The world of work is changing radically in the automotive industry. Many jobs related to the internal combustion engine will soon cease to exist – electric cars are now being built. In addition to worry, there is also confidence. A visit to the workshop.

Not everything has changed for Martin Bednarek. But a lot. And there could still be some things to come. Hundreds of thousands of employees in the automotive industry are likely to be confronted with the question of whether and how their profession will continue in the coming years. Bednarek has already covered part of the way.

In Hall 32A of the VW plant in Braunschweig, he stands in front of an almost house-high system that is surrounded by transparent walls. As if you somehow have to tame the thing that is humming into position behind it with millimeter-precise movements. “There’s only a little more lubricating oil left,” says the 47-year-old. It is a huge robot station. Here, on the northwestern tip of Braunschweig, the heart of Volkswagen’s battery system production should beat in the not too distant future. For 300 million euros, the largest auto company in the world has raised a branch of the local plant. Line 1 is currently in operation, and the other side of the hall should also start at the end of 2020. VW relies on the Modular Electrical Construction Kit (MEB), which becomes the centerpiece of the billion-dollar electrical offensive.

Cell production at VW - the cell stack is assembled hereCell production at VW – the cell stack is assembled here

“Leave the living room”

An internal combustion engine has an average of well over 1,000 individual parts, an electric drive only a fraction. Many speak of an industrial revolution. A revolution that has not existed since the invention of the automobile. If you listen to Bednarek, it becomes clear that Germany’s key industry, with more than 800,000 jobs, is undergoing the greatest change in its recent history. What does this mean for the workforce? “Leaving the living room was not an easy decision,” says Bednarek. The machine fitter spent many of his 24 VW years in plastics technology. “But batteries are the topic of the future.”

The VW Group will invest around 33 billion euros in e-mobility by 2024. Small companies cannot handle such sums. Based on a survey by IG Metall, the VW works council assumes that 108,000 jobs in Germany are dependent on the combustion engine without alternatives. Alternatives are planned for 101,000. In the company, there was Zoff over the “future pact”, which also provides for deletions.

Shortly before the weekend, some of the plants in Hall 32A are idle. “If Zwickau attracts, it will be more here,” says the reference to the start of production of the E-Model ID.3 in Saxony. It’s like the calm before the big storm. After the ramp-up by the end of 2021, 500,000 battery system units are to be built here every year.

The Braunschweig VW works council chief Uwe Fritsch has had some tough arguments behind him. “And the change in familiar structures does something to people,” reports the trade unionist. “The accompaniment is crucial.” In training for electronics specialists, for example, many failed until now, and 500 to 600 colleagues are now fully qualified.

Fight for orders in the megatrend

The employment guarantee applies until 2029. But like all VW internal suppliers, the plant has to measure itself against external suppliers, explains Otto Joos, head of the chassis business unit. “It’s a constant struggle for orders. We also bleed a lot.” One thing is undisputed: “If you want to secure the future, you have to participate in electromobility.”

The second auto megatrend – digitization/networking – is taking shape a few blocks away. A Tiguan stands in a soundproof room where the driving acoustics are also tested. Jens Hedig (42) is at the wheel. The car has it all: its steering wheel moves as if by magic, controlled via a smartphone app. The 42-year-old is concerned with steering concepts for autonomous driving. “My field of work has been expanded,” says the computer scientist and grins: “I too have been transformed.”

Germany Volkswagen plant Salzgitter (picture-alliance / dpa / J. Stratenschulte)Classic combustion engine as a phase-out model – VW plant in Wolfsburg

Networking comes with driving data. Are there enough experts to stand up to IT giants? “The storm is only just starting,” said VW boss Herbert Diess recently to managers. This is also known in Salzgitter, where VW produces more than 1.3 million engines a year, from the 3-cylinder for the Up to the 16-cylinder for the Bugatti Chiron. The “component”, as the internal supplier factories are called, has long been considered not very sexy. Now comes a time when she will play a major role in the group. Salzgitter has received 500 million euros from the group for over five years.

Cell manufacturing and persuasion

A new world has spread in Hall 3: Volkswagen’s pilot production of battery cells. Alex Tornow joined the team as a mechanical engineer. “Germany has done a good job in research,” says the 35-year-old on the dependence on cell suppliers from Asia. The line is hardly reminiscent of what you imagine a car factory to be. It looks like a mixture of chemicals, paper, and chips. The start of production of the new cell factory, which VW is building with the Swedish partner Northvolt, is targeted at the turn of 2023/24. Opel is planning something similar with the manufacturer Saft in Kaiserslautern.

The changing world of work in the automotive industry (picture-alliance / dpa / O. Spata)In the “clean room”: pilot plant for battery cells in Salzgitter

Can this prevail across the industry? CEO Diess summed up the dilemma: At the moment, SUVs, in particular, are earning the money that has to be invested in the new era. At the machine tool manufacturer Grob in the Bavarian town of Mindelheim you can sing a song about the hardships of transformation. The supplier is not a small fish. Most recently, around 7 billion euros in sales were achieved with 7,000 employees worldwide. It was not easy, says managing director German Wankmiller. Today, e-mobility is a mainstay. VW indicated in 2016 where the journey was going: “An electric motor must also be installed in 30 to 60 seconds.” A development team was roughly formed. “We had to do a lot of persuasions to take people with us.”

Continental plays in a different league as a Dax group. The job cuts here is a done deal. By 2023, 15,000 jobs worldwide could be affected by “changes”. Conti wants to avoid dismissals. But individual works are being shut down. The route: full concentration on electronics, sensors, software, tires. Some works councils see this as an excuse; it is about pushing through savings goals. But openness to all variants – including modern combustion engines and synthetic fuel – is important to many.

Ex plastic technician Bednarek at VW would like to see more colleagues given the chance to restart. “My qualification was extensive,” he says as a new electrician for defined tasks. “I would like that to be the case elsewhere.”


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