Building the 2012 Volkswagen Passat: A Tour of the New Chattanooga Factory

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INSIDE THE PLANT

The core of the plant is the automobile body shop, which employs a 400-strong army of laser-welding robots to assemble the car’s frame.  The robots’ diode disc lasers are seven times more efficient than normal lasers, saving 222,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

When robots weld, their electrodes heat up, and if they heat up too much, they lose their accuracy. In order to keep electrodes cool, water must be circulated through the electrodes. Maintaining a constant flow of water through the electrodes of 400 robots requires over 290,000 gallons of water a year. How does the factory provide this volume? A clue is in the factory’s slightly sloped roof. Water trickles down from the roof to a concrete basin, is cooled and then used for everything from cooling the robots to filling the toilets.

After the car frame is assembled, every car gets a bath in base paint. To achieve a perfectly even soaking, each car is rotated 360 degrees using robots called e-shuttles. Paint and frame are electronically charged so that every inch of the frame gets an even coat.

Leaving the paint shop, the car frames are taken to the factory’s huge assembly line, where the body and chassis are united to form a complete car. After that, each car is checked individually by quality control workers.

It’s essential the car is completely water-tight, so VW puts all cars through an artificial storm called the “monsoon test,” which is like an extreme car wash. Each car is blasted from all directions with water at 160 psi. Once the monsoon test is complete, one final test. The light tunnel illuminates every inch of each vehicle to expose the tiniest defects. Each car passes through the tunnel 4 times.

VOLKSWAGEN ASCENDANT?

The Chattanooga plant is just one part of VW’s effort to significantly expand in the U.S.market. VW has committed more than $4 billion to its initiative to nearly triple the sales of the VW and sister brand Audi in the states. The goal is to surpass 1 million vehicles for the combined brands by 2018, nearly triple last year’s total of 360,179. That would translate to roughly double the combined market share of VW and Audi brands from today’s 3-plus percent to about 5.9 percent.

That’s an ambitious goal, especially in a market full of competitors in the mid-size and small car segment like the Ford Fusion, the Toyota Camry, the Honda Accord and the Hyundai Sonata.  And despite its association with crisp German engineering, Volkswagen’s reputation for manufacturing quality has suffered, as it ranked 31st out of 33 brands in the United States in the 2010 initial quality study by J.D. Power & Associates.

Central to the company’s plans is the production of the mid-size 2012 Passat sedan, which is set to enter the market around October 1. VW plans to produce an estimated 150,000 Passats a year at the Chattanooga plant, a big jump from the car’s peak of 80,000 cars a year and only about 11,000 last year. Besides the all-new Passat, as part of this strategy, the carmaker rolled out a redesigned Jetta last year and unveiled the new Beetle in April.

VIRTUAL TOUR

PART 1

PART 2

Photographs of the Chattanooga plant by Jonathan Spira

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