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Rivian plant gearing up for June launch

Robert Channick, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Automotive News

Nestled among the cornfields of Normal, Illinois, a long-fallow stretch of land is preparing for a bumper crop this summer.

Rivian, the startup electric vehicle maker whose inaugural truck, SUV and Amazon delivery van have captured the auto world’s attention — and billions of dollars in investor seed money — is launching production in June from a converted Mitsubishi factory, and gearing up fast.

Powering through a pandemic, the first production vehicle — a $75,000 launch version of Rivian’s electric truck — will roll off the line more than a half-year behind schedule. It will be the first vehicle to be built on the site since the Mitsubishi plant closed six years ago.

“Starting a company is one thing, starting a plant is another big thing and then launching products,” said Erik Fields, 42, vice president of manufacturing at Rivian. “When you take it to the magnitude of what we’re doing here, it’s never been done before in automotive history on this scale.”

Rivian has gone from pipe dream to concept car to reality in a little over a decade. Founded in 2009 by RJ Scaringe, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, the company found an unlikely home in Normal, a rural college town about 130 miles south of Chicago.

In 2016, Scaringe kicked the tires at the recently closed Mitsubushi plant. He was impressed with the well-maintained, 30-year-old factory, which once hummed along with two shifts turning out 200,000 vehicles a year. But he fell in love with Normal during a visit to the Coffee Hound, a haunt favored by college students near the Illinois State University campus.

 

Scaringe ended up buying the factory for $16 million from a liquidation firm in January 2017. Four years later, Scaringe is the 38-year-old CEO of an EV automaker worth nearly $28 billion before production begins. Rivian has a contract to build 100,000 custom delivery vans for Amazon, an investor in the company. Orders have been coming in since November for the launch editions of its R1T truck and R1S SUV, which have 300-plus miles of range and go from zero to 60 mph in 3 seconds.

The launch package starts at $75,000 for the truck and $77,500 for the SUV, offset by a $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Fields said the SUV won’t come off the line until a few months after the truck. He declined to give a target production run for 2021.

“We’ve had a significant response to the launch edition,” said Fields, a former vice president of operations at Nissan.

Fields is orchestrating more than 1,100 masked plant employees, and nearly as many construction workers, who filled the lot and filed into the gleaming plant on a recent weekday, putting the finishing touches on test vehicles, the production process and the $1.2 billion renovation that has turned a shuttered factory into a high-tech EV manufacturing center.

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