05 Wolfsburg Plant Reopening
For creating a COVID-era reentry roadmap
On 19 March, the world’s largest auto plant shut down due to the pandemic. And it remained closed for five weeks, marking the longest shutdown in the factory’s 81-year history. When Volkswagen finally reopened its factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, it did so with great care—providing a template for other manufacturers around the world.
Amid urgency and uncertainty, the team implemented a wide range of changes to operations. That included rethinking the needs of 2,600 suppliers spanning 71 countries, all of which were dealing with their own coronavirus-driven challenges as well as border closures and shipping delays. Factory leaders collaborated with Volkswagen’s General Works Council, which represents the shop-floor workers, to develop 100 health and safety measures displayed on more than 8,000 posters throughout the plant and explained in booklets given to all 63,000 workers.
“We are keeping the risk of infection at Volkswagen as low as possible,” Bernd Osterloh, the top labor representative for the General Works Council, said in a company news release. “This will set a standard for the industry.”
The go-slow strategy started by bringing back roughly 8,000 employees (13 percent of the workforce) for single shifts. The team limited initial production to roughly 1,400 cars per week (down from 3,500 per day before the coronavirus), then ramping up to 6,000 or more vehicles per week. As production increased, the team deployed additional workers with staggered shift changes to avoid overcrowding and to prevent arriving workers mixing with those who were leaving.
“We need to be realistic,” Osterloh said in the statement at the time. “At the beginning, the new procedures will give rise to queries and reservations on the part of colleagues. Taking the time to answer questions is more important now than daily production figures.”
Inside the plant, employees followed social distancing guidelines, supported by walkway diversions, distance markers on floors and Plexiglas partitions. Employees wore mouth and nose coverings when it wasn’t possible to stay 1.5 meters (5 feet) away from each other. More time was allowed for cleaning tools. To further minimize contamination risk, the team removed water dispensers and installed several hundred hand-washing stations throughout the plant. The ventilation system was adjusted to pull as much fresh air as possible into work areas.
The project provided a health and safety roadmap for Volkswagen and manufacturers around the world. By following Wolfsburg’s template, Volkswagen was able to reopen all of its plants by June. And the project plan, published on Volkswagen’s website, was downloaded more than 120,000 times by suppliers and other companies across the globe.
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