In the current issue of the eMove360° magazine in german language (download PDF), we find out in an interview with Sebastian Wolf how Volkswagen AG wants to cover the increasing cell demand for electric cars with its own gigafactories. As Head of Operations Battery Cell in the Battery division, he is responsible for building the factories.
Mr. Wolf, you are supposed to build five cell factories in Europe by 2030. How much respect do you have for the job?
Sebastian Wolf: I don’t want to downplay it: the construction of the gigafactories is a major project that really demands a lot from us. We are now building cell factories in series. It comes down to three things. First: a strong team. That is why we have strengthened our team with other top experts from the international battery industry and will continue to expand the team. Second: the right partners for the construction of the buildings and the production facilities. Third: standardization. If we plan each work individually, it will take us too long. That’s why we rely on the concept of the standard factory, while remaining flexible and capable of learning at the same time. This means that all locations will go into operation in good time.
What are the advantages of the standard factory?
Wolf: Above all, the standard design simplifies and speeds up planning and purchasing because we can use the same components for buildings and equipment in all factories. Only the approval procedures in the different countries are different. The basis for the standard factory is the Volkswagen unit cell, which we manufacture at all locations. Both together lead to high economies of scale. From the customer’s point of view, this has a positive effect on the vehicle price.
Together with Bosch, Volkswagen is examining the establishment of a European supplier for battery cell factories. What role does that play in your plans?
Wolf: Not a very small one. In Europe, a number of major projects in the field of battery production will be ramped up in the next few years. We see a lot of potential to jointly participate in the factory equipment value chain. Both sides have innovative skills and can carry out globally networked industrial production in large series. Among other things, Bosch develops tailor-made machines and systems and supplies digitally controlled production lines.
They are also aiming for a cooperation with the Belgian battery material specialist Umicore. What’s it all about?
Wolf: With this project, too, we want to set up localized value creation in order to counteract possible bottlenecks. We are in talks with Umicore about setting up comprehensive production capacities for cathode material. The procurement of raw materials and recycling also play a role in the talks.
What investment sum are we talking about in the cell factories?
Wolf: The group is investing around 2 billion euros in the construction and operation of the cell factory in Salzgitter. An investment flows into the development of the entire value chain in Europe that we do not manage alone, but together with strong partners. To this end, Volkswagen founds a European stock corporation that bundles all activities – from raw material processing and the development of the unit cell to the control of the gigafactories.
The cell factory in Salzgitter is set, Spain and Eastern Europe are being discussed, additional locations are being examined. According to which criteria do you choose?
Wolf: In addition to the nature of the property and the local conditions, two things are crucial: personnel and energy. In order to start up a cell factory quickly, we have to find enough qualified employees in the area. Not just chemists, that’s a manageable number, but above all people with production experience. We also need enough green electricity, for example from solar energy or wind farms.
How adaptable are factories as battery technology evolves?
Wolf: The standard factory is planned on the basis of our technology matrix, which takes into account more than 30 foreseeable process innovations by the end of the decade. This includes, for example, the dry coating of the electrodes, new cell chemistries and the solid-state battery. We anticipate evolving manufacturing over three factory generations. Some process chains will change, and we will replace some systems. Each generation of the standard factory is designed in such a way that we are always upwardly compatible and thus ensure that we can use the investments in the long term.
Volkswagen partner Northvolt is building another factory in Skellefteå in northern Sweden. Why the split?
Wolf: Northvolt will not only supply brands of the Volkswagen Group, but also other customers. Accordingly, not only unit cells will be produced in Sweden in the future, but also other cell formats.
Irrespective of this, cell production in Skellefteå is designed to use renewable energy from hydropower What is the schedule?
Wolf: In Salzgitter, the so-called levelling, the preparation of the site, is almost complete. We will submit the planning application in March and we expect to start construction in the second half of the year. The first factory block is scheduled to start series production in spring 2025. The second block will start after around half a year. The other locations will then follow at intervals of a few months, starting in southern Europe. We plan to reach a total capacity of 240 GWh by 2030 at the latest.
Does Volkswagen have these or do you have to buy more cells?
Wolf: With in-house production, we are securing the ramp-up of our e-offensive and are on the way to more independence. However, we will continue to rely on purchased cells. Of course, a lot depends on the customers: the faster electromobility becomes established, the faster the need for battery cells will increase.
So far, manufacturers from Asia have been considered the leaders. Do the cell factories also have industrial policy significance?
Wolf: In an electric car, the battery cell is a key differentiator. It decides on charging speed and range. I therefore think it is immensely important that we build up know-how in Europe and bring value chains to our side. Similar to the combustion engine today. With the battery cell we are only fast followers at the moment, but if we do it right, we could be among the leaders in a few years.
Sebastian Wolf has been Head of Operations Battery Cell in the Battery division since August 2021. Among other things, the production engineer is responsible for setting up the European cell factories that make the Volkswagen ID. Models and other Group vehicles are to be supplied with energy storage. Before joining the Volkswagen Group, Wolf worked for the Chinese battery manufacturer Farasis Energy, most recently as a member of the European board. After graduating from high school in Istanbul, Wolf studied at the Universities of Aachen, Bath and Tsinghua in Beijing. In addition to German and English, he speaks Chinese, French and Turkish. www.volkswagen.de