Manufacturing Electrified Vehicles in Wolfsburg

The historic plant has built—and is building—a lot of cars in its 70-year run of commercial vehicle production. Today, with the e-Golf and the GTE, it is making what are arguably the most-advanced Volkswagens out there.

The Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, is said to be the world’s single-largest car manufacturing complex in the world. Given that it is located on an area greater than six square kilometers (and we learn that you can actually get traffic tickets within the gates of the complex, and if you’re one of the ~57,740 people who work there, you don’t want that to happen, not only because of the cost, but because the ticket goes into your personnel file) and that the combined under-roof footprint of the manufacturing halls is 1.6 square kilometers (which a VW spokesperson points out could cover the entire Principality of Monaco, although it is worth noting that while the Wolfsburg plant is on the banks of the Mittellandkanal, an artificial waterway, and Monaco is on the French Riviera, so we give it to Monaco on that score), that claim is probably legitimate.

The Wolfsburg plant was completed in 1939. Then World War II changed the nature of what was built there. It became the home of the Beetle after the war. Beetle production ended in the plant in 1974. Wolfsburg produced 11,916,519 Beetles during its run. The successor to the Beetle is the Golf, which went into production at Wolfsburg in 1976 (yes, the Beetle continues to exist, but the Golf is its mass-manufactured successor in the company’s lineup).

In 2013, some 807,000 vehicles were manufactured in Wolfsburg, including the Golf, Golf Sportvan, Touran, and Tiguan.

And there were, and are, two more models that are now also being built in Wolfsburg, exceedingly contemporary models in a plant that is designated a historic landmark in Germany: the Golf GTE and the e-Golf.

Yes, the “e” in both case signifies “electric,” with the first being a plug-in hybrid and the second a full electric vehicle.

Dr. Harald Manzenrieder, head of e-Golf production at the Wolfsburg plant, points out that VW has had experience producing electric vehicles for some time: “We didn’t start yesterday,” he says, pointing out that back in the 1970s they built an electric-powered T2—better known in the U.S. as the VW Microbus. But that was essentially a research project. VW actually put an electric Golf on the German market in 1989, the Golf CityStromer, based on the second-generation Golf; it had a 18.5-kW AC motor and was powered by 16 lead-gel batteries.

Again, a low-production vehicle.

But with European Union regula-tions calling for significant cuts in CO2 emissions, Volkswagen Group—meaning the whole organization, including Audi and Porsche—is undertaking a serious endeavor to produce vehicles that have electric or electrified powertrains.

And the Wolfsburg plant is a center of gravity for those activities, with the eGolf and the GTE.

“When we started to bring the e-Golf into mass production”—it went into serial production in March 2014—“one of our main concerns was worker safety,” Manzenrieder says. So they insti-tuted a training program with three levels of certification, with the most basic being the ability to assemble and handle parts; the middle level being those who can deactivate the high-voltage systems in the vehicles (e-Golf or GTE); and the top level—of which there are just 7 people qualified for—who can work on the vehicles under power. The intent is that these specialists can not only build cars, but actually train not only other 
people at Wolfsburg, but those who work in Ingolstadt or Stuttgart. 

It is a center of competence.

“A Golf is a Golf,” Manzenrieder says, explaining that because of the MQB architecture that underpins the vehicle, it can be a 300-hp Golf R or an e-Golf that goes down line #3 in Wolfsburg, a line that has a capacity of more than 1,100 vehicles per day, in any mix. “This is an assembly-friendly car,” he comments. “We can fully build the e-Golf in line, but at this stage, we have decided to use a bypass.”

Essentially, the e-Golf is produced on line, including the electric motor (85-kW; built in the VW Kassel, Germany, components plant). “The car is built as a rolling chassis, with the electric motor,” Manzenrieder explains. They tow it to the bypass area, where two workers are assigned to a vehicle. They build the front end components and electrics, then put the car on a lift so the battery pack (27 modules consisting of 264 lithium-ion cells; built in the VW plant in Braunschweig) can be installed and underbody paneling added.

Once the battery is installed and the vehicle started, the e-Golf goes back to join the variants with gasoline and diesel engines. As well as the GTE (60 workers have been trained to build the hybrid variant). “The workers pack their own shopping carts so they know each bolt, each cable, each component,” he says, adding, “This results in the creation of real experts.”

While the number of e-Golfs produced with the bypass system is comparatively small—about 22 cars per shift—Manzenrieder stresses that there are a few benefits in this still-early stage. “Once the car is at the quality gate, we don’t need to feedback to a big team, but directly to the worker.” Product changes can be readily accommodated.

And, most importantly, “It is still kind of a training area now. We cooperate with colleagues from other production sites, and other group brands,” he says. The plan is to leverage the learnings throughout the group.