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Inside The Rivian Plant: 'It's Like Google And Toyota Had A Baby'

 Erik Fields, Rivian's vice president for manufacturing, shows off the Normal plant during a tour Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.
Erik Fields, Rivian's vice president for manufacturing, shows off the Normal plant during a tour Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021.

Rivian manufacturing chief Erik Fields started this week’s tour of his massive plant with a fact check.

“Rivian is not a startup. We are a true manufacturing OEM,” Fields said.

OEM is “original equipment manufacturer”—shorthand for a company that makes stuff. During an hourlong tour of the Normal plant, Fields made the case that how Rivian is building its electric vehicles is just as compelling as the vehicles themselves.

“These are all customer vehicles, which is really exciting—to see the line completely full knowing that these will actually be going to customers,” Fields told WGLT as he narrated a golf cart parade of visitors past a line of completed chassis of the R1T pickup truck.

Sunday’s tour comes just two weeks after the formal start of production at Rivian—almost five years since the mysterious company landed in Bloomington-Normal seeking tax breaks to help buy and resurrect the former Mitsubishi plant. The R1T trucks are now in production, with a sport utility vehicle sibling (R1S) expected to move into production before December.

Fields said the plant runs on an unprecedented combination of vertical integration and connectivity. He said that gives Rivian certain competitive advantages that it will need to do something incredibly difficult—launch a new car company, from scratch, during a pandemic.

“It’s like Google and Toyota had a baby,” Fields said.

Rivian’s secret sauce in manufacturing is its vertical integration, according to Fields, who’s worked in auto manufacturing for more than 20 years, the last 13 with Nissan in Mississippi.

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Vertical integration means, instead of relying on outside suppliers, Rivian makes many of its components in-house.

One example: Stamping. Rivian acquired six presses from the old Mitsubishi plant (part of the $16 million sale in 2017). Rivian retooled them so they can stamp both steel and aluminum. Rivian can now stamp almost 300 distinct body parts for its three current vehicles. Most OEMs only stamp a few pieces, such as those A-class surfaces that a customer sees on the outside. Others don’t stamp their own parts at all, relying on a supplier.

The plant also is also ancillary stuff, like Rivian’s DC fast chargers and the modular kitchen that can be used on a camping trip.

“It’s a competitive advantage for us,” Fields said. “We can control our own quality. We can control all our own raw material. We can make design changes on the fly. And any of the savings we make, we get to keep it all, rather than sharing it with a supplier.”

Other examples of vertical integration are visible all over the plant. Until now, Rivian has used Bosch motors. But it’s now making plans to build its own motors in-house.

Rivian is scaling up its battery pack production, too. Rivian buys its battery cells from Samsung, with more than 7,000 needed for a single pack. The goal is to be able to build 30 packs an hour.

“We’ll be processing millions and millions of cells through here,” Fields said Sunday, a non-production day set aside for construction and maintenance inside the plant.

Vertical integration requires space. Rivian already has added about 800,000 square feet to the plant (body shop and drive unit battery area), bringing it to 3.3 million. There are plans to grow to over 6 million square feet in the next few years, Fields said. Rivian plans to expand the south end of the building westward, all the way to Rivian Motorway, to make room for battery and motor work.

Rivian also has two storage sites—one nearby on College Avenue (300,000 square feet), and another on Kerrick Road in north Normal that will expand to over a million square feet.

There remain challenges. Many automakers, including Rivian, have struggled to get semiconductors, or chips, due to pandemic-related supply shortages. Rivian cited that chip shortage in pushing back the start of commercial production, from June to September.

“We’re definitely dealing with the chip shortage, as other OEMs have,” Fields said. “One advantage we have is we’re controlling our own module development. Most of the modules at Nissan, for example, which is what I know, come from Hitachi or Bosch or other makers. We are controlling our own design. Working with a manufacturing that’s building our design for us. We also control the chip. As we see different kind of chip shortages that are going to be prolonged, we’ve been able to modify our own design, versus having to use a standard module from a supplier.

“That’s given us an advantage, of being able to recognize a roadblock and adapt to it. It’s something we monitor on a daily basis, but it’s not something where we’re at the mercy of a supplier,” he said.

Another challenge is launching three vehicles in rapid succession.

The R1T was first. The R1S sport utility vehicle is in a preliminary production stage called “tooling trial” right now; Fields expects customer vehicles to be in production before December.

“That’s the dance, of keeping the quality high on the R1T, getting the quality ready on the R1S, and keeping those going at the same time,” Fields said.

Rivian is also building electric delivery vans for Amazon, one of its investors. There will be three sizes: the 500, 700, and 900. The 500 is smallest, ideal for more urban environments like European cities or New York City or Chicago. The 900 is the largest, more akin to a typical UPS truck.

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To build those, Fields said Rivian installed some of the largest robots ever used in auto manufacturing—needed because of the larger body sides of the van.

Pre-production on the Amazon vans (called RPVs) starts next month, Fields said. Rivian aims to deliver 100 of them to Amazon by the end of 2021, with some test models already in the field.

“Amazon is very careful about how they make changes during their hot period between October and December. As you can imagine, they have quite a bit of volume going on during that period,” Fields said of the holiday shopping period.

Initially, Amazon planned to have 10,000 of the new electric vehicles on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 of its electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Fields said this is the first time an OEM has mass produced delivery vans at this scale. It’s usually a very manual, low-rate process, he said.

That complexity is orchestrated by Rivian’s “connected factory” approach to manufacturing.

One example is on the chassis line. There are “no dumb shooter guns,” as Fields puts it. Instead, tool controllers monitor the torque and angle for every single bolt that goes into an R1 vehicle.

Other captured data includes the employee who’s “badged” into a workstation, and the down time, or equipment failures at that workstation, to name a few.

“All this information goes into a cloud that we can then monitor all factory analytics, from zone to zone, plant to plant, and the total plant operation,” Fields said.

Everything Fields is hoping to do—even the giant robots—requires humans. And Rivian has lots of those, too. The plant has more than 2,800 employees, making it McLean County’s third-largest employer almost overnight, trailing only State Farm and Illinois State University. Rivian has said it could ultimately hire between 4,000 and 5,000 people in Normal.

“We’re still needing everything,” Fields said. “We’re still in need of team members, team leaders, group leaders. We still need tool and die, we still need engineers, we still need analysts. There’s not any one place where we’re completely satisfied and done with our hiring.”

WGLT’s last visit inside the plant was in January 2019, when there were only about 60 Rivian employees, running a skeleton crew. It looked like an empty, dimly lit warehouse.

The plant today is brightly lit, seemingly clean and well-organized.

“We want to ensure there’s almost no shadows—a bright, white clean environment that inspires the quality, and also provides a nice atmosphere for everybody working here,” Fields said. “Recruiting engineers into manufacturing is becoming more and more tough, because it’s not as glamorous as working for Google or Apple, or some of the other high-tech areas. But we’re applying a high-tech approach to manufacturing and making it much more attractive to engineers.”

Eventually, Rivian plans to run two shifts six days per week, with rotations so that people are working 40 hours per week. Currently, the body shop and battery and drive unit areas are running two shifts, although paint and general assembly can meet current demand with one shift.

“Right now, it’s tough because we’re in ramp, and there’s a lot of demand. We’re running a lot of extra overtime hours. That’s not the long-term goal. The long-term goal is to provide a very nice work-life balance. It’s very difficult to feel that right now as the plant scales, but that’s not going to be around forever,” Fields said.

Copyright 2021 WGLT. To see more, visit WGLT.