At the Volkswagen ID.3 Start of Production ceremony this week, journalists from around the world were treated to a tour of portions of the assembly line to see for themselves how the highly automated factory functions. The heart of the operation is what the company calls its MEB platform, which is a toolkit for building a variety of electric cars using a standard architecture. Here’s why that is important.
Going back a few years, Tesla wanted to leverage its success with the Model S by making an SUV variant. Originally, the idea was to use the Model S chassis, but as things went further and further along, the two cars became quite dissimilar. In the final version, about 70% of the parts for the Model X were unique to that vehicle. As good as the Model X is, Tesla lost an opportunity to maximize production efficiency, which is a key component of being profitable.
That is not a knock on Tesla. It was just beginning life and learning by making mistakes and fixing them. Today, the Model Y SUV is in the pipeline and it will share many more parts with the Model 3 that it is based on. Volkswagen has been building cars for many decades and it has learned a thing or two about making the process as efficient as possible.
If the charging port for every Volkswagen electric car is in the same place, that means no changes have to be made on the factory floor to switch from one model to another. That saves times by eliminating the retraining of workers and reprogramming of robots. The result is lower production costs and higher profits.
Some of the other factors the cars will have in common include standardizing the attachment points for the suspension, motor(s), battery pack, battery management system, and seats. Even standardizing where the air conditioning compressor and ducts are for the climate control system is important when building millions of cars.
Below are photos taken during the tour. All were taken by me and may be shared or republished with proper attribution. Shall we begin?
In the first photo, you see the jig that all the components are mounted to before the skateboard — battery, suspension, drivetrain, and wiring — are married to the body of the car. The tall black uprights with pointy ends fit into spaces in the body to align everything perfectly so it all goes together accurately.
The first component that gets loaded onto the jig is the battery.
Then the drivetrain and rear suspension are added, followed by the front suspension together with the steering and air conditioning systems.
Meanwhile, the body is arriving from the stamping facility and paint shop.
Today, workers add the headliner through the front windshield opening. This used to take 5 workers when this assembly line built Golf vehicles. Today that is down to 3 workers and the process will be fully automated in the near future.
Next, the body and the skateboard are joined in what the industry calls a wedding. First, the skateboard is moved into place beneath the body, then raised into position. 24 automatic ratchets insert and tighten the bolts that hold the two pieces together. In the 1st Edition cars, the heads up display is included in the skateboard at this point.
Next, the chassis proceeds down the line where seats and doors are installed. Components like front windshields and front suspension components are stockpiled where needed along the production line.
The whole process moves along quite slowly at the present time while everyone learns how the new factory works. The noise level inside the factory is no more than one might expect in a public park. Break rooms and dining facilities are scattered throughout the factory, and everyone — workers and management — share these facilities so that they can learn from each other as the process of ramping up production continues. Thomas Ulbrich, who is in charge of coordinating all aspects of Volkswagen’s transition to electric cars, has been known to sleep at the factory and jump in to twist wrenches when necessary to get a better understanding of what problems arise on the line and how to solve them.
By this time next year, this production facility that used to build conventional cars will be turning out 800 electric vehicles a day. There will be four lines just like the one shown in the photos in operation. In another part of the factory complex, a second assembly area for conventional cars will be shut down and reconfigured to build EVs, making Zwickau the largest electric car manufacturing facility in Europe.
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