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The struggling battery factory behind GM's electric vehicle problems

David Welch, Bloomberg News on

Published in Automotive News

General Motors Co. is racing to fix problems in its electric vehicle business to make good on promises Chief Executive Officer Mary Barra made five years ago. It still has a long way to go.

Fresh off exiting major markets like Europe and India, Barra told GM employees in the spring of 2019 that the company was pivoting its strategy to bet heavily on EVs and self-driving cars. She wasn’t content for the automaker to just survive the new technology-driven era for transportation; it needed to be a leader.

That transition has been fraught with delays, including automation issues and software glitches that caused the carmaker to miss its EV delivery targets the past two years. Getting the EV plants humming is Barra’s last shot to take GM from a 20th-century metal-bender to a transportation company of the future.

GM executives think they may be finally crawling out of their “production hell” phase, similar to the robotics problems that delayed Tesla Inc.’s Model 3 seven years ago. GM aims to build 200,000 to 300,000 all-electric vehicles this year with its much-ballyhooed Ultium battery packs, about 20 times more than it made last year but still well short of its previous ambitions.

“We’ve had some challenges scaling it,” Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson said of the Ultium problems in a recent speech at an industry conference in Washington. “I think most of those are behind us.”

Investors say it’s time for GM to prove it. The company sold fewer than 14,000 Ultium EVs all of last year, about as many as struggling startup Rivian Automotive Inc. delivered in just the fourth quarter. Since then, GM says it has doubled battery production at its Factory Zero plant in Detroit, but the company needs to expand much faster if it’s going to meet its goals.


Factory Zero is the auto industry’s first attempt to scale up a fully automated assembly line with pouch-shaped battery cells. President Joe Biden lauded Barra’s vision and the promise of U.S.-built electric cars during a tour of the plant in November 2021. He even took a prototype electric Hummer for a test drive in the parking lot.

GM bypassed its own best practices to rush the battery packs into production. Typically, when the company is preparing to build an all-new model, it sets up assembly-line equipment in a nearby supplier’s warehouse for testing. Then, once the bugs are worked out, equipment is pulled up and moved to the assembly plant for production.

GM skipped that step with Ultium, choosing to install new fully automated battery assembly lines right away rather than testing them elsewhere first, according to Mike Anderson, vice president of global electrification and battery systems.

Inside a fenced-in area at Factory Zero, robots stack battery cell pouches together six at a time, pressing them down like a panini and then placing four of the sandwich packs into a box with a cooling plate at the bottom. The cells must be pressed and packed precisely so the weld tabs that connect the modules fit through slots in the module box. If they don’t line up exactly, the tabs will bend and the cell won’t be linked with others. The battery will fail quality checks.


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