Production Transformation and Transparency

Volkswagen is transforming a factory that became a showplace back to a factory that will still be a showplace.

Whether you’re in southeastern Michigan or Dresden, Germany, the challenge is the same: making things that are similar to what has historically been produced—but different.

There are significant drivers of change in the auto industry, one of which is predicated on the increased electrification of vehicles. You have new players entering the space, like Faraday Future, which is building a 3-million-ft2 plant in North Las Vegas to produce an all-new electric vehicle.

You have a company like Tesla Motors, which purchased the former NUMMI plant in Fremont, California, in October 2010—a factory that had a 400,000-unit capacity in its heyday. Since then, Tesla has been producing a comparatively small number (in the context of, say, the Corollas that were once built there) of Model S and Model X vehicles. Yet Tesla has a buzz about its products that can only give the conventional companies fits.

So there is serious transformation occurring.

Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in the Volkswagen Transparent Factory in Dresden, Germany.

The plant has a total area of 55,000-m2. It has a length of 140 meters and a height of 20 meters.

It is called “Transparent” because the building is fully glazed, with approximately 27,500-m2 of windows.

The plant started production in 2001. Workers produced the VW Phaeton and the Bentley Flying Spur in the facility up until last year. From 2001 to 2016 the number of vehicles produced was 84,253 Phaetons and 2,186 Flying Spurs. (Which sort of puts the Tesla numbers in some perspective.)

The factory was built as much to be a showplace as to build cars. There were 29 individual assembly areas on parquet floors. Vehicle assembly was performed on two floors, with a suspended electric monorail transferring vehicles from the upper level to the lower through the ceiling. The monorail system was also used to move the vehicles being assembled horizontally through the workstations on each level.

The parts for each station were contained in baskets. The overall approach was one that resembled a workshop more than a production line.

But then on March 29, 2016, the Transparent Factory ceased production.

The last car was a black Phaeton 4MOTION with a 4.2-liter engine.

The plant was closed. But a few days later, on April 8, Die Gläserne Manufaktur reopened, but not as a factory but as a “showcase for electric mobility and digitalization.” Meaning it no longer housed workstations but 50 interactive displays for visitors.

Upon the reopening, Professor Siegfried Fiebig, management spokesperson for Volkswagen Sachsen GmbH, described it as “an exciting adventure for the whole family.”

So the factory that visually appeared to be something that could have been a pavilion at Epcot became something like a pavilion at Epcot.

At least for a while.

Because on November 17, 2016, Professor Fiebig announced, “I am very pleased that production is to restart at the Transparent Factory in April 2017.”

The plant will produce the e-Golf. Volkswagen is investing more than €20-million for flexible assembly equipment for the plant.

Volkswagen is describing the Dresden factory as a “Center for Future Mobility.” Initially it will run a single shift.

Yet there is still the attraction aspect to it (between April and November, some 75,000 people visited the facility and more than 1,800 took test drives in electric vehicles), as like the Autostadt in Wolfsburg, the Transparent Factory will be a showplace where customers will be able to pick up their e-Golf, e-up!, Golf GTE or Passat GTE.

As Dr. Herbert Diess, chairman of the Volkswagen brand Board of Management, said on November 22, 2016, speaking in the context of announcing a comprehensive repositioning of the brand, an initiative they’re calling “TRANSFORM 2025+,” “From 2020, we will be launching our major e-mobility offensive. As a volume manufacturer, we intend to play a key role in the breakthrough of the electric car. We are not aiming for niche products but for the heart of the automobile market. By 2025, we want to sell a million electric cars per year and to be the world market leader in e-mobility. Our future electric cars will be the new trademark of Volkswagen.”

And that Transparent Factory will be more than a novelty.