Why was Brussels chosen as the production site for the new Audi e-tron? Patrick Danau, director of the plant in Brussels, explains: “We applied for it within the Group by offering an attractive comprehensive package. Qualified personnel, lots of flexibility, the phasing out of A1 production, cost benefits, our plant’s central location and excellent logistical accessibility, and our courage to take on a completely new product made the difference.”
Courage really was needed. For, over the past two and a half years, no stone was left standing in the production halls in Brussels. The plant was completely reconstructed for the new Audi e-tron. Overall, there have been several thousand individual conversion projects, implemented in nine phases, as of the summer of 2016. In just two years, the plant gradually and comprehensively renovated its body shop, paint shop and assembly facilities, and built its own battery production facility. Driverless transport systems now bring the battery for the electric car “just in sequence” to the assembly line.
“We were performing open-heart surgery,” says Andreas Cremer, the Board of Management’s general agent. “We expanded the assembly halls, reinforced ceilings and pillars, brought new steel constructions into the halls and new dryers into the paint shop, and installed stronger conveyance and lifting technology.” The workers at the Brussels plant processed a total of 7,500 tons material. The ceiling in the hall will be able to carry nine tons (car plus conveyance technology). “This is the largest plant conversion that I have ever experienced – a quantum leap,” says the experienced 62-year-old plant director Danau. “And I’ve been here for 40 years!”
Complete reconstruction during ongoing production
The crux: the complete conversion took place during ongoing production. Because the demand for the A1 continues to be great, more rather than fewer cars have been rolling off the assembly line in the last few months: 450 cars per day, 32 per hour. In less than two minutes – every 112 seconds – the assembly line spat out a new A1. Since 2010, the “Audianers” in Brussels have produced almost a million A1s.
Because of such high demand for the A1, much of the conversion had to be done during plant vacations, when production was paused. And during the production phases, the conversion was carried out almost every night – from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. “Every morning, we were worried about whether production would start on time. But it always went without a hitch,” says Danau with pleasure, and explains: “This was thanks to how perfectly the preliminary planning of the conversion was carried out in Ingolstadt. And thanks to our employees. They are passionate about their jobs.”
Brussels is electrifying
Brussels is electrifying! All the participants, in the truest sense of the word. For the first time, the site has built its own battery production facility. Wim Verbeiren heads this completely new department. “We only purchase modules; we build everything else ourselves,” says Verbeiren, who is in his mid-forties, with pride. The first thing to build is the housing – the battery tray, made of aluminum. It must be both shock and water-resistant, but above all, it must also be indestructible. The tray is part of the supporting structure of the new Audi e-tron, and has underride and side impact protection.
To seal the battery tray, Verbeiren’s team uses a special adhesive. In addition, employees constantly monitor the mechanical and electronic protection at all temperatures and operating conditions. “We have been building the housings for almost a year now and put in a lot of practice. We are continually optimizing the processes and are slowly increasing our unit numbers,” Wim Verbeiren explains.
The interconnected modules ensure a range of more than 400 kilometers for the e-tron. Impressive for a vehicle of this size! This and the possibility of quick charging make the Audi e-tron suitable for day-to-day life right from the start.
Employees intensively trained
But how do you prepare your team for a completely new battery production? First, a dozen employees from Brussels received training in a laboratory in Germany. “The technology is very sensitive and challenging for us,” Verbeiren explains. “That’s because we are working with high-voltage direct current, which is used comparatively rarely in industry.” Gradually, all of the almost 200 battery production employees in Brussels were trained to become skilled electricians, which took seven weeks for each person. The battery of each Audi e-tron, when fully charged, has the impressive capacity of 95 kWh, which corresponds to the energy consumption of an average family of four over ten days.
Fit for the e-tron
“But we didn’t just train our employees in the battery production facility; all of our almost 3,000 employees have been trained for the e-tron and the new production conditions in a total of more than 200,000 training hours,” says plant director Patrick Donau. Audi created a dedicated training center in Brussels for this purpose. In addition, employees were trained at German sites – on the topics of aluminum processing, battery management and high-voltage technology. According to Danau, “We have made all our employees in Brussels fit for working with high-voltage technology – from the basic level, so-called sensitizing, to the top level as a responsible qualified electrician.”
Jan Maris heads the complete production of the e-tron at the Audi plant in Brussels. “I have been part of the Group since 1989. But I’ve never experienced anything like what has happened here over the past two years.” What Maris means is that while a change to a different series or production line every few years is normal in every car factory, the current transition in Brussels is special: “We are moving away from the classic vehicle and transforming our factory for a completely new era, that of the electric drive.”
With the conversion complete, Maris is now concerned with the production start-up: “We are currently still working in single shifts in the Audi e-tron line, but in the fall, we will expand to two shifts per day. We have to coordinate the processes, train more employees, and continue to optimize projects and facilities.”
Plant director Patrick Danau is certain: “With our current workforce of around 3,000 employees, we are ensuring the very demanding production of the Audit e-tron and thus, in the long term, ensuring the future of our site in Brussels.”
What’s more, Audi Brussels now offers the world’s first, certified CO2-neutral large-scale production in the premium segment. The plant offsets all emissions which occur in production and at the site. This is primarily achieved through renewable energies, but also through environmental projects.
A new era in Brussels
It is a new era at the Brussels site, whose history spans more than 70 years. Vehicles have been built here since 1949. The start of the Audi e-tron production in the last few days and the production of the Audi e-tron Sportback, also in Brussels, as of 2019 will change production sustainably and set completely new standards. The Group aims to bring a third of its fleet onto the roads “electrically” by 2025. The new factory in Brussels is taking a big step towards this goal.