As we drove onto the expansive Volkswagen Chattanooga campus, just southwest of the city center, I noticed a sign that indicated we were no longer on U.S. soil (technically, the plant stands in a Foreign Trade Zone) and that any infractions fell under federal – not state or local – law. Clearly, this was not your typical U.S. manufacturing facility.
Walking the production line at Volkswagen Chattanooga is a unique blend of Germanic industrial precision and American manufacturing pride. Don’t let the cold and calculated machinery fool you, this assembly line is full of individual people who put care and excitement into each job. Currently, the plant employs around 3100 people, who are a mix of local, recruited, and German talent. After going through up to 10 weeks of training – two weeks of common core training is required for all employees, regardless of whether they work on the line or not – the line workers are split into two and a half shifts (patriotically named the red, white, and blue shifts). The plant runs six days a week. There is surprisingly little automation compared with other automotive factories I’ve been to; namely, the parts deliveries were made my actual people driving carts with things like dashboard components, spare tires, and wheel well liners, all of which are delivered in “just in time” speed so that no one station has too many parts. The factory is also no longer building cars on spec – each of the Passats rolling off the line has a designated destination already.
We were given our top-to-bottom tour of the plant by Scott Wilson, the extremely affable man in charge of media and community relations at Volkswagen Chattanooga. Wilson is a great example of the kind of passion for the area embodied by both the plant employees and VW’s overall operations. In building the facility – the factory is but one part of the 1400-acre campus – Volkswagen worked to create the only LEED Platinum certified automotive factory (the highest level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification), going as far as changing streams from east-west to north-south to help reestablish a natural wetland. A 65-acre solar park resides in the far corner of the campus, which can produce up to 9.58 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 12 percent of the plant’s needs when the line is running or 100 percent of the power needed when cars aren’t being built. Volkswagen has worked hard to rehabilitate the land, which previously housed a bomb and ammunition plant until the Vietnam War.
Wilson told us that production can be adjusted based on consumer demand and that there is enough land to build a mirror plant, if need be. Right now, the Chattanooga facility is building about 650 cars per day, which comes out to around 140,000 to 152,000 per annum; full capacity is around 150,000 units, but can be expanded up to 250,000 units with some equipment modifications. Last year, Volkswagen sold 117,023 Passats in the U.S. and has already sold 25,909 copies of the sedan through the first quarter of this year. It’s worth noting that the American-spec Passat is only built at the Chattanooga plant – which builds no other models right now – but the car is also sold in the Middle East as well as is North America. Interestingly, about 80 percent of the cars produced in Chattanooga are sent across the country by train and the campus has two rail hubs.
As we left the plant and passed the rows of freshly minted Passats, I couldn’t help but to think of how big of a risk Volkswagen took with the Chattanooga plant, given its history of manufacturing in the U.S. This is a top-notch plant that could rival VW’s other facilities across the globe and currently builds just one model. Wilson informed us that they’re hoping to win production the upcoming three-row crossover (previewed by the CrossBlue Concept), and I hope they do, too.