A voyage into the future. Tomorrow's cars by Volkswagen
A report from Saxony, right from the Zwickau and Dresden production plants, where the German manufacturer is changing everything to start the mass production of electric cars
Alessio Jacona • Contributor - Wired.it
Precise and relentless, the large mechanical arm swings into the air, repeating the same identical movements time and again. Hypnotic, accelerating and decelerating suddenly to reduce the time between operations. And it’s not alone: in the huge Volkswagen factory located in Zwickau, Saxony (Germany), hundreds of other orange automated arms are waiting to be programmed and tested to perform the same “ballet”. A total of 1625 mechanical arms, ready to go into action from the end of 2019, when a pre-series production of the new Volkswagen ID3 electric car will begin: 2,000 initial models to be built to test the system, the first of a new generation of EVs that the factory will produce for Volkswagen (three models), Audi (two models) and Seat (one model). Motionless, I take a few minutes to observe this unique and bewitching spectacle, almost the artistic performance of an artificial intelligence. Then, suddenly, a burst of loud voices and laughter brings me back to reality: it is 2 p.m. and the beginning of the second shift, when thousands of workers are brought back in the production line dedicated to VW’s Golf and Golf Variant; still under production here at the Zwickau plant.
Comparing past and future
All of a sudden I realize that I am standing in a highly symbolic place: in a shed "as big as 11 football fields", in the middle of the long aisle that separates the “old” ICE production line and the future assembly line designed for the all-new modular Meb platform, developed by Volkswagen for all the electric vehicles to come.
In short, I find myself halfway between the past and the future of Volkswagen’s workers, their managers, those working in the supply chain, customers, in other words, an entire industry. Two worlds that are still coexisting, waiting for that final transition to occur in the name of a real technological and cultural revolution. Total cost of the operation: 1.2 billion euro.
Getting closer I take a look at the workers: about 8 thousand of them here in Zwickau, all bearing the weight of an engineering tradition that spans over one hundred and twenty years. Here, in fact, in the early twentieth century Horch and Audi moved their first steps; and still here, from 1957 to 1991, when the DDR still existed, the Trabant 1.1 was assembled, more or less on the same ground where, in 1991, Volkswagen started to produce its Polo and Golf, immediately after the German reunification.
It, therefore, seems only natural that right here, a year and a half ago, Volkswagen embarked on a revolutionary journey on which much of the Group’s future depends. "Saxony has a long and consolidated industrial tradition, which makes Zwickau the perfect place to carry out such an unprecedented technological, productive and cultural transformation in our sector", says Dirk Coers, head of human resources at the Volkswagen plant in Zwickau.
An immense laboratory
What was once just a factory where VW Polo, Golf and Passat were assembled, has now become a colossal lab for multi-level experimentation: where new instruments, programs and production lines are tested; where a complex migration from old production methods (albeit not completely halted) to a futuristic carbon neutral process based on the new Meb platform, the heart of all future Id models, powered only by hydroelectric energy; and where - for the first time ever - 8,000 workers are trained to be at home in the new production line, learning how to operate the robots that will replace them in all the manual tasks.
"This is something we have never done before, which we had to build from scratch relying largely on our own internal resources" - explains Holger Naduschewski, director of the Volkswagen Factory Training Institute in Saxony. "We have programmed 13,000 hours of training courses in 2019 alone" - he adds - "to prepare our employees to cope with 10,000 job changes". And to teach them how to build cars that are inherently different from the past: they do not only differ in engines and performance - made very similar by a common platform - but in shape, purpose and added services, increasingly connected and relying on complex software, rich in features and constantly updated. iPhones on wheels rather than cars: technologically advanced vehicles where ground-breaking software will make the difference.
Now that we have EVs, let’s find the buyers
The question is: will people really want to buy them? This is precisely what they believe here at Volkswagen, as long as people are well informed about the changes taking place and the opportunities that these will bring to end users in terms of ease of use, cost reduction and respect for the environment.
How? One example is the beautiful glass factory in Dresden, not far from the centre of the capital of Saxony, 120 kilometres from Zwickau, built about twenty years ago and recently converted for several different purposes: to produce only full electric vehicles (the e-Golf for example); to host a small incubator of technological start-ups (six each year) engaged in developing solutions for the automotive world; ready to host hundreds of public events dedicated to the future of mobility.
Does it work? The numbers seem to show that: every year, thousands of tourists are willing to pay seven euro each to visit the factory, attend shows, get a glimpse of the work performed by 400 skilled workers who alternate in silent semi-automated assembly lines and participate in workshops of all kinds. This is a clear - and encouraging - sign that the future of mobility is close to the hearts of a growing number of people.