Why Renault is focusing on refurbishing cars

5 months, 4 weeks ago - 9 June 2022, autocar
Why Renault is focusing on refurbishing cars
The Renault Refactory is on course to recommission more than 25,000 used cars this year – including some made by rival manufacturers.

The large-scale refurbishment centre in Flins, near Paris, is in what was one of Renault’s largest new car production plants. It sources used vehicles from dealers within a 200-kilometre radius and readies them for resale.

The €8 million (£7m) project is one part of a redevelopment of the 232-hectare facility. It was opened in 1952 and once home to manufacturing of the Renault Dauphine, 4, 5, Clio and Twingo, among others, and still makes around half of Europe’s Renault Zoes and Nissan Micras as its owner seeks to preserve employment in the region while it moves new car manufacturing to more cost-effective plants.

Other initiatives housed within its perimeter – which in 1957 played host to a state visit from the Queen – include projects to give electric car batteries a second life for energy storage, the development of hydrogen vans and a car breaking plant, with parts then stored for use in the refurbishment of the used cars. The facility also features innovation and study centres, including 3D printing facilities and an EV training ‘university’. As well as Renault’s own projects it is open for use for everyone from OEMs to start-ups looking to play a role in what is being dubbed the ‘circular economy of sustainable mobility’.

The used car refurbishment centre – working under the name Re-Trofit – takes up 11,000 square metres of space and processes around 55 vehicles an hour, employing around 170 people. Already that figure is twice what it launched with in September last year, with the workforce now working two shifts rather than one. The eventual goal is to run three shifts and turn around 45,000 cars a year – and, if that’s a success, to create a mirror facility on site and potentially ramp up to double that figure in time. It is not unique – Toyota last year opened a similar facility in Burnaston, Derbyshire – but it is very much at the forefront of manufacturer thinking on extending the life – and profitability – of vehicles.

“Think of it as a big factory doing the work that dealers typically undertake on a much smaller scale,” explains Gilles Mériadec, the business director for the facility and a 32-year employee of Renault with a background in running dealerships. “Today our goal is to prove that we can do that job to a higher quality and lower cost because of our specialisms and scale. Today we are breaking even, but in time we must make profit to survive.”

Cars are brought to Flins by truck, and it is this cost that will make or break the project, says Mériadec. “Transport costs are our enemy, because a dealer would typically do this work locally in their own facilities. We have to make up that deficit by being much more efficient in other areas; 200km is really our outer limit.”

Cars are typically two to five years or up to 100,000km old, although the site also looks after a fleet of short-term subscription Dacia Spring electric cars that are rented out, and bashed up, on the streets of Paris by the Zity brand. On arrival they are subjected to a range of checks, from performance through to paintwork.

Delivery and inspection takes two days on average, parts ordering and subsequent repairs six and the return transport a further two. Crucially, however, at the end of the process the factory places each car in a photo booth for a ten- minute automated shoot that produces 196 images that are turned into five 360deg videos and 41 pictures. These are uploaded to the dealer so the car can go on sale online immediately, and all just eight days after being sent away. The industry average at a dealership is 21 days.

“The time saving is enormous, and that is one of the largest benefits we deliver,” says Mériadec. “The move to leasing – accelerated by the sale of more electric cars – means that a lot of vehicles are returned to dealers in large quantities at quite frequent intervals. These cars tend to join a queue to be re-prepared for sale, where they take up space and manpower.

By sending their cars to us dealerships can put that time and space towards more profitable enterprises while we get the cars ready.” So far, Mériadec estimates the cost of labour in Flins to work out at €36 (£31) an hour – a significant saving on the average dealership cost of €48 (£41). Once all costs are factored in he reckons the saving to a dealer to be 15%, which goes some way to explaining why the facility is dealing with an increasing amount of stock. He is also at pains to point out the quality of the work and facilities, the factory’s scale allowing it to justify investment in the very best equipment and training.

“The typical repair costs are €600-900 (£510-767) per car, and of course we have had to prove our value to dealers,” says Mériadec. “But I think we are already there, because the savings are evident and the quality of work exceptional. We didn’t set up to take over their business but to make it more efficient. Nor was it our goal that cars prepared by us should be resold at a higher price, although they are signposted as having been worked on here; we do not want to undermine our dealers, to the extent that we even buy our spares through them so as not to undermine that business.

“In France today a vehicle is owned for an average of eight years. In the future we anticipate that will be less than three years. The throughput of cars will triple. There is no way the dealers could cope with that without adding huge investment.”

Cars from rival manufacturers now account for 14% of the intake, typically having been taken in as part- exchange. “As in any garage, our technicians can work on any car,” says Mériadec. The long-term plan is to scale up the facility, as well as opening mirror operations of differing scales in parts of the world with a similar level of dealer hubs. Seville, Spain, is next on the list, followed by Turkey and Portugal, and Mériadec sees huge efficiencies as each new facility is set up. “Going first is always harder,” he says. “Every unit we now open has a blueprint.”

That ‘circular economy’ is set to play a larger part. Already the parts breaking facility, Gaia, is supplying spares, and the 3D printing arm has been called into action. “We had a Dacia Duster with a broken string to support the boot cover,” Mériadec says. “Normally we’d source an entire new cover, but Gaia got us the string.”

Likewise, he recounts a Renault Zoe with a broken seat lever that would normally have required a whole new seat; instead the specific spare part was 3D printed. “We are on a voyage of discovery,” says Mériadec. “One we can only learn so fast with because we are actually doing it. Think about the future and the opportunities we have: subscription cars will need refurbishing more regularly, electric cars are more likely to be leased, in time we will have tens of thousands of electric car batteries to reuse or recycle. Cars and their parts can have second and third lives. That is undoubtedly better for the planet – and I hope for the workers of Flins, too.”

New life for old EV batteries

The first swathe of EV batteries are only just reaching the end of their useful life, so it’s no surprise that innovations for giving them a second life are still emerging.

One example is the betterGen, a portable generator that makes use of battery cells taken from Renault Fluences and Kangoos to provide emission and noise-free energy for use in ways that traditional generators can’t match, from powering boats on lakes, to charging power tools, including indoors without fumes, to running catering trucks without the smell of diesel impinging.

A battery is deemed to have reached the end of its usefulness in a car when it reaches 70% capacity, which is typically at 10-15 years old. They are then expected to last another 5-10 years before being recycled. The betterGen is made by betterPack, which works in a partnership with Renault.

The market for second-life batteries is expected to get more competitive, especially with raw material prices rising and new applications being created, but for now Renault hopes to use the fact that it initially focused on leasing them with its cars – and therefore retaining ownership of the packs – to its advantage as it explores ways of putting the cells back to work after their time in a car is done.

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