In push for top spot, Volkswagen hits labor, robot problems

Wed Sep 24, 2014 6:35am EDT
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By Andreas Cremer, Jan Schwartz and Edward Taylor

WOLFSBURG Germany (Reuters) - In an era of automation, robotics and spotless factory floors, you don’t expect to see car workers lugging metal along a production line.

But at Volkswagen's main Wolfsburg plant earlier this year, workers had to resort to handing metal sheets to robots working on the E-Golf, said people who saw it happen.

The improvisation came after the electric model failed a simulated U.S. crash test. Planners at the 76-year-old plant decided to stiffen the frame of the car. But there was nowhere to put extra robots on the crowded assembly line, they said.

The worker-robot dance that ensued is just one sign that all is not well at Europe’s biggest carmaker.

Relations between management and workers at VW’s global headquarters have deteriorated to a low last seen about a decade ago when VW cut about 20,000 jobs in Germany.

Operating profit at the core VW brand is under pressure again, tumbling by a third in the first half of this year, due to lower sales, a weak dollar that translated into fewer euros, and spending on technology, including VW’s ambitious MQB modular production platform.

When Volkswagen launched MQB in 2012, the company looked almost unstoppable. The system - meant to help VW become the biggest carmaker in the world - is designed to allow VW to build a huge variety of car sizes and shapes on a single production line, increasing flexibility while slashing assembly costs.

But as the problems in Wolfsburg show, the platform can cause serious difficulties in the wrong environment. Rather than making it easy to build VW’s sprawling array of models, it has caused delays and forced overtime on some assembly lines, say company sources and production staff.   Continued...

The Volkswagen logo is seen at the Frankfurt Motor Show (IAA) in this September 10, 2013 file photo. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski/Files