Tesla and Rivian are both modern automakers dedicated to producing only electric vehicles. Both bought mothballed conventional assembly plants to build their new vehicles. Both have reconfigured those facilities as they grapple with how to disrupt manufacturing as their vehicles have aimed to disrupt the auto industry.
One difference: While Tesla CEO Elon Musk spent nights in a sleeping bag at the end of the assembly line at the plant in Fremont, California, Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe has the good sense to sleep in his own bed while overseeing the developing manufacturing process at his company’s plant in Normal, Illinois.
Rivian bought the Normal plant from Mitsubishi in 2017 for $16 million and is preparing it to make an interesting assortment of vehicles. So far, all Rivian prototypes have been built at the Plymouth Engineering and Design Center, but pilot-build vehicles will go down the plant line in the third quarter, with full production of the Rivan R1T five-passenger electric pickup starting in December.
About three months later, the Rivian R1S electric SUV, which has more content and a third row of seats, will roll off the same line. Scaringe says he wishes he could pull production forward but is mindful of the complexity. Also to be added to the factory’s mix: an electric luxury SUV for Ford and a fleet of large electric commercial delivery vans for Amazon, to be branded Prime.
The factory will have one line dedicated to building a skateboard chassis that all three brands will share—skateboard EV chassis bundle the battery pack(s), suspension, electric motors, and other hardware in a vertically short package so that various bodies can be attached. There will be another line tasked with assembling the three different battery packs Rivian will offer, and it will feed those directly to the skateboard-chassis line.
The Ford And Amazon EVs
Ford is designing its own so-called “top hat”—an EV-specific term for the vehicle bodies that use the skateboard architecture—for its high-end electric SUV, but since it will ride on the common architecture, features such as the company’s unique infotainment system must be designed to run on Rivian’s electrical systems. Scaringe would not say when Ford production begins, but design and engineering are locked in and ready to roll. “It’s a very different product from our own SUV, but it’s still in the SUV space,” Scaringe says. While Rivian is going after the adventure market, Ford will pursue luxury buyers, which leads us to deduce it will be sold as a Lincoln. Scaringe would not confirm this supposition, as it’s Ford’s announcement to make, he said. He did say the Ford SUV is “an impressive product, to say the least.”
The Amazon Prime vans will have access to the same three battery packs, and use the same electrical architecture and some drivetrains, as well as share some engine control units. To finish vehicles so wildly different in mission, there will be two separate final trim-assembly lines at the Normal plant. One will be a high-content line handling the Rivian and Ford products, while a second, low-content line will finish the Prime vans, which are essentially big, empty boxes to be filled with parcels.
Musk has said he wants to revolutionize the way vehicles are manufactured. He raised eyebrows with experiments such as his self-admittedly ill-thought robot he called the “flufferbot,” which proved to be more of a hindrance than a leap of efficiency in its attempts to place fiberglass mats atop battery packs. His firm also started building the Model 3 in a tent in 2018 to increase production. But with those experiments behind Tesla, production has normalized, and the automaker delivered a record 112,000 vehicles in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Rivian’s Plant Plans
Scaringe is not necessarily trying to reinvent car building, but he says he has spent a lot of time thinking about how assembly should be done to meet the unique needs of the varied vehicles his company will build. Out of necessity, he’s mapping out the way the former Mitsubishi small-car plant should be laid out to handle its new disparate needs.
The original Mitsubishi plant was 2.6 million square feet, and Rivian has added another 400,000 square feet. Some aspects of the plant are still usable, including some stamping presses, but they needed modifications to handle the steel and aluminum used in the bodies of the delivery vans and the mostly aluminum bodies of the R1T and R1S—the latter need to be picked up via suction cups, not magnets, for example. Presumably, the Ford SUV will feature an aluminum body, as well, given that the company has embraced that strategy with its pickups and large SUVs.
The partnership with Ford has been helpful in this regard, Scaringe says. Ford spent billions revamping its plants to switch the current generation of F-Series pickups and large SUVs to aluminum construction, and the Dearborn-based company now makes about 1 million aluminum-intensive vehicles a year. Ford employees have been generous with their time and expertise in helping Rivian.
The existing paint shop at the Rivian plant had to be scrapped; designed for littler cars, it was many sizes too small. Scaringe could probably sell tickets to watch the new e-coating process that dips vehicle bodies to prevent corrosion.
Like BMW does at its Spartanburg, South Carolina, plant, Scaringe wants vehicles to enter the tank and flip, end over end, four times, to prevent air bubbles that could lead to rust—picture that body ballet with a 30-foot-long delivery van. The plant ceilings aren’t high enough for this, though, so to solve the problem Rivian lowered the floor, digging an eight-foot pit with giant moorings to house dip tanks that stand about 33 feet tall. Scaringe thinks this makes it the world’s largest dip-process setup.
Rivian was founded in 2009 and has since grown to more than 1,800 employees. It could reach 2,500 or more by year’s end as hiring ramps up for the plant while the development team has continued to expand. The Plymouth headquarters is bursting at the seams. The cafeteria area is filled with desks until more office space on a mezzanine level is ready to house more workspace.
At the Normal plant, assembly will be on a single shift initially, but some areas, such as battery lines, will run a second shift.
The two Rivian models have 90 percent shared content—they are identical from the B-pillar forward—and were designed to have an identical build process for ease of assembly.
Normal has the capacity to make 264,000 vehicles a year. The Amazon contract is for 100,000, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said will be filled by 2024. The rest of the capacity is for Rivian and Ford vehicles. On the Rivian side, Scaringe thinks there will be greater demand for the pickup initially, but eventually, orders will be equal for the truck and SUV. And the Rivian lineup will expand.