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Manufacturing of Electric Cars - Will Everything Change?

| Author/ Editor: Thomas Günnel / Alexander Stark

Volkswagen is converting its plant in Zwickau/Mosel: It will be the group’s first plant to exclusively manufacture electric vehicles in large numbers. Other OEMs produce models with combustion engine and electric drive on one line. What strategies are behind it?

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Volkswagen is completely converting its Zwickau plant, which will in future exclusively produce electric vehicles. What strategies do other automobile manufacturers pursue in their plants?
Volkswagen is completely converting its Zwickau plant, which will in future exclusively produce electric vehicles. What strategies do other automobile manufacturers pursue in their plants?
( Source: Audi )

About 20 years ago, the author of this cover story worked at the VW plant in Zwickau/Mosel: in the final assembly of the Golf and Passat. Electric mobility only existed in the form of a Golf III "City Stromer", which was used for factory traffic. That's changing drastically right now: “This is a first in Europe", comments Thomas Ulbrich, Member of the Board of Management for E-mobility at Volkswagen and Managing Director of Volkswagen Saxony, on the enormous reconstruction that the Volkswagen plant in Zwickau/Mosel is currently undergoing.

From 2021, only electric vehicles will leave the plant - six models of the Volkswagen, Seat and Audi brands. The start of production of the electric vehicles is already planned for this year, when production of the ID will begin - parallel to the Golf and Golf Variant models currently being produced here - on the first completely converted production line.

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Electric Mobility for Everyone

Volkswagen approaches electric mobility in an extremely broad way - and is optimistic that it can manufacture high volumes: 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 in large numbers - and these are best produced in a pure electric car factory”, explains e-mobility boss Ulbrich. The Zwickau/Mosel plant is expected to have a capacity of around330,000 vehicles per year - making it the group’s largest and most efficient plant. However, there are still a few steps to be taken before all six electric models are built at Volkswagen in Zwickau: 20 start-up stages, 1,900 pre-series vehicles and a new "Start of Production" will take place approximately every six months. After the conversion, the maximum production capacity is to be increased: from today’s 1,350 vehicles to 1,500 per day - probably from 2021 onwards.

Extensive Automation

With the new models, extensive automation technology will be integrated into the plant’s production. The degree of automation is expected to almost triple: 1.700 production robots, driverless transport systems throughout the country and a 20 % increase in productivity compared to the production of the Golf are just three examples of the group's ambitious goals for the site. “Our main objective is to achieve the next evolutionary stage of high mechanization in automotive engineering by resorting to MEB”, outlines Ulbrich the project in an interview.

The conversion measures in Zwickau have been underway since summer 2018: New systems for vehicles based on the MEB ("modular electric drive system") are currently being built in the body construction areas. The conversions clearly differ from those of other model start-ups. “The chassis of the ID is a completely new development," says Ulbrich. “The new architecture, for example, requires different reinforcements or a particular material mix." For this reason, around 40 % of the total 1.2 billion euros invested at the site are invested in body construction.

Not the Only Factory for E-Vehicles

Technically speaking, the Zwickau plant is not the first in Europe to exclusively produce electric vehicles. With the ID, however, vehicles are produced in a price segment that is likely to be affordable for people with average incomes as well; and according to forecasts in higher quantities: By the year 2026, Volkswagen wants to sell "ten million MEB-based vehicles". In 2025, Porsche expects more than half of its sold models to be electric. The first electric model, the Taycan, is therefore also a purely electric vehicle - albeit on a smaller scale in a “factory in the factory” at the Zuffenhausen headquarters. There, the classic assembly line has become obsolete. Instead, the sports car manufacturer relies on flexible production.

Albrecht Reimold, Chief Production and Logistics Officer: “On the so-called Flexi line, Porsche is the first vehicle manufacturer to use driverless transport systems in series production in a continuous flow." The advantages of the classic flow principle can thus be combined with the flexibility of versatile assembly and more work cycles can be carried out on the same surface. According to Porsche, the electric car will be produced in a CO2-neutral way - in the future, the manufacturer wants to eliminate negative impacts on the environment throughout the entire production.

Audi has been manufacturing the E-Tron, the brand's first all-electric SUV, in Brussels since September 2018. According to Audi, the factory conversion was the "world's first certified CO2-neutral large-scale production in the premium segment". The plant - previously the A1 was produced here - has been extensively converting body construction, paint shop and assembly since summer 2016 and has set up its own battery production facility. “The employees have redesigned, planned and implemented many production steps," says Patrick Danau, Chairman of the Board of Management of Audi Brussels. In addition, they completed more than 200,000 hours of training to prepare for the production of the model. The car manufacturer compensates the emissions generated in production and at the site: primarily through renewable energies, but also through environmental projects.

A CO2-Neutral Car

The ID in Zwickau is to be "CO2-neutral across the entire supply and manufacturing chain" and is thus the first vehicle ever to pursue this claim. At the Zwickau plant, the external power supply was already converted to 100 % renewable electricity in 2017. From the start of production of the ID, the group intends to compensate remaining emissions, for example with its own block-type thermal power station and the entire upstream chain, by means of certified climate projects in accordance with officially recognized standards.

For the energy-intensive production of battery cells, for example, which will come from Poland and Hungary, Volkswagen agreed with its suppliers on tight framework conditions for the procurement of raw materials - this also includes the use of electricity from renewable energies. “We will not tolerate violations," Ulbrich explained during the presentation of the strategy in November.

Mixed Production of Models

BMW and Daimler approach the subject differently and produce their electrically powered cars on the same line as the models with combustion engines. "The decisive factor for us is the capacity utilization of our plants. This is important because we do not know precisely how the demand for electric vehicles will develop," explains Oliver Zipse, Member of the Board of Management for Production at BMW Group: "This is why we now want to design our production system in such a way that we can manufacture vehicles with purely electric drive, hybrid drive and combustion engine drive in one structure. This results in high flexibility and avoids doubling investments."

BMW had installed a specific production structure for the i3 and i8 at the Leipzig plant, a kind of factory within the factory. "Today, we build plug-in hybrids as well as pure combustion vehicles with the same structure in almost all of our plants. In the next step, we will enable our plants to produce fully electric vehicles in existing structures. Neither in the pressing plants nor in the technology surface changes much," says Zipse. "Drive technology already plays no role in these areas. In body construction and assembly, we adapt the production structures accordingly: In body construction, these are partly different production structures for the front, rear and floor assembly. This is relevant for the integration of various drive components, such as the high-voltage accumulator."

The design of the line balancing principle is decisive at the assembly line. Oliver Zipse: “The question we're asking ourselves is: How do we manage to present different product structures in a 60-second cycle on the production line in such a way that different vehicles can be produced in any order without any efficiency disadvantages? In the meantime, we have acquired a great deal of knowledge and experience in this area, so that the line balancing principle works, and we can efficiently produce different models. If we master this, integration into existing structures is possible. We also apply the methods offered by artificial intelligence."

Extensive Employee Training

In addition to artificial intelligence, human intelligence and work performance are still indispensable - there will be no empty workshops. For the approximately 7,700 employees in Zwickau, the change therefore means: learning. 3,000 employees complete the courses at the e-mobility training center, where they receive detailed training on the new production requirements. Approximately 3,500 employees undergo product training that includes, for example, operating concepts for new production technologies or networking concepts - in production and in the vehicle. A further 1,400 employees, including managers, are being prepared for high-voltage production. “This is probably the largest training event in the entire group," explains Dirk Coers, Managing Director Human Resources and Organization at Volkswagen Saxony: "In total, the Zwickau team will complete around 13,000 training days by the end of 2019."

The training is organized together with the Volkswagen Training Institute - and with external partners such as Audi Brussels, Siemens, the Fraunhofer Institute, Fanuc or the Zwickau University of Western Saxony. The Zwickau site is also working to capacity with the production of electric models while maintaining the workforce," Ulbrich said.

The Right "Mindset"

Apart from the technology, there are also far more human aspects involved: In order to give the employees at the location the right "mindset" for the production of electric vehicles, the training includes a "driving experience with an electric vehicle". The idea behind it: Experiencing electric mobility is the basis for developing enthusiasm for the products. A total of six German plants are involved in the development and production of the ID family: Zwickau, Wolfsburg, Dresden, Brunswick, Kassel and Salzgitter. In China - in Anting, Shanghai and Foshan - two further MEB plants are currently under construction. They are to start production only a few months after the Zwickau pilot plant in 2020. In North America, vehicles based on the MEB will be produced in Chattanooga from 2022 onwards, with further locations to follow. VW will not build another City Stromer - the new goal is climate-neutral electric mobility in mass production. This is a first in worldwide automobile production.

This article was first published by Automobil Industrie.

Original: Thomas Günnel / Translation: Alexander Stark

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