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Interview with Thomas Ulbrich E-Car Production: “This Is a First in Europe”

Author / Editor: Thomas Günnel / Alexander Stark

Volkswagen is converting its plant in Zwickau/Mosel: It is to be the Group’s first plant to exclusively manufacture electric vehicles in large numbers - a strong signal for e-mobility. In an interview, Thomas Ulbrich, Member of the Board of Management for E-Mobility at Volkswagen and Managing Director of Volkswagen Saxony, talks about the underlying motives.

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Thomas Ulbrich, Member of the Board of Management for E-Mobility at Volkswagen and Managing Director of Volkswagen Saxony: "We want to help the electric car achieve a global breakthrough."
Thomas Ulbrich, Member of the Board of Management for E-Mobility at Volkswagen and Managing Director of Volkswagen Saxony: "We want to help the electric car achieve a global breakthrough."
(Source: Volkswagen)

Mr Ulbrich, instead of making all plants more flexible, Volkswagen is electrifying certain locations. In Zwickau/Mosel only e-vehicles will leave the assembly line from 2021: What led to the decision to radically restructure the site?

Volkswagen has always stood for making progress and innovation affordable for many people. We are now striving to do the same in the world of electromobility: We want to make electric cars attractive for as many people as possible and help the technology to achieve a global breakthrough. So we are not talking about niche models, but about bestsellers produced in large numbers - and these are best produced in a pure electric car factory. In Zwickau, we have 7,700 competent and committed employees with a lot of experience in car building.

What does the conversion mean for the suppliers (in Saxony)? Are they prepared for electric mobility in order to continue working with you? To what extent do you involve suppliers in your "Transformation E"?

We're not transforming the plant from one day to the next. We already made the decision for the conversion in 2017. The first "ID." will roll off the production line at the end of 2019. And from 2021, Zwickau will be a pure e-location. So, our suppliers have enough lead time and planning security, they know the timetable and can prepare for the new e-age just like we do. For some suppliers, of course, the transformation also involves changed tasks because old components are gradually eliminated, and new e-components are required. But there's also a chance: Four new supplier sites are currently being built around the Zwickau plant. For us, it is important to approach transformation in dialog with our partners.

The keyword is smart factory. To what extent does the production of electric vehicles differ from the previous production? What concrete approaches do you apply and what results do you expect?

This depends very much on the respective production area. While there have been major innovations in assembly, it makes hardly any difference in the paint shop whether you paint a conventional car or an electric car. Therefore, we don't have to learn everything from scratch for the ID. family, but can build on our decades of experience in automotive engineering. Basically, we will use the conversion to upgrade the plant to the latest standards in automation and digitalization. This not only reduces process times, but also relieves our employees of physically heavy and ergonomically unfavorable tasks.

How well are the established OEMs positioned? How large was and is the joint development effort required for new systems relating to electric vehicle production? Can you give examples?

Our partners in plant engineering are well prepared for the new e-age. In large parts of the production process, the production of an electric vehicle follows the same systematic approach as that of a vehicle with a combustion engine - let's take the example of body construction or the paint shop mentioned earlier. During the conversion to the new MEB technology, we are using a higher degree of mechanization in Zwickau - and thus deal with higher quantities. We have already exchanged ideas with our plant suppliers at eye level in the early project phase of the conversion. Our main objective is to achieve the next evolutionary stage of high mechanization in automotive engineering by resorting to MEB.

How much does production change with regard to manufacturing processes? Are processes now also being used that did not previously exist in mass production, e.g. additive manufacturing?

With the first generation of MEB vehicles, a rather evolutionary change in manufacturing processes will take place at the start of production in late 2019. Our objective is to establish a stable ramp-up of production. We are therefore working on modern applications in the field of human-robot collaboration - or on novel sensor technology. More disruptive changes beyond these processes, such as additive manufacturing, are currently not yet compatible with our quality standards as a volume manufacturer. I simply do not yet consider these procedures suitable for mass production. It is precisely for this reason that we will certainly not lose sight of this modern production approach in the next three to four years.

What were the biggest challenges so far in converting the plant to the exclusive production of electric vehicles?

Zwickau constitutes the first complete conversion of a large automobile factory to e-mobility. We are therefore doing pioneering work in many respects, which will benefit us at the other E-locations within the Group. A particular challenge is the conversion during operation: Parallel to setting up ID. production, manufacturing of the Golf Variant will continue until mid-2020. That's why we planned the conversion very carefully. Preparation is a crucial aspect for such a mega-project. So far, everything is going according to plan.

The modular e-drive system needs less complexity compared to platforms for vehicles with internal combustion engines. How does this affect the number of employees in production?

Basically, the amount of work involved in the production of electric cars is considerably smaller. At the same time, however, we are increasing the maximum daily capacity at the Zwickau location from currently 1,350 to up to 1,500 vehicles. In addition, six MEB models of three brands will be produced there in the future, making Zwickau a multi-brand location. The bottom line is that employment in Zwickau remains largely stable.

The ID. is intended to be the first vehicle to be CO2-neutral across the entire supply and manufacturing chain. Can you give examples of how this works - especially with regard to the production of battery cells?

The electric car is basically the best and most efficient way to ensure climate-neutral mobility. It is important to ensure that CO2 is avoided or reduced during the manufacturing process. With the ID. we want to show that clean mobility is possible. In Europe, for example, very energy-intensive cell production will be carried out using green electricity. In vehicle production, the Zwickau plant already relies on external electricity from renewable sources, including the hydroelectric power plant in Kaprun. The unavoidable emissions we end up with will be offset by investments in certified CO2 offset projects.

The questions were asked by Thomas Günnel. / Translation by Alexander Stark

This article was first published by Automobil Industrie.

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