Automotive News Europe — 2023-01-01
When Volkswagen Group began its global transition to battery-electric vehicles, it turned to one of its oldest and smallest plants to dip its first toe into the non-ICE-y waters.
The German automaker's Brussels plant, taken over by Audi in 2007, has built more than 8m vehicles since it produced its first Studebaker in 1949. Its heritage includes nameplates such as the Volkswagen Beetle, Karmann Ghia and Audi A1.
But when it launched the original Audi E-tron in 2018 — the first of what will ultimately be a multitude of nameplates globally across Volkswagen Group's eight brands designed to run exclusively on batteries — the plant and its 3,000 employees also agreed to become teachers.
They would lead the world from this most international of cities. They would make mistakes, learn from them and eventually instruct the group's other global assembly plants — including three in North America — on how to make the same conversion.
In December 2022, Audi Brussels launched a reengineered successor to that original Audi E-tron, renamed Q8 E-tron. And like the factory that makes it, the Audi Q8 E-tron crossover and sportback have improved because of what was learned and shared globally from here since 2017.
"We changed not totally everything, but what we changed, it was small steps," said Volker Germann, who is now CEO of Audi Brussels after returning to Europe from manufacturing stints with VW Group in China and Brazil.
Collectively, those steps are meaningful and are being shared elsewhere, including with Audi's home factory complex in Ingolstadt, Germany, which will be converted.
For example, within the Q8 E-tron's massive battery assembly is a lattice-shaped aluminum structure that separates individual battery cell modules while also providing crash protection to the battery pack. Originally, Germann said, each extruded piece of aluminum in the "cage" was tediously welded in place by hand, in part because there was no supplier that Audi could turn to to provide the part. Now, like much of the rest of the battery assembly process, the vital cage structure is built by robots, because Audi Brussels figured out how to do it.
Doing it manually ‘sucks'
"We [originally] made each cage manually and we analyzed each cage manually," Germann said. "But for the man or woman doing that job, it sucks — the whole day, just hundreds of meters of welding aluminum."
One change from 2018 that might seem inconsequential has major financial implications, Germann said. In the plant's neighboring battery assembly building, after the outer frame, the housing tray and the aluminum crash structure are assembled by robots, but before the cell modules are loaded in, the tray is injected with a pink substance called "gap filler." This temporarily viscous substance is widely used in the electronics industry, and it's expensive stuff, Germann said.
"With a semiconductor, you use a drop [of gap filler], but we were using a half-liter," he said. Over time, they determined that their initial estimates of both the type and the amount of the substance were too conservative, so the process and the materials were changed — driving down costs while maintaining equal, if not better, performance.
That's not the only area of initial caution that was eventually set aside. When the original E-tron launched, many employees in the battery assembly area spent their workdays wearing special protective fire gear as they handled the lithium ion packs. It turns out, the risk of fire in assembling the unpowered packs was minimal.
"It was too cautious," Germann said. "We didn't need them." Workers remain cautious and prepared, but the danger was overestimated.
Not all the changes from the E-tron to the Q8 E-tron happened on the assembly line. A major one involved the battery cells.
The E-tron's initial cells came from supplier LG. Now, they come from Samsung SDI, with a different chemistry and improved anodes and cathodes.
The result is a much more competitive range for the Q8 E-tron — up to 600 km (373 miles) under the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure cycle used in Europe.
When the Q8 E-tron arrives in dealerships in the spring this year including US showrooms, Audi of America anticipates at least a 30% range increase over the current-generation E-tron — 222 miles for the more aerodynamic sportback version and 218 miles for its traditionally shaped counterpart under the more stringent EPA test cycle. The boost would put the Q8 E-tron much closer to a 300-mile range.
Audi Brussels, which has been net carbon neutral since 2018, gets its battery cells from a plant almost 900 miles away in Göd, Hungary, near Budapest, shipping them by electric train. "We used to ship them by truck, but switching to the train saves us about 2,600 tons of CO2 per year," said Jan Marls, head of production at Audi Brussels.
VW may eventually employ a similar strategy if it sets up a battery plant in Canada, as planned, but continues to assemble its electric vehicles in Tennessee and Mexico.
The battery assembly plant in Brussels operates two shifts of 100 workers each accompanied in their tasks by scores of towering yellow Fanuc robots. Plant officials including Germann and Marls wouldn't disclose its full run rate but said that in 2022, Audi Brussels produced about 43,000 E-trons during industrywide supply constraints.
That figure will likely increase this year with production of the Q8 E-tron, as well as the addition of the smaller Q4 E-tron, which will join the Q8 on the line in the second half of the year while it continues to be built in Zwickau, Germany, as well.
The added product will make the Brussels plant busier but also give it more long-term security. "You're always more stable when you can stand on two products, just like when you can stand on two legs," Germann told journalists here in mid-December.
The second product was won, Marls said, in part because of the plant's performance in making improvements to how the group will eventually produce its panoply of EVs.
"There are optimizations almost every day," Marls said, ticking off a list of changes large and small to both the product and the processes. "It's almost too much to list all the things we have changed, but those changes feed forward to other battery assembly plants around the world."