Gerd Walker is a Member of the Audi Board for Production and Logistics. He talks about what will happen at the VW subsidiary if the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline continues to be closed.
Mr Walker, do you use a robot at home?
Gerard Walker: A cutting robot and a suction robot. Ten years ago I built a small swimming pool, five meters long. And there’s a suction robot that helps me not have to play pool boy anymore. But those are just two. Everything else is a guide.
And how many robots are used in Audi?
Gerard Walker: There are usually around 1000 bots on the line. We have three lines on the Ingolstadt website, so you can clarify.
Your former colleague on the board, Sabine Maaßen, recently said that the 9,500 job cuts in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm will be completed by the end of the year. How automated will the Audi plant in Ingolstadt be in ten years? And where in production do you think people are necessary?
Gerard Walker: In bodybuilding, automation has been very, very high for a long time. This is the most automated area in automotive engineering. We have very sensitive processes here that are very challenging for people and require high precision. Things are very different in assembly, where we have a very low level of automation. We don’t want to get to that of bodybuilding here either. We will not have fully automatic production at Audi. In automotive engineering, it makes a lot of sense to keep having people in the right places. However, these activities will become more and more important. Well-trained employees who do the mental work and leave simple repetitive tasks to robots. We will get a lot of work in maintaining the technology, as well as programmers, there will be more improvements. That means: Programs and accompanying activities will increase. The key to this lies in qualification: I am confident that we can prepare our staff for these jobs.
About 400,000 skilled workers are missing in Germany every year. Do Audi see that?
Gerard Walker: Professionals are scarce everywhere, especially in the IT sector. This applies mainly to electrical and electronic areas. Our approach to these future fields begins with apprenticeship. We develop basic skills from the beginning and thus deal with the shortage of skilled workers. In addition, we employ many who maintain new technologies. However, the challenge will be to motivate the new generations to continue. Change is a challenge in every way, its speed is faster than we thought. Accordingly, we will increase our efforts. We will probably reach the end point, where we will build more electric cars than combustion engines, sooner than expected, which is why we need to change ourselves as a plant and as a team faster. We still have it under control. We have great programs and personalized additional education offerings, such as Digital Shift and Digital Future, which thank God work well.
How often are you out and about on the lines and plants?
Gerard Walker: From time to time. I look at the construction of new cars, discuss with the team what we can do differently in the future.
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They started at the beginning of February. Shortly thereafter, the Russian government ordered a war of aggression against Ukraine. No gas has flowed through Nord Stream I since Monday. What does that mean for Audi production in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm if this pipeline continues to be closed?
Gerard Walker: The factory is powered by electricity and heat. We have been supplying the Ingolstadt site exclusively with green electricity since 2012. We use gas for heating. So we are watching the current developments with concern. We have already taken the first steps to reduce our gas demand. To keep our halls warm, we have already bought or sourced alternative fuels, especially crude oil. But there are also processes in the plant, for example in the paint shop, where we cannot do without gas. It will be the same for all car manufacturers because we use the same technology.
How do you prepare for this?
Gerard Walker: Alternative energy, flower. At one point or another you can do it for a reasonable amount of time. On the other hand, we replenish our stock as much as we can and thus ensure that we do not break the chain of the process. We talk to our suppliers and protect ourselves accordingly. What helps us – and what the situation accelerates – is that we can CO2 our sites much faster2– establish neutral. The goal so far is to have achieved this in all plants by 2025. Now we can take advantage of the tough conditions and pick up speed. In the Brussels and Györ plants we are already there. In Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm we are 70 to 80 percent on the right track.
Asked again: If the gas stays off, can Audi no longer paint cars?
Gerard Walker: If the gas stays away, we will feel it in various places in the factory
After the war, the situation is still difficult. In the federal government, the FDP is not in a hurry to take measures for the fall of Corona. Audi has registered a short-term job until the end of July. How is Audi production preparing for the coming months of this pandemic?
Gerard Walker: In our view, the situation will remain volatile. We are actually preparing for a situation where we can immediately implement the measures we developed at the beginning of the pandemic. What we have always maintained are distance rules on the lines to continue to protect our workers there well. At the moment we have good conditions in plants.
So are you still hoping for a short-term job at Audi?
Gerard Walker: For now we can’t rule that out, at least.
Has the Ingolstadt plant ever been run under full load since you became Head of Production?
Gerard Walker: Yes, we have that situation again and again where we are producing at full capacity. Unfortunately, it is not in the continuity that we envision. We typically have longer lead times when it comes to production planning periods. Unfortunately, we often have to adjust our staff’s shift schedules at very short notice. But: Even if this is a big burden for the employees, everyone pulls together.
Missing computer chips, wiring harnesses, broken supply chains – isn’t that a daily game of Tetris for the logistics professional?
Gerard Walker: Absolutely. All departments in our company should work together. Purchasing, equipment, production, in technical development, in sales. This is of course a daily topic for the Management Board. We have created a task force, so we are well organized. The theme will continue to accompany us in the second half of the year, although we have now adjusted our processes in a way that we can deal with very easily in order to keep the delivery time for our customers as short as possible.
Does this mean that Audi will no longer have chip problems from 2023?
Gerard Walker: I wouldn’t say that for sure, because I would have to be a prophet to do that. If we look around the world – also in other sectors – then we see that this is a structural issue that we all have to deal with. One thing is certain: We must use the time now to make ourselves more resilient, to find technical solutions or alternatives for one or another generation of chips that cause us more problems. We will continue to improve, but we cannot give full details at this time.
From 2026, Audi will bring only electric models to market. When will the very last combustion engine roll off the assembly line in Ingolstadt?
Gerard Walker: Ingolstadt is expected to be fully electrified by 2028.
Combustion engines should be phased out in the EU by 2035. There was a dispute in the federal government about Germany’s position on this. How important is a clearly defined exit date for production? Doesn’t that help you even switch quite quickly? Compared to other German manufacturers, VW and Audi decided early.
Gerard Walker: We don’t need time pressure, we make it ourselves. We have a clear transition plan for e-mobility. But of course it helps to change the plants accordingly and close the operating lines in parallel. We decided to mix as little as possible to get maximum efficiency in the first generation of electromobility. Therefore, the high speed of change is definitely an advantage for us. And we want that too.
The main factory in Ingolstadt will also have battery production. What direction will this take? When will the first battery be ready, how many people will it take?
Gerard Walker: In electromobility, the production of batteries is necessary to maintain employment – for more automation or even to simplify the design of the vehicle. On the other hand, it is quite a technology topic that you must know. In Ingolstadt specifically for the mid-range SUV Q6 e-tron, our first compact electric model, which we will be building on site from 2023. For this purpose, we are setting up battery production including battery module assembly. The first batteries of the original series are running on it at the moment. About 300 people work there. Almost all of them come from production areas and are retrained.
Problems with the VW Carad software unit are causing delays. But without software there are no cars. What does that mean for you as Audi Board Member for Production?
Gerard Walker: Consolidating software capabilities into a group-owned software suite is the right approach and a unique project in the industry. This allows us to create greater collaboration within the group. It’s not uncommon to have one problem or another, and we as a production company have to deal with that. Even small delays in processes create challenges. But we can effectively prevent them. This is a community project on which the woes and woes of all of us depend. That’s why we’re all working together.
So you remain hopeful. What will Audi production look like in ten years? Can you give us an interesting example?
Gerard Walker: Key word: virtualization. The plant’s planning processes, for production, are running almost today. First, there is the digital twin. We are digitally building a new plant so we can already improve our process systems there. And that’s the biggest difference we’ll have in production technology: First of all, we’re virtual developers. The second step is equipment
When all the processes are optimized and the shop continues to work, what does the Audi Board Member for Production do in his free time?
Gerard Walker: I take care of my family. And my passion – apart from cars – is cycling, because it’s the best way for me to relax. My family and I enjoy visiting. Regardless of the environment. I prefer mountain biking, whether on a racing, gravel or mountain bike. I enjoy all of this
But without batteries, right?
Gerard Walker: Without battery. I’m still on the bike.
For someone: Gerd Walker, 52, has been a Member of the Audi Board of Production and Logistics since February this year. Born in Reutlingen, he started in 1998 as a concept designer at the Ingolstadt VW subsidiary.