The calm before the electric storm in Germany’s changing auto sector

dpa news germany

The world of work is changing rapidly in the German economy’s key automotive sector. Jobs dependent on less environmentally friendly engines are under threat – and not everyone will be able to make the transition to electric.

Much has changed for machine fitter Martin Bednarek, one of hundreds of thousands of workers employed by Germany’s key automotive sector.

Their industry is being confronted with major questions regarding what kind of work they will be doing in the future, and whether there will be enough work all for them.

Bednarek has already travelled part of that road. He is now standing in front of a piece of equipment almost as tall as a house in Hall 32A of Volkswagen’s Braunschweig plant.

Surrounded by transparent walls, the giant robot has to be brought into position accurate to the millimetre.

“Leaving the comfort zone behind was not an easy decision,” the 47-year-old says. He spent many of his 24 years at Volkswagen working in synthetics. “But batteries are the way of the future,” he now believes.

Here in north-central Germany, Volkswagen has constructed a new branch of the Braunschweig plant for 300 million euros (330 million dollars) to house its new battery manufacturing system, as the world’s largest automotive concern joins the transition towards cleaner, electric-powered vehicles.

Line 1 has just gone into operation, and by the end of the year, a second line will be running on the other side of the hall. Volkswagen is banking on modular electrical building blocks (MEB) as the core of its electrification drive, costing billions of dollars.

An average internal combustion engine has more than 1,000 separate components, whereas an electric motor contains just a fraction of this figure.

But the shift towards e-cars is still expected to be difficult.

Volkswagen Group – comprising the main brand, plus Audi, Porsche, SEAT and Skoda, along with MAN and Scania trucks – is investing 33 billion euros (36 billion dollars) up to 2024 as it pivots towards electric. Not many of its competitors will be able to come up with sums like this.

Volkswagen’s powerful works council is working on the assumption that 108,000 German jobs depend on the traditional internal combustion engine, with no alternatives planned, based on a survey conducted by the IG Metall trade union. Some 101,000 employees meanwhile could go into alternative work.

Some of the equipment in Hall 32A is idle as the weekend approaches. But when production at Volkswagen’s Zwickau plant picks up, that will change. This is the calm before the storm.

Volkswagen is building its electric ID.3 model in the city near the Czech border. By the time it reaches full production at the end of 2021, some 500,000 battery system units will be produced each year.

The head of the Braunschweig works council, Uwe Fritsch, has lived through industrial upheavals in the past. “Changing the accustomed structures affects people,” he says. “Guidance through it is essential.”

Between 500 and 600 of the workers there have completed conversion training to electronics.

A jobs guarantee is in place up to 2029, but the plant, like all other in-company suppliers, must set its standards according to the external competition, Otto Joos, head of the chassis division, says.

“There is a constant struggle for orders. We have also suffered,” Joos says. But one thing is clear: “If we wish to safeguard our future, we have to join the trend to electric mobility.”

The second megatrend in the automotive world is taking shape a few blocks further along.

A Tiguan SUV is undergoing testing, with Jens Hedig at the wheel, a 42-year-old IT specialist working on steering concepts for driverless cars.

“My field of work has been extended. And I have been transformed as well,” he says.

Workers at Volkswagen’s Salzgitter plant, where more than 1.3 million engines are produced each year, from the three-cylinder for the compact Up to the 16-cylinder for the Bugatti Chiron, are also well aware of the changes afoot.

Some 500 million euros are to be invested over the next five years in the plant in the state of Lower Saxony.

And a new world is evolving in Hall 3: VW’s battery cell pilot plant.

The production line bears little resemblance to a classic car assembly plant, looking rather like a blend of chemicals, paper and electronic chip manufacturing.

Alex Tornow joined the team as a mechanical engineer. “Germany has done good work in the area of research,” he says. “Now it is a matter of spreading experience within the company.”

By Jan Petermann, dpa

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