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Building A Bridge While Crossing It: How The BrightDrop – GM – Kuka Alliance Produced A New EV Delivery Van In 20 Months

Say you saw the opportunity for a new class of vehicles and decided that you would a) design the vehicle itself; b) design and build a temporary manual-labor production facility to make it; c) design and build the permanent automated production system; and d) launch the new vehicle and deliver it to customers–all in 20 months! Oh, and one other thing: once all that was completed, you’d also then pull up the complete production systems and relocate them to another building… in another country… in just a few months’ more time.

That’s what BrightDrop, a new startup from GM, has been doing in a partnership with German-based Kuka AG, GM’s Supplier of Year for the past seven years running. The Chief Engineer on the project, GM’s Chris Martone, said aptly, “We’re building a bridge while crossing it,” in reference to the whole crazy effort. Crazy, but also now proven do-able: today the project is complete through step “d” above. The project is now in vehicle delivery mode, and the team is preparing for that final move of equipment into its permanent home.

As part of its wholesale commitment to vehicle electrification, GM saw the opportunity for an EV delivery van to support ecommerce transportation needs for customers like FedEx. The company launched BrightDrop in January, 2021, as the catalyst for those efforts. And it was immediately off to the races. “This has been all about innovation and speed to market,” said Tushar Porwal, Head of Manufacturing at BrightDrop. “It’s been the fastest commercialization in GM history–20 months from concept to commercial deliveries.” The first vehicles were delivered last December, and BrightDrop has secured more than 25,000 reservations for it in the past year, from companies ranging from FedEx Express, Walmart and Verizon, to Merchants Fleet, the fastest-growing fleet management firm in the U.S.

The vehicle itself, the Zevo 600 delivery van, was designed from the outset to be an EV, and it shares the same Ultium battery as GM’s Hummer EV. “We built it with key learnings from our customers,” said Bill Venner, Chief Engineer of the BrightDrop Zevo 600. “We focused on things like the step-in height, seating position and comfort, creature comforts like iPlay and air conditioning that works, sliding doors, and a cargo door that works. It has a 250-mile range, and it can save a company $7,000 per year in total cost of ownership.”

Safety was another primary concern. “Lots of [commercial] vans don’t have airbags, but we do,” said Venner. “It also has automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist.”

The new van was incubated within GM’s Innovation Lab, which brought the platform assets, expertise and scale to the mix in addition to the innovation, focus and speed of a startup that came from launching it under the separate BrightDrop business.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that designing and delivering both a vehicle and the factory in which to make it, all on radically accelerated simultaneous timeline, was easy. While the vehicle design was being handled by GM and BrightDrop, the team turned to Kuka for the manufacturing plant. “Normally a system takes 48 to 52 weeks,” said Ernani Westarb, Vice President at Kuka. “We were approached by GM and told we needed to deliver the first body to Lippert [another partner company that provides vehicle coating services] at 26 weeks. We had to quickly design every production zone. All Kuka facilities played a part–we had a team in Brazil that did the subassembly design, for example. We had the first underbody to Lippert in August. This was by far the fastest program we’ve ever done.”

The flexibility of the startup atmosphere was critical for delivering both the factory systems and the van itself. “Our teams had to work without the typical ‘swim lanes,’” Martone explained. “We had to get outside those boxes–the whole team had to be involved in product and manufacturing design. There was a huge amount of parallel work going on.”

In addition to those challenges, the physical scale of the vehicle brought its own. The size of the van meant designing machines to handle body panels bigger than any GM has seen since it made RVs in the 1970s. That led to the team building the company’s largest-ever robotic handling system.

Kuka was instrumental in providing “temporary living quarters,” in space they already had leased in Livonia, Michigan. They started with 250,000 square feet, but quickly outgrew that. “It was like it was meant to be,” said Westarb. “Every time we needed more space, the space next door would come open.” The nearly-completed factory now encompasses 750,000 square feet.

Putting it all together was something of a mad scramble. “Manufacturing is a hands-on thing,” said Martone. “We had to do all early development virtually. Then the manufacturing team came in and built the sequences on the floor.”

The pandemic certainly didn’t help either. “Because of COVID, we only brought in a limited number of people,” said Porwal. “We used video so other team members could see what was happening at home.”

GM’s heft helped in getting the machines needed. “If not for the strategic partnership GM developed with us 15 or 20 years ago, we couldn’t have done this,” said Westarb. “Agreements were already in place for things like prices and labor. And when it came to things like robots, weld timers, sealers, weld guns and rivet guns, we were able to leverage GM’s scale to get those fast.”

“That even included ‘stealing’ from other GM facilities to make this happen,” added Martone. “We have robots that were destined for another factory, but were sent here and re-ordered for the original location.”

Now that the factory is up and running, the team can breathe a sigh of relief–briefly. They still have a final hurdle to jump. In just a few more months, the entire production system will be relocated to its permanent home, GM’s CAMI Assembly factory in Ingersoll, Ontario, the first full-scale EV manufacturing plant in Canada. The team expects to begin Zevo 600 production from that location by the end of the year.

For now, though, the team is understandably pleased with what they’ve delivered. “All the folks will tell you this is the best project they’ve ever worked on,” Martone said. “Anything GM had that we needed, we got.”

“We called it the one team mentality,” Venner added. “Every day we’d review needs and knock them out. Everyone stepped up and helped out.”

“We would ask everybody, ‘Who’s stopping you today?’” said Westarb. “My answer was always, ‘I can go and tell them not to stop you.’”

Besides delivering a new vehicle in record time, the team has other wins they’re celebrating. “The Zevo 600 was on Good Morning America,” Porwal said. “It was at the FedEx Cup, which was great because FedEx is our launch customer, and they already have vans on the road in Los Angeles. And the Lombardi Trophy was delivered to this year’s Super Bowl in our van.”