In a recent video on GM’s YouTube channel, Gerald Johnson, executive vice president of global manufacturing and sustainability, takes us on a tour of GM’s electric vehicle plant and introduces us to the people who work there. This video is part of a larger “Competitive Advantage” series featuring Johnson, which is also worth checking out if you’re trying to follow or invest in the electric vehicle industry.
The video begins with an interview with Cathy Staelgraeve, Assistant Plant Manager, and the end of the Hummer EV assembly line provided an interesting backdrop. Staelgraeve has worked in car factories for decades, and her first job in the factory was a summer internship in 1995. She is a mechanical engineer and has a degree, but like many students, she did not see herself end up working in the automotive industry. plants. But, she seems to really enjoy this line of work.
She thinks STEM students need to think about what hands-on work they can get into. Book work can seem boring, but real-world work can be much more challenging.
Factory ZERO is nothing new. It’s been a GM assembly plant for decades, but got a facelift in 2019 to prepare for manufacturing electric vehicles. Now 1,900 people work at the factory, and they continue to grow as they build more models and increase sales of those they assemble now.
The first thing Johnson and Staelgraeve show us is the Leica scanner. Leica is a company with a long history in the photography industry, and this is an extension of that work. GM is using technology from Leica to give each vehicle’s base platform a detailed robotic 3D scan to see how it stacks up against the design it’s supposed to match. Nothing mass-produced is ever a perfect copy, but the bones of the vehicle have to be within normal bounds if the rest of the vehicle is going to fit together and work well.
Mike Woods, Quality Manager at Six Pillars, shows us all about how the machine works. Older assembly processes took six hours to measure a frame/body and make sure everything is to spec, and this piece of equipment can measure it all in just two hours. It also gives technicians a color map, showing how far the frame is at each point. Although they don’t explain this in the video, this process helps keep the production line going by catching production issues earlier, hopefully before they’ve made a bunch of bad copies.
The marriage of the battery and the vehicle
At GM, we gave GM a lot of shit for the heavy, bloated Hummer EV. It has a massive 200kWh battery, but only achieves around 330 miles of EPA range. Why? Because the total vehicle weight is about 9,000 pounds. A big battery pushing a lot of weight equals little range. But, it’s GM’s first electric truck and it’s their first Ultium vehicle to land in customer driveways. Things will likely improve as new Ultium models become more efficiency-focused than a Hummer.
One of the interesting things that we could see in this video was these huge batteries placed in the bottom of the vehicles. GM calls it the RESS Battery Wedding Station. RESS stands for Rechargeable Battery Storage System (in other words, a battery). Keeyana Hicks, machine operator and officiant at GM’s battery-powered vehicle wedding, shows us all how it works.
First she has to check the battery plugs to make sure nothing was messed up earlier in the process, then run a machine that charges the (really heavy) battery on an elevator.
Cathy points out at this point that this is analogous to the “chassis wedding” manufacturing stage at ICE’s manufacturing plants. Instead of putting a transmission and possibly a subframe and suspension components into a vehicle, this step puts the batteries into the EV in the same way. As in many ICE manufacturing processes, the RESS comes from a different factory and is installed in the vehicle. Eventually, the packs will be built inside Factory Zero.
You can see that the bag is loaded on a table, which then slides under the frame of the vehicle, lifting a little. Once lined up, it mounts and plugs into the Hummer. Then, small arms rise under the vehicle to drive in the main mounting bolts, securing the bag to the vehicle.
Vehicle dynamic testing
At the end of the assembly line, vehicles don’t just roll out, get loaded onto a truck, and end up in a customer’s driveway. Factory staff make sure it works as it should before it goes out.
One roll test the vehicle undergoes is an alignment check. It’s simpler than on an ICE vehicle. During this time, robots pass in front of the vehicle to ensure that the headlights are aimed correctly. The car’s infotainment system is also checked.
Then the vehicle goes through a virtual test. A driver brings the vehicle over a pair of dynamometers (aka “dynos”) to drive the car without going anywhere. This not only checks the vehicle’s electronics and motors to make sure everything looks fine, but also gives the battery a good run at the factory where problems can be fixed more easily than at a dealership. The braking system is also checked.
What’s new for Factory ZERO?
Factory ZERO will see several other models come out of its doors. The Hummer SUV, another variant of the Hummer EV is coming soon. There will also be the Silverado EV and Sierra EV (both the same truck, but one for Chevy and one for GMC, just like with gasoline trucks). They will also build the autonomous Cruise Origin for urban transportation.
While it’s great to get a behind-the-scenes look at GM EV production and meet some people, the whole series has more to offer. Be sure to check it out on YouTube.
Featured image by GM.
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