Think Begins Electric Car Production in North America
ELKHART -- Several months ahead of schedule, Think North America has launched production of its all-electric cars in the Magnum Drive plant.
The two-seater Think City vehicles were scheduled to start rolling off the production line in early 2011 but the manufacturer already has the assembly running and expects its first of the American-made cars to be finished shortly after Thanksgiving.
"I was excited," said manufacturing director Karl Turner of getting the plant ready to build cars. "This is a nice operation. It's nice to get (electric vehicles) outside of Europe."
About 65,000 square feet of the interior space, which is less than half of the total 205,000 square feet, is currently being used for the assembly process. Eventually, Turner said, the production line will be expanded, some robotic equipment will be installed and the entire building utilized.
Right now, 220 of the small cars, colored red, blue or black, are aligned on the factory floor in neat rows and are in various stages of completion. A handful of workers move from vehicle to vehicle, quietly installing parts.
Think plans to produce 300 cars in Elkhart before the end of the year, said company spokesman Brendan Prebo. Buyers are making orders to add the cars to their fleets, including Indianapolis-based Energy Systems Network which wants to purchase 200 of those initial cars for its Project Plug-IN program.
In 2011, production will jump to 2,000 or 3,000 vehicles, Turner said.
Employment will also increase. Twenty-five workers are expected to be on the local payroll by the end of the year and 75 will be added by the end of 2011, Turner said. When the plant is in full production in 2013, the plant will have 400 employees.
Originally Think had decided to make the first cars for the U.S. market in the plant in Finland, Prebo said. However, it altered that course of action and moved the work to Elkhart.
"Part of it we just wanted to give some experience building cars in Elkhart," Prebo explained. "We saw it was possible and feasible to do that. We decided to pull ahead with production in Elkhart."
Tim Nettrouer is glad the automaker change its mind.
The lanky assembly worker has 15 years of experience in the recreational vehicle industry and six years of experience in the modular home industry but after getting laid off and exhausting his unemployment benefits, Nettrouer had been scraping by on whatever part-time jobs came along.
He filed an application online for the manufacturing position and felt "very blessed with a great opportunity" when he learned his employer would be Think.
Tuesday afternoon, the Elkhart resident was folded into a car, installing the interior. As part of his training, Nettrouer got to test drive one of the electric vehicles and was impressed with the quiet, smooth and responsive ride.
His verdict: "I would own one tomorrow if I could."
STARTING WITH GLIDERS
At present, the Finland plant partially builds the cars, putting the body and wheels on the chassis, then ships them to Elkhart. Once they arrive in the United States, the so-called gliders are loaded into a semi-truck and delivered on wood pallets.
The Elkhart crew begins its work by inserting the lithium-ion battery, made by EnerDel in Indianapolis, Turner said. Next they put in the motor and gearbox, followed by the seats, headlights and other components.
As production ramps up, each car will take about a week to complete -- two to three days to assemble and an equal number of days to test, Turner said. Every day a total of 20 cars will be finished.
By June of next year, Turner hopes to switch the manufacturing process in Elkhart from adding parts to actually building the vehicles from the ground up with as many U.S. supplied components as possible.
Local companies have been able to provide small items like nuts and bolts and adhesives, Turner said. And many of the businesses that supply the RV industry, have products that are a "good fit" with the Think City.
In addition, the skills of workers available in the community are very applicable to Think's operation, Turner said. He described his employees as being nice, having a solid work ethic, doing quality work and being "keen to get involved in everything" in the production.
Turner led the effort to move Think production from Oslo to Finland and has been overseeing the start of the Elkhart operation. Now having the assembly line now in gear, "feels good," he said. "It's been a lot of hard work."
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