweg said, but North Charleston had the most advantages.
"First, we have the deep-sea harbor pretty close," he said of the Port of Charleston. "From a logistical perspective, it's an outstanding opportunity. "Second, we had a great foundation here, with good support from South Carolina and North Charleston and 150 to 160 team members already in place. Those were very good arguments to stay in South Carolina and invest half a billion dollars."
Hiring is also ahead of schedule, with about 900 of the 1,300 people who will eventually work at the plant already on site. Most of them attended Wednesday's event, participating in a sports stadium-style "wave" as the plant's first Sprinter — sporting an Amazon logo — was driven onstage.
"Our employees really are the heart and soul of this facility," Michael Balke, who is in charge of operations at the new plant, told the workers. "I know that each and every one of you has dedicated a lot of long days and hard work into this new Sprinter. It's taken all of our individual contributions to bring our team to this day of celebration."