GM Orion readies for Chevy Bolt EV production

Melissa Burden
The Detroit News

Orion Township — General Motors Co. is preparing its Orion Assembly Plant for retail production of the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV, a pure-electric vehicle with a 238-mile range that’s on schedule to hit dealerships by the end of the year.

The Bolt will go head-to-head with the upcoming Tesla Model 3 in price and driving range, but will have the advantage of hitting showrooms a year sooner. It will be priced at around $37,500, minus a $7,500 federal tax rebate; Tesla has said the much-publicized Model 3 will start at $35,000. The Environmental Protection Agency 238-miles range estimate released Tuesday tops the Tesla’s 215 miles.

Since spring, Orion Assembly has built hundreds of pre-production Bolts for captive test fleets that allow engineers to make tweaks before full production begins. They’ve also built cars for GM marketing and some used for autonomous vehicle testing in western states.

GM spent $160 million on new tooling and equipment for the five-seat electric crossover to travel down the same line as the Buick Verano and Chevrolet Sonic.

On a recent visit, two Bolts were among some 100 cars moving down the assembly line in the 4.3-million-square-foot plant. Building a Bolt from start to finish takes three days.

“We’re ramping the plant up to production volume now,” said Josh Tavel, the car’s chief engineer. “Turn the fire hose on. Does it flow?”

And so far, so good, said Orion launch manager Yves Dontigny: “We learn something new every day that we need to improve on.”

Payne: Chevy Bolt has 238-mile range, lots of muscle

Work on the all-electric Chevrolet began more than two years ago. A launch team of fewer than 20 went for several months last year to South Korea, where the Bolt was engineered, so they could prepare the plant. Orion had never built an electric car before, so the team had to help determine where along the assembly line to integrate the 960-pound lithium ion battery supplied by LG Chem from South Korea.

They also are working with new coolant systems for the battery and for the first time in the plant are working with aluminum for the Bolt’s fenders, hood, liftgate and four doors. More than 50 robots were added to complete body work.

With an eye toward quality, GM built bodies of the Bolt — one was covered in small black markings with numbers — for coordinate-measurement machines to precisely measure gaps and fits for the exterior and interior. “It’s a phenomenal tool here to get the level of quality that we’re pushing on this car, to get our gaps right,” Tavel said.

Retail production of the Bolt will begin later this year, though GM has not been specific.

While workers are happy the the new Bolt will be built at Orion, they will lose production of the Buick Verano sedan next month. GM has opted to no longer sell it in the U.S.

And a $245 million investment for an unnamed new vehicle announced in June 2015 would have created 300 jobs, but this year GM announced it would go to its Fairfax Assembly Plant in Kansas City, Kansas.

Orion Assembly also will gain production of the Bolt sibling, the Opel Ampera-e electric vehicle. The Ampera-e will make its world debut this month at the Paris Motor Show. The automaker has said the car will be on sale next year in Europe.

The plant faced closure during GM’s bankruptcy in 2009 when it was idled, but Orion reopened in 2010 after the union agreed to significant labor concessions. A second shift was cut early this year due to slow car sales. The factory, which employs about 950 hourly workers and another 150 or so salaried workers, operates on one shift, five days a week with occasional Saturday work.

Orion could add capacity and additional shifts for the Bolt, Pam Fletcher, GM’s executive chief engineer of electrified vehicles and autonomous integration, said in an investors conference last week.

Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting with LMC Automotive, said the Bolt’s price and electric range are competitive and it will be out ahead of others in the market. It will compete with vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, BMW i3 and Ford Focus Electric already on sale.

“Unfortunately the market right now, it’s not looking for an electric product,” he said.

LMC Automotive forecasts GM will produce 22,000 Bolts next year at Orion. LMC is forecasting volumes of less than 1,000 a year for the Opel Ampera-e

IHS Markit also forecasts Bolt production at around 22,000 in 2018. It expects Opel Ampera-e production to be a few thousand.

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