Installation begins of VW body shop robots

The raising of Volkswagen's new Chattanooga assembly plant has hit a milestone as workers begin installing 398 robots inside the factory's body shop, officials said Thursday.

"This spring, we'll be ready to start testing the units," said Don Jackson, president of manufacturing for VW's Chattanooga operations, as the automaker remains on track to begin making cars in early 2011.

The body shop, where the robots will weld together the body pieces of the new cars, will be the most automated of the plant's operations, he said.

The layout and processes VW will use in the body shop will become the carmaker's standard worldwide for the next decade, Mr. Jackson said.

"The expectation is this will be the benchmark for VW," he said inside the mammoth structure.

Chris Hough, assistant manager of the body shop, said the robots cost about $30,000 each and are made by Fanuc Robotics.

"The robots are big, strong and fast," he said. "It's almost like an extension of your arm."

Officials said each robot is programmed for its specific task.

"Each robot has a job to do," Mr. Hough said. "If there's a problem, it shows up on the computer."

The body shop isn't entirely automated, officials said. Up to 400 people in two shifts will work in the building when fully operational.

Klaus Schroer, the plant engineering body weld manager, said the shop is designed to handle 31 vehicles per hour.

However, he said, the facility is built to process up to 60 vehicles an hour as more auto models are added at the plant, showing the factory's flexibility.

An overhead conveyor system will help move components inside the body shop.

"We have our own Six Flags in Chattanooga," quipped Mr. Jackson.

BY THE NUMBERS* 12 million - base price of body shop robots in dollars* 500,000 - size of body shop in square feet* 31 - vehicles to go through body shop per hourSource: Volkswagen

The robots will weld pieces to precise measurements, officials said.

"This is where the quality of the vehicles start," said Mr. Jackson. "This is the heart of quality."

From the body shop, the vehicles go to the plant's paint shop and then to the assembly facility before being prepped for sale, according to officials.

VW plans to make about 150,000 vehicles a year at the Chattanooga factory.