How GM is Pioneering EV & Autonomous Manufacturing: A Story of Scale

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Posted: 01/03/2018

In 2009, just as the dark clouds of the 07-08 financial crisis began to clear, the General Motors Corporation filed for bankruptcy. Huge losses had resulted from a series of missteps, alongside the crash in demand caused by the global economic crisis. Today, reborn as the General Motors Company, GM has demonstrated that Lazarus can indeed rise from the flames – with a little help from a government bailout totalling nearly $50bn.

But while taxpayers' money undeniably saved the firm from complete annihilation – along with 1.2 million jobs – it has been technical and engineering innovation and ambition that has underpinned GM's resurgence.

An electric atmosphere

While GM continues – for now – to make the large combustion-engine machines still favoured by Americans, it has injected huge sums into its Chevrolet Volt PHEV, which sold almost 25,000 models in the US last year – just behind the Tesla Model S EV on 29,000. Chevrolet’s sole pure-electric car, the Bolt, sold just 569, but it’s very much a new kid on the block.

In a market expected to grow hugely in the coming decades, Chevrolet’s EV credentials look good: FleetCarma thinks 2018 could be the “the year of the breakthrough” – for big EVs like the Model 3, the Nissan Leaf – and the Bolt.

This success – current and anticipated – is tempered by the fact GM ditched its pint-sized EV1 electric car way back in the 1990s. Then-CEO Rick Wagoner said it was his biggest mistake. Jettisoning so much research and development left a big space – and an opportunity. 

The possibilities of sustainably-powered electric vehicles did not go unnoticed by Elon Musk and his engineers, who eventually produced the excellent Model S in 2012.

But, past commercial short-sightedness aside, GM's sights are now firmly set on the coming electric revolution – to say nothing of the expected autonomous revolution. 

Ending petrol and diesel car production 

Recent news that the company will stop producing petrol and diesel cars in favour of electric vehicles is not only seismic for the firm, but for the whole industry. The firm says it will add two more extended-range EVs to its line-up within 18 months.

Naturally, as Executive Vice President Mark Reuss states, this switch away from the combustion engine towards electric "won't happen overnight," but we can expect "at least 20" EVs in GM's range by 2023.

This is more than just a punt. Demand for autonomous vehicles is set to increase to 138,089 units by 2024 according to Grand View Research.

With hindsight it's clear that GM has been building up to this point for years. In 2010 it opened the Brownstown Battery Pack Assembly Plant, backed by $105.9 million from the U.S Department of Energy (DOE). It was the first ever lithium-ion plant built in the US by a major car manufacturer.

The plant assembles battery packs using cells produced by Korea's LG Chem. While using cells made outside the US may suggest some supply risk – especially considering Tesla manufactures its own cells in its vast Nevada Gigafactory – GM’s battery plant is key to the company’s growth prospects. 

Indeed, the ability to scale-up production, while maintaining quality, has underpinned the factory from the outset. 

“Process a cell every 2.7 seconds”

Back in 2009, Gary Cowger, then GM group vice president, said the plant harnessed “a rapid pre-assembly system to drive accuracy and repeatability.”

He continued: “The manufacturing challenge we face is to process a single cell every 2.7 seconds or, at full production, 70,000 cells per day. It’s a big challenge, but we have a plan, and the equipment, in place to meet that goal.”

A plant that can upscale 

Cowger talked of using “flexible manufacturing layouts, as well as equipment, which will enable the plant to quickly respond to volume or product changes in the market. 

“In the future, when we have a number of different battery packs in production, this plant will be able to adjust [work flow] based on market demand. We’ll [also] use a number of tools to ensure quality in every phase of the battery assembly process.”

Much of the assembly process is automated, with welding equipment performing “hundreds of welds on each battery.”

The autonomous revolution

While automation is already a key component of GM’s behind-the-scenes operations, it is set to be a centrepiece of its driving experience, too: The Detroit firm wants to be the prime mass-market manufacturer of self-driving cars. 

Recent news that GM has built 10 autonomous test vehicles of its Chevrolet Bolt EV technically mean it is officially the world’s first mass production self-driving carmaker.

“Autonomous vehicles at scale” 

GM’s chairman and CEO Mary Barra told her employees: “The level of integration in these vehicles is on par with any of our production vehicles, and that is a great advantage. In fact, no other company today has the unique and necessary combination of technology, engineering and manufacturing ability to build autonomous vehicles at scale.” 

This milestone is the result of ongoing investment. As well as funding a dedicated autonomous vehicle engineering team, GM invested $500m in Lyft to work on a network of on-demand self-driving cars in US cities. 

Its acquisition of Cruise Automation in 2016 also meant it had a pool of deep software and rapid development expertise. Then in June of last year, GM began testing self-drive 40 Bolt EVs in San Francisco and Scottsdale.

The roll-out of 10 autonomous Bolt EVs from the company’s plant on Lake Orion, Michigan, is a huge step forward for the much-vaunted self-drive revolution. It’s beaten Chrysler-Fiat, Google, Apple, BMW, Audi, Volvo and many others to this benchmark. 

But being the first ever manufacturer of mass market autonomous vehicles must prove to be more than a gimmicky accolade. With its Bolt EV GM has an extraordinary car for the masses – with class-leading range of 238 miles (Over a 100 miles more than Tesla’s entry-level 50kWh model) and a price tag of less than $37,000 – and that’s before incentives.

Understanding the future of motoring, coupled with innovative manufacturing scale-up planning and heavy investment in plants and products, have made GM a force to be reckoned with – certainly in terms of EVs and autonomous tech. 

While the Troubled Asset Relief Program and DOE investment were no doubt essential to the revival of this iconic US marque, without the hard-nosed technological, engineering and business prowess displayed by its people, GM would never have risen from the ashes at all.

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Posted: 01/03/2018

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