SALN #39 – Stefan Loth (former VW plant manager): Autoleidenschaft.


Reading time: 8 minutes

For decades, famous names like BMW, Bosch, and Audi have consistently been among the most popular employers in Germany. However, the Federal Statistical Office reports that just 10.2% of all first-year students in Germany are enrolled in an engineering degree program, with women accounting for one-third of the total.

Are we about to face a similar dilemma in the German car sector as we experienced in the German nuclear industry in the 2000s? Will we be short on the next generation of engineers at some point?

This issue will focus on how to build a successful career as an engineer in the automobile business. Please share this issue with any young talent that is interested in a career in the automotive sector. 

To that end, I am speaking with Dr.-Ing. Stefan Loth, former plant manager of Volkswagen’s main plant in Wolfsburg and later Chairman of the Board of Management at Volkswagen Saxony, who oversaw the ramp-up of the VW ID and Audi Q4 families at the Zwickau plant at the time. We have known each other since we worked at SEAT. Under his supervision, the plants have earned numerous industry awards.

Stefan, what is your dream car?

Stefan Loth: My dream car—all my life—is a Porsche 911 Targa. And if I still have the choice, preferably a vehicle from the 1970s.

A dream car!

If we look back ten years now (that was exactly one year before the diesel crisis), what exactly has changed in the production technology of the factory?

Stefan Loth: Well, of course, the most obvious thing is that new electric vehicles have been ramped up in automotive production. Many production capacities were converted to electric and hybrid technology, and entire lines were converted. And, of course, the employees had to be trained in the new technology.

But there are other points that have changed massively.

Sustainability has become particularly important in factories. To this end, the consumption of electricity, gas, and water is precisely analyzed and optimized. Packaging is also increasingly being converted to recyclable material. The goal is to achieve CO2-neutral production soon.

The next big block is, of course, the topic of digitalization and Industry 4.0. A lot has happened here in the last ten years, and we will see many more topics in the future.

Do you have any examples of digitalization and Industry 4.0?

Stefan Loth: 3 examples:

  1. Today, plant equipment and information systems interact with one another. There are computerized control loops that convey current results and measures from audits or acceptance tests to the body shop, paint shop, or assembly trades at the end of the line.
  2. At the same time, communication between man and machine has improved significantly. Instead of simple error messages, elaborate graphic displays and AI show exactly where the problems in the manufacturing process are.
  3. The factories are networked. This makes online diagnoses possible. If, for example, I have a malfunction at a plant, specialists around the world help the maintenance staff on site with the help of their online diagnostic kit.

In the future, AI will be used increasingly in factories. At some point, it will be possible to automatically evaluate faults or production reports.

I recall working on a tracking project: the client orders his car, and when it arrives at the body shop, it is assigned a chassis number, allowing the customer to track it as it is built. And then we found it was unnecessarily difficult and expensive. Why is that?

Stefan Loth: There are two options in a car factory. I can assign the vehicle to be built to the customer already at the time of production in the body shop (we call it “early christening”) or afterwards when it enters assembly (late christening). An early christening forces the factory to operate in a very stable manner, while a late christening allows for more flexibility in production. For example, when material bottlenecks arise. A decision must be made between these 2 scenarios.

The second question I have comes from an interview. It was said that some master craftsmen work as employees on the assembly line. There are not as many master positions as there are masters. Is this your experience? And isn’t that an advantage for the digitalization of manufacturing?

Stefan Loth: In an ideal world, master craftsmen would also fill the positions of master craftsmen in a factory. However, depending on the driving style, the number of master digits may change. At the same time, master craftsmen and women are retiring, or new ones are being trained, so that there can be both surpluses and shortfalls. This requires good personnel management and junior staff planning.

In any case, the aim should be to ensure that master craftsmen and women work in the right positions.

How many vehicle calls have you made in your career? 

Stefan Loth: A lot! Most recently, Volkswagen Saxony had the ramp-up of the VW ID4, followed by the start-up of the Audi Q4 and Audi Q4 Sportback, Seat Born, and ID5. Off the top of my head, the Sagitar in China, the Golf, Golf Variant, Tiguan, and Seat Tarraco in Wolfsburg, the Audi Q3 and the entire MQB Leon family at Seat in Martorell.

The level of qualifications is exceptionally high in a car plant. Does this apply just to Germany right now? What is it like across the network?

Stefan Loth: The level of qualification in Germany is very high, because a lot of emphasis is placed on training in industrial production. If we go to foreign locations where the level of qualification is not so high at the beginning, we carry out extensive training and education measures so that the people there can build the cars according to the same standards as here in Germany.

Digitization, Industry 4.0, the systems that communicate with each other, AI, etc.—all of the things that are coming our way are now also coming to the newcomers, the new engineers, who will take over the management of the automotive industry in a few years. What are the most important aspects that young colleagues should learn?

Stefan Loth: The most important thing is a passion for the engineering profession and automotive engineering. A good start is always the completion of a mechanical or electrical engineering degree (or equivalent). That is the ticket.

You learn the rest on your professional path. Here are two personal tips:

Start your career with a great company. This offers a lot of development and internal training opportunities, and thus many more opportunities and better positions in the future.

Take advantage of the opportunity to make valuable contacts and expand your professional network right from the start.

In the factory, we have four production stages: press shop, body shop, paint shop, and assembly. We have planning, pre-series centers, maintenance, and much more. Is there an area where everyone should have been?

Stefan Loth: From my point of view, the ideal way to start your career after graduation is with a master craftsman position in manufacturing. In this way, you learn how to manage employees, how to motivate them, and how to deal with absences. And you get feedback! The area for the first digit is not important.

To become a production or plant manager, it is worthwhile to take on different line positions in production beforehand, e.g., manager in assembly. Then you understand the processes and the day-to-day business.

When you look back on your career, what have been the defining events that have shaped you in your career, and brought you forward? 

Stefan Loth: There were undoubtedly several critical events that altered the direction of events and advancements.

For example, at the beginning of my career, I remember very well a start-up of an improved gearbox in a gearbox plant in England. At that time, I had hardly any start-up experience, and I did not yet have the right English vocabulary for the shop floor rounds. Thanks to the help of our colleagues and the direct feedback from the plant manager, we managed to do it.

If the feedback was very direct, how do you deal with it?

Stefan Loth: That is the good thing about manufacturing. Every day, the cards are reshuffled. That means wiping your mouth, learning from your mistakes. And the next day, you can immediately start the correction loop.

You have been in the automotive industry for several decades. If you were to write a letter as an outsider to the CEOs of the German automotive industry, including the suppliers, is there anything you would say to them?

Stefan Loth: That is a very difficult question. I am certainly not the one who can answer the question “on my own.”. I therefore discussed this question with friends and colleagues, with the following result: An intensive focus on usability, connectivity, and digital services in the car strengthens customer loyalty. There is still a lot of potential!

Great conversation. Thank you, Stefan. 

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