The gigantic Wolfsburg factory is located on the banks of an equally impressive feat of human engineering, the 200-mile Mittelland Canal connecting the sea and inland ports in Europe. Originally built in 1938 to house workers at Volkswagen factories, Wolfsburg is still houses the group’s headquarters and has produced more than 45 million cars since 1945.
This is where the iconic Beetle was produced for over three decades and where the automaker’s best-selling models, the VW Golf series and the Tiguan, are produced today.
The sprawling factory complex covers 6.5 million square meters (70 million square feet). It produced about 700,000 cars last year, or about 3,500 cars a day. Some 63,000 people work on the site, about half of the inhabitants of the town whose name it bears.
The reopening of Wolfsburg was anything but simple. The plant is dependent on a supply chain covering 71 countries and more than 2,600 companies, all of which face the fallout from the coronavirus. Volkswagen has implemented 100 different health and safety measures, agreed with its workers, with information displayed on more than 8,000 posters at the factory, and explained in brochures.
“Volkswagen sets a standard for German industry with this agreement,” said Osterloh.
What is changing in Wolfsburg
The company plans to slowly increase production, in line with parts availability, government requirements and demand for cars, which has collapsed with the spread of the coronavirus. Plans to build 1,400 cars in Wolfsburg this week, up at 6,000 next week, about 40% of production before the pandemic.
“At Volkswagen, health takes precedence over speed,” said Thomas Ulbrich, head of e-mobility for the Volkswagen brand, in a statement. last week when the company reopened its electric vehicle plant in Zwickau, Germany.
Wolfsburg to restart with a quarter of 8,000 production line workers instead of the usual 20,000. The hours will initially be reduced for some employees, with shift changes so that workers who arrive do not meet those who leave. Workers will need to check their own temperature and wear their uniforms at home each morning, rather than on site. They will be asked to use their elbows to open the doors and to walk in single file once inside, following the markers on the ground to keep the space between people.
Social distancing will be imposed during team meetings and during lunch breaks, with a reduction of seats in common areas and conference rooms converted into office spaces. Canteens will remain closed and workers have asked to bring their own lunch. Water dispensers have been temporarily removed to reduce the risk of infection and air conditioners should circulate as much fresh air as possible.
Tools will be disinfected after each shift and workers will no longer pass them to each other by hand, instead placing materials in containers so that others can pick them up at a safe distance. Several hundred additional sinks are being installed throughout the plant.
Vehicles will be more spaced apart on the factory floor and workers will perform tasks on the same car separately, if possible. The masks will be worn where it is not possible to keep 1.5 meters (5 feet) from each other.
Another major challenge for Volkswagen and other manufacturers will be to ensure that armies of suppliers entering their factories do not increase the risk of infection. Volkswagen, which also owns the Audi, Porsche and Seat brands, said it has shared its 100-point safety plan with more than 40,000 suppliers and logistics partners around the world.
Before the pandemic, 2,000 trucks transported some 21,000 raw materials and vehicle components to the Wolfsburg plant every day. Drivers will now have to stay in their vehicle at all times and the machinery used to unload the trucks will be cleaned more frequently during shifts.
“We have been in close contact with our suppliers throughout the period of the corona crisis, throughout the closure and when we reopened the factories, to ensure that they will be able to deliver the parts we need “said a spokesman for VW.
The factories opened in Zwickau and Bratislava, Slovakia, last week went smoothly “so we are optimistic that we will deal with this appropriately in Wolfsburg,” added the spokesperson. Volkswagen’s experience in China, where it has already reopened 32 of its 33 factories, offers a blueprint. “There was not a single piece missing when we started production.”
The company resumed production in component manufacturing plants throughout Germany from April 6, including Brunswick and Kassel, and in Poland from April 14, to ensure parts supply to its factories in China.
Volkswagen’s production in China has reached 60% to 70% of its pre-coronavirus levels. The factories have been open there for more than a month, which suggests that a return to production close to full production in Europe is still in a few weeks. But automakers have plenty of time to get it right, as demand for their products has also evaporated.
Difficult times ahead
Demand in China could rebound fairly quickly, but car sales in Europe will take at least 10 years to return to 2019 levels, according to Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, founder of the Automotive Research Center at the University of Duisburg-Essen.
However, the institute expects the auto construction sector in Germany to cut 100,000 jobs over the next three to four years, or about 12% of the total, as a prolonged decline in demand means reducing production.