Thomas Ulbrich, Volkswagen Group's e-mobility boss, has spent two years overseeing VW's move to electrification. Ulbrich discussed the challenges of refitting eight of the automaker's global plants to build full-electric cars and the production advantages of the MEB platform in an interview with Automobilwoche, a German-language sister publication of Automotive News Europe,
You have just completely converted the Zwickau, Germany, plant to build EVs. Did the conversion sometimes cause you sleepless nights?
The ID3 [compact electric hatchback] has indeed kept me busy every day for more than two years, often late into the night and even on weekends. This is quite a special project, even for someone like me with 30 years of experience in automobile production. It is not just a normal model change. It is the complete transformation of an entire plant from combustion to electric. It's the first time in the world that an established manufacturer has completely transformed an existing plant. At the same time, it provides important experience for the other Volkswagen electric-car locations, which are now also being converted step by step.
What are the challenges?
In Zwickau we have 8,000 employees who will work directly or indirectly on MEB-based vehicles in the future. Qualifying them was a huge effort. It starts with high-voltage technology and continues with the new electronics architecture. We converted the plant virtually during ongoing operations. In one half of the plant, we were still building full numbers of combustion engines when we started with the electric vehicles in the other half. But in the end, everything worked despite the enormous challenges that the coronavirus pandemic demands of all of us. Production is up and running. In October we also completed the conversion of the second assembly line, all in less than 20 weeks.
Is it sad when a plant stops producing combustion-engine vehicles?
It was a moving moment when we celebrated the end of the Golf's production at Zwickau, with a small ceremony in June. This is now the second major transformation for the plant. Where the Trabant once rattled around 30 years ago, the electrified ID family is now rolling off the assembly line. This also marks the start of a new automotive era. Zwickau is the first plant to leave the world of combustion engines completely and switch completely to electric. This is a huge opportunity for the site. And the employees are highly motivated to help shape this change.
Electric car production is said to be up to 20 percent more efficient than with combustion-engine models. How will you achieve this?
We owe this primarily to the modular e-drive system [MEB]. It was designed for high volumes right from the start. Even at the development stage, we designed the platform in such a way that we have far-reaching synergies through identical parts for different vehicles and different models. This time, we made sure that the concept of the bodies was identical across all brands, so that we had sufficiently differentiated vehicles in terms of design, but which we could still build on one assembly line. In Zwickau, a total of six models from three VW Group brands will roll off the assembly line by the end of 2021.
Will there be more automation?
We have put everything that technology currently offers into operations in Zwickau. The complete rebuild gave us the opportunity to design the production of the new full-electric ID family in such a way that a higher degree of mechanization is possible. Automation in assembly is not particularly so high yet. We have now significantly increased this for MEB-based cars.
Do you still intend to keep all 8,000 employees in Zwickau?
In Zwickau, we have issued a guarantee of employment until 2029. We also feel obliged to do so. There will be a natural fluctuation along the much-cited demographic curve, because year after year employees will retire. However, our concept is that we will definitely employ the remaining workforce.
How will you manage this?
We have built a new press shop in Zwickau, for example, where pressed parts that used to be supplied from other locations are now produced locally in Saxony, and thus create work. We have also increased general production capacity. This means that higher productivity will enable us to utilize employment at the site to the full. This shows that the fundamental change towards e-mobility is not necessarily about job cuts, but the exact opposite: We are securing the future.