A very close approximation of my factory tour experience
Reporting by Kat Bauman
If anyone ever asks if you'd like to visit the Audi factory, do the right thing. Located in Ingolstadt, at the center of the Free Republic of Bavaria, it's a hearty drive from most things and soundly worth it. For those of you too physically or mentally removed from Germany, here's an overview of the delights on offer.
The Ingolstadt factory employs 35,000 people, a substantial chunk of the cobbled city's 160,000 total population, and winding your way across the complex you start to believe it. The campus covers two million square feet, with facilities running six days a week on three shifts per day. Red bicycles are neatly docked inside and in front of every building for speedier intracampus transit, and despite construction and everpresent cars, the in-between scenery was green and inviting. Almost every single A3, A4, A5 and Q5 is produced at the Ingolstadt factory. The tour was led by smiling, beautifully fluent guides and punctuated with disorienting chauffeured trips across the giant campus. Do not attempt to photograph anything if you value your camera or your hosts' good graces.
Although I had a chance to see virtually the entire manufacturing process, the true starting point, forging and stamping, remained unseen! I gather they do this on-site, but away from prying eyes. (My guides cited dangerous work conditions, which I resented at the time but now strikes me as only slightly regrettable, considering I nearly walked under forklifts and cargo robots repeatedly throughout the day.) Audi's base frames are made from either forged steel or aluminum, and every other piece of the car body is made of galvanized sheet steel or a new aluminum alloy. Galvanizing prevents corrosion, while aluminum alloys save weight and sound futuristic. As it was, we joined the cycle after the components were formed.
As soon as we entered the factory floor we were surrounded on all sides by tightly organized production lines. The main factory is heavily mechanized, but robot upkeep and morale takes a good deal of staffing, and the building buzzed with both mechanical and human activity. Down each side of the access corridors were large "rooms" walled by clear plastic, where teams of robots plucked stamped parts from overhead conveyor belts or forklifted stacks and began to fit them together as teams. Parts zoomed overhead, welding crackled, and the sweet, guilty smell of glue drifted freely.
Due to the almost innumerable variants available on the non-American market, Audi has found it most efficient to run cars through production as they're ordered (essentially one-off) rather than in batches. Despite their different body styles and models, most A3s, A4s and A5s are built on similar base frames, so having a responsive assembly line is still feasible. In practice, this means that each assembly station gets its marching orders via a black box attached to the base frame, and rearranges its clamping and adhering positions for every assembly.
Just about every component is epoxied in place by surprisingly accurate tube-wielding robot arms, squeezed into place by robotic vices, and spot welded by copper-tipped robot fingers. The hyper-jointed arms of the welders and gluers are fantastically flexible and accurate—necessary when working on a variety of parts—reminiscent of many an anime film. The speed of each operation was noteworthy, usually taking far under a minute for setup, attachment and removal. Nearby you could see bins of spent copper welding tips, which are chucked for recycling after around 30,000 welds. The desire to stuff my pockets with blacked copper was only offset by my guide's friendliness and enthusiasm for rule-following.
Ergonomic Seat Thing
As the frame and body panels grow in parts and complexity over the course of the process, the precision set-up becomes more elaborate. Thin metal is "remote welded" with lasers to reduce heat warping. Alignment is often spot-checked by laser before and after an operation—a process that involves waving a scanner head at an ominous black pyramid (used for zeroing) before work can continue. Certain procedures require the use of six or more precision jigs to hold parts square. When the time comes to add the complete side panels to the frame, the jig used is the size of a garage. If the next car has a different body style, the massive fixtures quickly rotate out and up into the ceiling to be replaced by the correct mastodon-sized tooling. Transformers at work.
A good example of the tight-tolerance game being played comes when it's finally time to add the roof. Audi uses a soldering technique to attach the roof of the A3, rather than welding. The maximum gap size for the flux is 0.3mm. This means you can have absolutely no visible gap between the pieces, a relationship that depends on every other large panel of the car being formed and assembled within tolerance. The roof is attached to the body by rapidly filling the long seams with a thin bead of liquified brass, shielded by plasma and melted by a laser... All because welded joints were too bulky. (The Audi A4, A5 and Q5 are either laser- or plasma-soldered.) Welds and joints are then laser-checked for tolerance. Ultrasonic checks are used to ensure proper heat and penetration. Random quality checks are conducted on one car per type per shift. Once a month, an entire car is demolished to do stress checks on all attachment points and to analyze overall build quality. I imagine it's a day that they look forward to.
By this time, whole ghostly shells are floating along unperturbed, and it was suddenly time for lunch. Everyone on shift, it seems, takes lunch at the same time. And—as the chattering workers we passed in the halls demonstrated to my envy—in Ingolstadt your lunch can be a whole vanilla cake, dripping with sweet gravy. I was unable to learn whether cake-fueled production is a traditional Bavarian behavior or if it's proprietary to Audi.
"The Apprentice" refers to something totally different in America...
Throughout the tour, I was frequently unsettled by how young (and often attractive) the technicians and employees seemed. This wasn't entirely due to romantic foreign eyes: Audi employs 2,400 apprentices, who range between 15 and 18 years old. Each year, 715 apprentices complete their education and start a career at Audi, and they're replaced by 715 more; their retention rate is 100%. German apprenticeship programs (a natural outgrowth of the country's joint vocational programs) are a requisite for finding work after school. Regularly voted one of the country's best employers, the Audi positions are highly sought after; by their account they received 9,700 applications for the 715 openings last year. Given the cake situation, I totally understand.
After getting their final check-ups, completed frames are trucked across the campus in underground tunnels to the painting building. Once satisfactorily stripped of phones, cameras and corporate spy pens, we suited up in shiny, ill-fitting scrubs. Maybe it's just me, but the silvery futuristic fabric reminded me of... aluminum. We were ushered through a set of doors, much like an airlock, where we added booties to the ensemble. Dust free is the way to be in a painting factory. Through a steep unlit stairway fitted with an "air shower" (a.k.a. many unsettling rows of nozzles shooting air into unexpected parts of you), and we were onto the painting line.
The painting facility is also highly automated. A mechanized conveyor belt trundles the car bodies along, each with its black box to identify the model and make, as well as intended paint color. This is useful because all of the painting is done by robots. Robots that are programmed to know the exact dimensions and detailed paint needs of every available Audi configuration. Robots that look like 20-foot-tall spiders wearing socks. Or overgrown, vaguely threatening finger puppets. As in assembly, the cars are treated in an as-ordered basis rather than in batches. In painting, this means our painting robots need to refuel between each car, gassing up through syringe-like tubes plunged into wall-mounted reservoirs, filled pneumatically from tanks below the floor and pressure-purged after each batch. After loading up, the creepily jointed spraying robots assume the perfect position around the slowly moving car. Smaller assistant robots carefully open and close doors as needed, allowing the sprayer heads to coat an entire section quickly. It's all strikingly elegant, though the fumes may have enhanced my enjoyment.
What may be most startling to the outsider is the shocking proximity between cars, even cars of very different colors. We're talking maybe three feet. (Anyone who's ever spraypainted anything knows that any object shy of 15 feet from your target is in grave danger and at the whim of the painting gods.) The gigantic arachno-sprayers are programmed to be exact, but the clouds billowing around each car seem unreasonable. As is so often the case, we have electromagnetism to thank. The paint receives an electrostatic charge as it leaves the spray guns, ensuring that the paint particles only bond with the negatively-charged car body on deck. Ambient paint and overspray drifts down through the floor grating, where it is collected by constantly flowing water and later recycled out. This accurate, slow-moving process is repeated until the entire frame has been coated, dry car-washed, feather-dusted, glove-checked by humans, and cured. And then repeated again and again, as the car receives primer, base coat, top coat, and heavy clear coat, before embarking on a long final voyage through a massive oven. Very rite-of-passagey.
Paint check (a.k.a. Divine Light Tunnel)
Lukewarm from the oven, the now-beautiful frames make their way into the loving arms of dozens of people, traveling slowly through what can only be described as a Tron-tastic tunnel of divine light. Lit almost 360 degrees around, every painted surface is checked by eye and hand for imperfections. The cars pass under a series of white and yellow lights, as different wavelengths highlight different types of inconsistencies, some catching contamination or drips, others picking up cracks and low spots. The key tools used are a white grease pencil and tiny, incredibly fine buffing bits that would make your Dremel blush at its own unrefinement. Unless deemed irreparable and unworthy, each car leaves the paint shop ready to be fitted with its unique automobilic guts.
To those of us who live in American countries, the fact that Audi offers a staggering amount of options is itself a little foreign. From pragmatic family fetchers to efficient coupes to urban assault vehicles, most Audi models come in an array of customizable variations. On the final assembly lines, the variety is incredible: dash styles, engine types, exhaust styles, transmission options, paired with coupes, hatchbacks, sedans... My guide reported that it takes ten years to produce a duplicate for individually ordered cars, and I nodded, believing, my eyes round with Build-A-Bear wonder.
Slowly switchbacking along six long lines of production, cars spend a maximum of 88 seconds per station, getting fitted with every part that isn't paint. The cars float, doors removed, past each section, marked in tape on the ground, where a technician or team will rapidly install parts while moving along with the frame. Standing areas are wooden or padded for better ergonomics, and some areas feature chairs on a swinging boom arm to scoot workers in and out quickly. If a station needs assistance or falls behind, a section-specific song is played. While I was there, I heard "Ride of the Valkyries" on two occasions, and while I'm sure the Wagner leitmotif carries its own urgent associations, it was much nicer than an actual alarm. Red-belt-wearing section managers are on call to assist in production or troubleshoot, and their open booths with potted plants and coffee machines are a nice visual counterpoint to the bright lights and constantly moving metal.
To meet the ranging needs of each shift's cars, stations are supplied with the requisite parts, arranged in precise order, on the hour. Small parts and electronics deliveries are made by Emma, a little robot that runs along a floor track next to the production line, who thoughtlessly almost ran over my foot. Large transmission pieces and engines are delivered to the floor via elevators, careful forklifting and tiny cranes.
High-viz means high safety
Due to the delicacy of components and complexity of final assembly, everything is installed and tested by people, from engine blocks to leather interiors and GPS systems. (Cool exceptions include a robot that pre-screws bolts for transmission install, and the monitor that identifies which parts have yet to be torqued to specification.) In the final stages, the wheels touch ground, headlights go on, and engines get their first cold start. Watching the new cars roll off the line under their own power, one group member choked up, and all I could think about was baby birds taking flight.