Jon Lauckner is GM's VP of Global Program Management, and is reported to by all of the vehicle line directors including Frank Weber, the VLE for Chevy Volt/E-Flex. I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Mr. Lauckner in his office and the chance to sit down with him for a 45 minute chat about all things Volt. I am very grateful for Mr. Lauckner's openness with me on a wide range of topics. Surprisingly, he admitted to me that he frequently reads GM-Volt.com, a sentiment echoed to me by several GM executives. Because of the length of our discussion I will post it in several parts.
What is your involvement with Lance Turner at the E-Flex battery lab?
I talk to Lance off the record quite a bit. He knows what's going on and has been in the business for a long time, knows what to look for. The first packs were just a simple crimping operation. The next ones will be more robustly attached over a longer surface area.
What comments can you make in regards to the battery running without cooling?
Now you know why when we see the results we are particularly encouraged. If you could keep the cells close to that magic 20 degrees C (70 degrees F) with the cooling system running, that would be good, but when you can run the battery severely and you still don't have temperatures shooting off the map, that gives you more encouragement.
So there's some extremely encouraging results.
Are you extremely confident about the program?
We are confident. You can get into degrees of confidence. Its a stretch clearly. If we were going to do this thing in a normal business fashion, we'd get the batteries on the rails and make sure that everything is exactly like we'd like to see it, then we would start the program. That's the way we would normally do it. We call that 'de-coupled development', where you do the basic invention or application of exactly what you've got, you do that in a separate way, there's a separate sort of process that you do. You get it to a certain point in it's development and then you apply it to a vehicle program and then you take off with it. That's the way you typically do it in General Motors, I think the other companies run it to a greater or lesser extent in the same way. But, right at the very beginning, we realized that we've got to do something different if we really want to make an impact in the very near future. So what were going to do is run the vehicle program and were going to run the battery program in parallel, maybe behind just a 'snitch' but more or less parallel, and were just going to have to hook them up in the end when were finally going to have to make the call to go to production. We'll hook them up and well sprint the final distance to the start of production. That's why this one we have to watch fairly carefully, because we are running in parallel. We are basically doing the vehicle with the assumption the battery is going to make it. Well assumption...The point is you don't make assumptions without having some basis in fact. So when we run these tests in the lab they give us encouragement that we're 'A' on the right track, and 'B' this thing is going to come the way we hope it's going to come. Now we have to get these battery packs in vehicles.
This is a very very important step. Lab work is very important because it's very repeatable and very stable and so on and so forth, but where people start to really get confidence is when you get things in vehicles and when your vehicle results correlate with you lab results and they're also satisfying.
When you get to that point, is that it? Is that the end? Then you just start producing the car?
'No, No, No. There's a lot of development that takes place but you move into different phases. Instead of it being a phase where you're exploring a lot of different alternatives trying to find the best one, you go through the development process in that way for a while, and then you hone in on the one that you really want to have and then you work that one very intensely. We call it 'design loops'. And you make multiple design loops and your try to further refine that thing, reduce variability, improve the robustness of the design, because you want a design that not only works but its very repeatable and its very tolerant to variance.
You mean so you can build tens of thousands of them?
Because if you know if you build one of some thing , you can measure each and every part and you can make sure it's perfectly nominal and it performs exactly the way you expect it. When you start doing mass production then you have a normal production variance. You don't always get the same nominal value. You have a tolerance to a part. And typically there's a manufacturing tolerance. We call that product tolerance, and process tolerance. So you've got, depending on the part, one or both of them. So that's why you need to be very certain of what you see in the results and have a way to correlate it, and you need to have a way to make sure that you're confident that you're going to get something thats at the end of the day quite robust."
Is there a lot of preparation at the level of the assembly plants that would have to take place in order to produce Volts?
Do you mean at the vehicle side or the battery pack side?
I don't know that there's a battery pack in existence, well I should be careful, Tesla probably has a pack operation that fairly significant because of the number of batteries that they're putting together, but lets put it this way, at least for us, we've never done a battery pack of this particular size before, so there will be a lot of work that required just to set up the basic manufacturing process.
Will you being doing that at General Motors?
No. Not necessarily. I'm just taking about whether your talking about the individual cells which are largely going to be in the hands of A123 systems and LG Chem. The packs going to be in the hands of CPI or Conti. So clearly they've got work to do on their side, but we have work to do on our side because we have to put the packs in the vehicles.
That's how you see it happening in the end, CPI or Conti will makes the packs?
At the moment. We will build the cars and put the packs in. So a good portion of the vehicle assembly process is very well known to us and not very 'exciting' from the standpoint that we're going to have a lot of surprises.