Knut Johannssen is in charge of production engineering for the Mercedes-Benz battery plants that are built around the world. In this interview, he talks about the global competence development, location factors, quality standards, and one thing that makes every production location unique.
Mr. Johannssen, you are responsible for battery production engineering at Mercedes-Benz. What exactly does that involve?
Together with my team, I design the interior of a battery plant and establish the necessary production processes. We mainly plan the "battery lines", which are the facilities required for the production of our lithium-ion battery systems, and commission them before handing them over to our colleagues in production. You could say that we are the interior designers of the global Mercedes-Benz Cars battery production network.
How many days of the year are you traveling for this mission?
Almost every single day actually! My office is in Mettingen, near the HQ in Untertürkheim. But I spend more time on site at the plants. At the moment, for example, I am regularly at our facility in Kamenz. Last year we commissioned a second plant there, which among other things will be used to produce batteries for our all-electric EQ vehicles.
When you are planning a new battery plant, how do you start and who needs to be involved?
The very first questions are: What are we launching onto the market in what years, in what volumes and which countries? This product and program planning then helps us to make the right location decision together with our colleagues from factory planning. At the same time, our developers tinker on the battery that will be produced on the battery lines. As soon as the first drafts are available, we plan production facilities and processes that are tailored to them. The art is to achieve the ideal combination of battery technology, production process and location.
Planning is one thing – how does implementation work?
As soon as the most important parameters of the production processes have been decided on, we can start the engagement phase, because of course we do not build the facilities ourselves. We select specialist partner companies on the basis of the requirements. These are then engaged by us to supply the facilities by an agreed date, and to construct them at a defined location in accordance with our planning. My team is responsible for set-up and commissioning, which is very closely involved during the entire process. The facilities are then commissioned and handed over to our colleagues in production. It is essential for us to network and coordinate closely with our local colleagues, who are experts in the fields of logistics, maintenance, quality and production.
What batteries do we produce on our battery lines?
We produce batteries for all electric vehicle applications of Mercedes-Benz Cars. In addition to batteries for our purely electric vehicles such as the EQC, we are also responsible for making the batteries for our plug-in hybrids and the 48-volt batteries for our combustion-powered vehicles. This means that we supply almost all Mercedes-Benz vehicles.
What projects are you dealing with at the moment?
Our global battery network is constantly growing. We are currently dealing with all nine of our future battery plants around the world. While in 2012, in Kamenz, we laid the foundation for a new era with our first battery plant, we now have battery production facilities on three of five continents, and we are successively commissioning more lines.
Why is having an international network of battery plants a success factor?
The local production of batteries is an important success factor in the electric initiative of Mercedes-Benz Cars and the decisive factor for accommodating the worldwide demand for electric vehicles flexibly and efficiently. It is the same as with the production of combustion-powered vehicles. We take advantage of the benefits offered by the location, such as proximity to our local suppliers, and short logistics routes. Transport costs in particular are a major factor. Imagine: an EQC battery is about 2.3 meters long, 1.6 meters wide and twelve centimeters high. Only producing the batteries at a single location would involve a substantial logistical expense.
How important are soft location factors?
It is always good to build up know-how in a decentralized manner. When I started working for Daimler 25 years ago, a lot of things happened exclusively in Stuttgart. That has changed completely. As a company with global operations, we need to position ourselves globally. This also involves dealing and working with local conditions and different cultures. In order to have a strong network of battery plants, we also need strong partnerships - not only within the locations themselves, but also across the board, with all local stakeholders in the fields of politics, business and society.
Do you also talk to city and municipal administrations?
Cooperation across all sectors is absolutely essential. The cities and municipalities are of course involved in our planning and processes from the start - from the approval of the production facilities to working with local authorities. Take our new plant in Jawor, for example. In this case, at a very early stage, we also organized a permanent exhibition entitled "Mercedes-Benz meets Jawor" in order to enter into a dialog with the local population, and involve all parties. It was a huge success!
How does battery production in Kamenz differ from production in Beijing, for example?
Apart from the fact that they are 7,400 km apart, there are very few essential differences between the production and processes of the two facilities. We mainly achieve efficiency by establishing global standards. At the same time, we benefit at every single facility in the world from the unique culture and mentality of the local employees. Each individual contributes different suggestions for improvements and ideas, for example. This then helps us throughout our entire network. Constantly optimizing our production processes is of course essential, and we seamlessly pass on new findings on the basis of our globally networked Shop Floor process.
How do you safeguard standards of quality and safety, particularly since the network is growing so rapidly?
Our ambition is crystal clear: We must provide Mercedes-Benz quality and safety, for batteries as well. This applies to our products as much as it does to our production. With this goal in mind, we developed a training concept for Kamenz, in partnership with production, in order to best prepare our employees for working around batteries. We offer differentiated levels of training depending on the field they are working in, but also a basic qualification that is completed by all employees at every location around the world. You may be asking yourself whether this is strictly necessary. I think it is. This is how we convey our knowledge and standards around the world.
What is the biggest difference between your work planning battery plants and your previous position planning press shops and body shell, painting and assembly facilities?
I would say that it really doesn't matter whether I am planning an engine, vehicle or battery plant – the procedure is very similar. Only the requirements with respect to safety, for example, differ slightly since we are working with high voltages. What I find particularly fascinating are the people and their motivations. Everyone I work with here is a believer in the future of e-mobility. We want to influence this change, which brings us together and motivates us.
Who fits in with your team? What qualities should colleagues have if they want to succeed in battery production?
Definitely a willingness to get really stuck in with the subject of e-mobility. Planning and commissioning battery production facilities is a team sport. We need people who are very good with complex processes, and able to think beyond their own task. Subject-specific expertise is also required. A degree is not enough, which is why we train our employees every day.
Is there anything that you would wish for regarding the future of zero-emissions mobility?
Yes. It is very important to me that we continue to look into the overall concept of e-mobility, and that the subject receives political support around the world. Electromobility is not just about producing batteries and introducing them onto the market in fascinating vehicles. We look at the entire life cycle with respect to a future loop, from environmentally friendly and socially acceptable disposal and production technologies/procedures through to recycling, remanufacturing and energy storage. The issue of charging infrastructure is particularly important to the success of electric mobility.