Volkswagen of America Chattanooga plant President and CEO Thomas du Plessis is leveraging extensive global expertise in the automaker’s localized electrified manufacturing efforts. (VW)

Tenured production CEO leading VW’s U.S. electrified manufacturing push

Volkswagen’s Thomas du Plessis brings a wealth of global manufacturing experience to the automaker's expanding electrification efforts in Chattanooga.

Volkswagen of America’s (VOA) sprawling operations just off I-75 in Chattanooga, Tennessee could be considered ground-zero for the German automaker’s rebuilding efforts in the U.S. Seeking to help restore its reputation after the Dieselgate scandal by localizing production of its ID.4 electric vehicle (EV), the Chattanooga complex is adding an all-new battery-pack production facility, along with a new body shop operation to accommodate the new EV SUV.

Originally constructed to produce the Passat for MY2012, the plant’s expanding infrastructure is phasing out production of that sedan, with the majority of its output now focused on two variations of the more profitable Atlas SUV for the American market, sales of which will help fund Volkswagen’s unprecedented investments in electrification. President and CEO of VOA’s Chattanooga operations, South African Thomas du Plessis – 60, and trained as a mechanical/industrial engineer – is bringing his considerable global experience to bear making sure VW’s manufacturing investments pay off.

With an automotive career that began in South Africa at an aluminum casting supplier for Volkswagen, Ford and Toyota, du Plessis went in-house with an OEM first with Toyota in South Africa, spending “significant time” in Japan before joining the Volkswagen Group in 2008 in South Africa as the head of production for the company’s Uitenhage plant. He became executive director of the VW-SAIC production partnership in China in 2014, overseeing nine assembly plants, two engine plants and a battery facility producing more than two million vehicles a year. SAE International spoke with du Plessis at the Chattanooga plant during the recent media introduction of the all-wheel-drive ID.4 EV SUV. What follows is an edited and condensed version of that animated conversation:

Your time in China must have given you an entirely new sense of scale in terms of automotive production?
Before I left, we were making 2.1 million cars a year. And during the time we launched 43 models in five-and-a-half years. That's where I really learned about launch and I reported directly at that time to the now head of production in the Volkswagen Group, Dr. Christian Vollmer. Volkswagen is the largest automotive production firm in China and they have two joint ventures, SAIC and FAW. They were the original ones and between them, they [produce] more than four million cars. And now they’ve created this Jetta brand and they're creating other brands. They have the market share.

What brought you from China to Chattanooga?
I was contacted by the then [head of] Volkswagen brand production, Dr. [Andreas] Tostmann, and he said, because he'd visited me in China, “I want you to come to Chattanooga,” and that happened very, very fast. I started in July 2019. The interesting thing, the guy that ran this plant originally, Frank Fischer, he's now got my job in China. So he stepped up and I stepped down.

They were seeking your experience here?
Not only, but also maturity. If you bring a certain experience and maturity, then it does help. You have to create a calm atmosphere. Production is difficult, so you can't create a crisis – and some days you have a crisis, but if you have every day a crisis mentality, it doesn't help. China is unbelievably stable. Suppliers are at a high level and the education and commitment is very good. People like to work in SAIC because they pay more than outside. They bring benefits with them and with such a big country and people looking for good opportunity, those that stay really want the job, so you have a lot of stability and high qualifications in the plant. So, it is not that difficult in China. It's big, but not that difficult. Unbelievable levels of capability throughout the plant.

Can you talk about what your goals are here in Chattanooga?
We had three focal points. The first one was a bit tongue-in-the-cheek, we called it ‘Back to the Future.’ That means we wanted to instill the basics again of production, all the basics. And with that, align ourselves for the future. That means bringing stability in quality, bringing stability in daily performance. That was the biggest single phase. And obviously training and development was a big issue.

Our second big phase was called One Team, and One Team was aligned about how do we create respect in the team? How do we create excellence in the team? How do we create teamwork in the team and against the topic of training and development? That had like five elements to it, a lot of activity fields that we work on. And if you walk down to the plant, down the escalator on the left-hand side, there's a big board where we display things that we can see how we have progressed. And that was part of our thing also with this team, to bring transparency. Very important to it, transparency and performance, even good performance or bad performance.

That must have proven useful during the pandemic?
We were the only car plant in America that shared all the data during COVID. How many cases, how many what, how many there. Nobody else made it public. No American plant did it. No North American plant did it. We shared it from day one and that was the right decision. That was the whole thing of transparency.

And the final aspect of the plan?
First was getting the basics really good. Second thing, getting the team. And the third major focus was what we called Launch Excellence. Because China expanded so much in the last eight years, they’ve had more than a hundred launches. [We’ve] taken all the launch knowledge, launch know-how, to align our organization, to prepare our organization – and again, visualization and transparency of key milestones. Once you follow this systematic process from the lessons learned, then you have an ability to have a successful launch and that is what we want.

Nowhere in the world has somebody been able to do it, learn, do it, learn, do it. So many cycles of learning, because most car plants do a launch and then five years later, they do a launch. In China, you launched every second month, different plants, but you launched a car and so you had the whole launch team and that's how they learned. And we brought all that learning here.

With Atlas and ID.4 to be integrated on a single production line, what occupies you now in Chattanooga?
We still continue stabilizing the current production and then get ready for the new vehicle integration. Because we have our vehicle integration, we have a standalone battery shop, the battery assembly. We have a complete new body shop because it's [ID.4] a different platform, you can't integrate it. But paint and assembly are integrated, so you have to bring the technology.

In China, we didn't launch an ID, we launched a Lavida BEV, which was not a MEB platform, but an MQB platform that was modified. So again, I learned from that. It looks overwhelming, but it's not overwhelming, it's just different processes. But the basics of building the car's the same. And assembly has different processes, but the fundamentals of assembly don't change.

What’s top of mind for you now that you’ll be building an electrified product?
Obviously, our first point is safety because you're working in some stages with high voltage. And that's why we have a very, very detailed training program in the academy that everybody goes through that has different levels. So, level one is the people working the line, they understand it. Then you have level two, that's people that do a bit more than working. They might change parts on the car. And then you have level three, which is what we call pilot or R&D people. Everybody gets certified so everybody is aware of the car.

You’re finalizing setup of your battery pack production facility here on site, which must have some advantages?
It's good because the battery manufacturing process has two halves to it. One is the battery casing or the welded assembly. That's complex and technically challenging. And then you have the module assembly, which is like an assembly process. The main thing for us, if you have the battery this close – the whole logistics of getting the batteries – you don't have to carry batteries, you don't have to store batteries. The whole thing becomes so simple by having the battery just-in-time delivered to us because if you had any other facility, you can imagine 500 kilograms [1,102 lb] per battery. How many can you put in a truck? Our process is assembly, delivered by AGV [automated guided vehicle] from the battery shop directly into the assembly line site where they are loaded by robots.

That is really, really good for us, a massive advantage. And should you find any problem with a battery, you can react very quickly because the battery shop is there. You see anything, you can react immediately. You don't have a whole warehouse of stock that you will have to manage, have to resolve, and we could minimize our stock. The shorter the pipeline, the less stuff you have in the warehouse. That's the key, so it's brilliant to have it in hand.

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