As well as the devastating impact on the local community with the loss of 2,300 jobs, GM’s announced intention to close its Opel plant in Antwerp, Belgium by the middle of the year has left questions hanging over material and finished vehicle flows across the carmaker’s other European plants.
The closure of the plant, which built close to 90,000 Astras in 2009, as well as components, brings into question how the movement of finished vehicle volumes at the consolidation centre at the port of Antwerp will now be affected. Other important logistics trade lanes that stand to be impacted include the rail movements of Opel components to other Opel factories that are currently made at the plant.
The company would not comment on the logistics implications and said it was too early to discuss such matters. “We have announced our intent to close the plant, not a final decision,” said a company spokesperson. “Until we have a final decision, I would not want to speculate about what might happen.”
However, Transport Intelligence analyst Thomas Cullen speculated that the first effect it could have is on the Othello rail service which links plants in Spain (Zaragoza), Germany, Austria and Hungary through Antwerp.
“If Vectra/Insignia and Corsa production in particular is concentrated at just one plant each this surely will have an impact [on the rail service],” he told Automotive Logistics News.
GM estimates that the Western European car market in 2010 is expected to be 1.5m vehicles below 2009 levels and almost 4m below its peak in 2007. It has said that the Opel division needs to reduce capacity by approximately 20%.
At this early stage the main logistics providers supporting movements of vehicles from the plant are reticent on the implications for their business of the closure and the reduction in capacity in Europe.
NYK, which moves GM vehicles by sea out of the ports of Antwerp and Zeebrugge, would only say that “commercial sensitivities” prevented further comment at this stage.
The one chink of light to emerge for logistics operators is that traffic to other plants will be strengthened. Ulrich Selders, managing director at Ewals Cargo Care, which won a GM Supplier Of The Year for 2008, and has its main business with Vauxhall operations in the UK, told Automotive Logistics News that traffic to and from Antwerp handled by his company has been decreasing recently in favour of movement to other GM plants. “The overall reshuffle of production volumes within GM Europe will certainly strengthen this process,” he said.
“Nevertheless, the decision to close Opel Antwerp will have an impact on flows within the Gebietsspedition [regional transport plan], and we are in the process of analysing how to locally adopt to the new situation.”
Questions also arise over the future of Opel’s consolidation facility at the Port of Antwerp if the closure of the plant spells a long-term distribution strategy based on a one plant, one model basis.
“[The consolidation centre’s] purpose is to centralise inventory of finished vehicles but with less complex flows this might not be necessary,” said Cullen “That said, GM is said to be launching 30+ new models so things still might be complicated.”
Another factor that works in favour for the Port of Antwerp is that it is also a hub for imports from GM Daewoo/Chevrolet imports from South Korea, which may increase following a closure of the plant. GM’s decision to move the planned new ‘small SUV’ to its South Korean plant was a decisive factor in the planned closure. 
At a press conference held last week, GM Europe CEO Nick Reilly said the situation regarding production of the SUV had changed substantially since initial plans to make it at the Antwerp plant were announced.
"Our projections of how many SUVs have gone down – we are tooling up for that vehicle elsewhere, specifically in Korea,” he told journalists.
"We can cope with the volume in Europe and other parts of the world from the investment we are making in Korea – it is not economic to pay twice for the tooling. The commitment to an SUV was genuine, but these plans have to change."
Belgian unions are suing Opel for breaching a contract with their workers. "The relocation of the agreed small SUV models is the only reason for the intended closure of Antwerp...There is a pending lawsuit on this matter filed by the unions of Antwerp," Opel's European works council said in a statement yesterday.
As one plant goes down, another is saved
In other GM-related news, the company has reached a tentative deal to sell Saab to Dutch sports carmaker Spyker for $74m in cash and a further $326m in preferred shares. The deal, which is expected to close next month, immediately halts GM’s wind down of Saab operations. Spyker has said it plans to continue to build vehicles at Saab’s Trollhattan plant in Sweden, where GM will supply powertrain components for several years.
Spyker CEO Victor Muller, speaking at an Automotive News conference last month, said he planned to increase Saab production as well as increase the production of Spyker cars.