Cameras are not allowed inside the Audi factories so the above photos are unique. They are of my newly built 2016 Audi S6, which Audi Exclusive painted in Ara Blue Crystal Effect. While I was not there to experience my specific car’s production, the photos provided by Audi Germany is the next best thing. I did have a chance to tour the factory several months prior. Here is my experience:
The Audi factory in Neckarsulm is home to the production some of the brand’s most impressive models. This particular part of the factory produces models ranging from the A6 to the RS7.
After lunch and walking through the Audi Forum Neckarsulm my day continued with a tour of the A6/A7 Audi Factory. From the forum, we board a bus that takes us to our first stop.
Through our listening devices, our guide reminds us “Cell phones off,” as we approach the Audi factory. As it is loud inside our guide has provided us with listening devices tuned to her microphone. We get off the bus and pass through the doors of the press shop; the first stop on our tour and right away the noise becomes intense. Above us, cranes are transporting giant coils of aluminum weighing 35 metric tons. Workers lower the coils into a machine that rolls them out. The uncoiling process is slow and deliberate.
In front of us is giant metal dies, as big as the bus we just left, the dies shape the aluminum parts found on the A6, A7, and A8. The transfer dies fit inside the stamping machines, and consist of two pieces, a top and bottom.
We walk over to the actual stamping machines, which are as tall as a four-story building. Their foundations go even deeper, as they absorb most of the impact and stop the stamping machines from rattling the nearby homes off their foundations. While standing next to the stamping machine, it’s not obvious the forces in play here—yet the sheet of aluminum passing through the machines tells another story as they start to take shape.
The robot picks up a blank aluminum sheet, places the fresh aluminum sheet between the two dies. The stamping machine activates and applies 7,700 metric tons of pressure. The top dies which attach to the stamping machine while the lower dies remain secured to the floor. The immense pressure forces the aluminum to take the shape of the dies as if it was clay. At the same time, the stamping process trims the excess aluminum away.
The stamping machines perform the process cold so that the aluminum maintains its strength. However, the downside to the durability of the aluminum is that the parts must develop over the course of six stampings. The robot moves the piece to the next die. The press activates again, and the part progresses. An aluminum b-pillar starts to appear. Once it passes through all six dies the completed part slides down into an inspection area. And once the review is complete, workers stack the pieces and place them into containers. Once the machines produce enough of the particular part to last the day, the production ends. The dies move out of the stamping machine and into storage. New dies move in, and the process repeats.
And I am completely mesmerized.
We pass through the logistics area where containers full of various car parts come from a large number of vendors. Audi only produces a small percentage of the parts for each vehicle; the rest depends on Audi’s supply chain. For example, an Audi A6 contains 4800 parts, which is the product of both Audi and 732 different suppliers. The parts are all scheduled to arrive just in time for the vehicle’s production. The workers move quickly to sort and deliver these parts to various smaller storage areas, and also to the assembly line stations.
As we continue moving through the assembly line, we arrive at the body shop. While it is nearly autonomous, there are humans around to tend to any issues that might occur with the robots or to replenish consumable items like rivets. If a person enters a secure area where the robots are working, the building process stops until the work finishes.
Audi constructs vehicle bodies in many stages. Robots build the sides of the body shell first. Followed by the front and rear body parts. Where aluminum and steel make contact such as with the roof panels, the robots apply an adhesive to ensure the two metals never touch. If they touch, the two metals will start to corrode each other.
After each step, lasers record and verify measurements against the original engineering specifications. The computer rejects the vehicle bodies that are out of spec, and the process starts over. Watching the bodies roll down the assembly line is amazing: there’s an A6 Avant, followed by an A7 and an A6 sedan. The plant is capable of producing any model at a moment’s notice. The robots quickly change the tooling necessary for each model. Each completed body is laser scanned and then sent to the paint booth.
Now, construction of the drivetrain begins. Starting with the engine, the workers organize the components on a jig using hoists, and they hold down the pieces using clamps as they apply fasteners. The employee lowers the driveshaft into place, and two other employees attach bolts and torque them to exact specifications. The other technicians are busy putting the suspension, exhaust, brakes, and securing various heat shields into place.
While the body receives paint, we head to the main production floor. Here, small trucks ferry carts filled with the parts necessary to complete the vehicles. The employees fill the carts by shopping aisles and start with scanning the build sheet. Once that happens, green lights illuminate under each appropriate bin. The worker then chooses the part and places into their cart. Instead of hard to remember part numbers, Audi uses familiar names such as plants, food and other common names to label each part.
The completed body sits inside a hanger belt as it moves down the line. The lifts can pivot to allow the Audi technicians to attach the various heat shields, wiring harnesses, fuel lines, and other pieces. At this point, all the interior parts come together.
I am also amazed at the amount of effort that goes into making sure the build process is as ergonomic as possible for the Audi employees. The cars arrive at arms length, and the employees also sit on special floating chairs that help keep them comfortable. Workers use hydraulic hoists to pick up the large parts with minimal effort. They also rotate through the stations not just to reduce repetitive stress injuries, but also to gain new experiences.
Back on the line, the drivetrain moves on a track from the lower level of the factory to meet the body in the assembly area. Once the body and drivetrain become married, two robots move in and tighten the bolts. The automatic bolting station has a cycle time of 75 seconds (docking/undocking, the fastening of 72 screwed connections). The car continues down the line, and technicians connect the various wiring harnesses and fuel lines. Lastly, they fit the wheels and doors. An ergonomic lift helps the technician place the wheel on the hub and a device with five sockets secures the wheel in one step.
The whole build process takes several hours to complete. The vehicles then go through a series of quality tests by Audi engineers: the paint undergoes one more inspection, the car runs on a dynamometer, and a test driver takes it for several laps around a unique test track to make sure all the parts fit.
Audi A6/A7 Neckarsulm Production Facts:
• Model Produced: A6 Sedan, A6 Avant, A6 allroad quattro, S6 Sedan, RS6 Avant, A7 Sportback, S7 Sportback, RS7 Sportback
• Assembly of These models takes place on seven production lines stretching a total of 2.2 km (1.4 mi))
• Employees: 3,100
• Production area: 77,000 m²
• More than 800 cars/day
• Up to 5,500 parts per car with 19 engine variants and 24 transmission variants
The best part about these tours is that anyone can experience them. Public tours are available at both the Audi factories in Ingolstadt and Neckarsulm. The tour guides are knowledgeable about all things Audi. My assigned tour guide has been working at Audi for nearly forty years! She could answer all my questions without missing a beat.
My S6 Specifications:
2016 Audi S6 Sedan
• Audi Exclusive: Ara Blue Crystal Effect
• Black Leather
• Carbon Atlas Inlays
• LED headlights
• S6 Sport Package
• Bose Surround Sound
• Black Optics Pack
• Black Cloth Headliner