Inside the new 'green' Silao: VW starts EA888 Gen3 production in Mexico

  • 07-Feb-2013 09:34 EST
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A VW technician surveys the EA888 block line at the new $500M Silao, Mexico engine plant.

When Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto pushed the big red button starting production at Volkswagen's new $500 million engine plant in Silao last month, he launched the latest phase of VW Group's strategy to pass Toyota as the world's biggest automaker.

The new plant, VW’s 100th manufacturing facility worldwide, is part of the company's plan to invest $5 billion in the North American auto market during the next few years. It's key to placing production capabilities close to where VW intends to sell more vehicles, VW Chairman Martin Winterkorn said during the opening ceremony.

“Silao is thus also a strong symbol of our uninterrupted growth trajectory and the Group’s continuing internationalization,” he told the large assembled audience. Global distribution of manufacturing assets also lets the automaker avoid currency exchange risks.

Operating on a three-shift schedule, the new Silao factory will have capacity to build 330,000 engines per year—1.8- and 2.0-L units from VW's third-generation EA288 family—once it fully ramps up to line speed. The facility brings 700 relatively low-wage but sorely needed jobs for the region.

VW said it is also considering building its latest four-cylinder diesel engines, also part of the EA288 family, in the huge Silao complex, but a decision has not been finalized. The gasoline and diesel EA888 engines share more than 50% of their parts.

LEED Gold rating

Located amid the parched and job-thirsty Mexican Altiplano, the new plant appears almost as austere as the nearby rocky hillsides. But inside the white walls of the cavernous factory stretch long lines of the most modern machining cells that German industry has to offer for casting and forging cylinder blocks, heads, crankshafts, connecting rods, as well as assembling and testing the finished product.

And despite its looming size, the huge “inland-port” facility has been built to the LEED Gold Standard of the U.S. Green Building Council, said Manuel Andrade, assembly line supervisor at Silao. “We’re working toward Platinum now,” he told AEI during a plant tour.

The facility is replete with sustainability measures including energy-efficient light fixtures throughout that are augmented in daytime with natural light that streams through rooftop skylights which diffuse incoming sunlight while blocking out its heat.

The facility also incorporates an integrated water management system that catches rainwater in nearby ponds for bathroom use, then filters it through adjacent marshes of buffalo grass as well as an associated reforestation project.

Launching the Gen3 Triple Eights

The new Silao factory will build improved-performance turbocharged 1.8- and 2.0-L TSI gasoline engines slated for future U.S.-spec Jettas, Beetles, and perhaps Passats, said Michael Tille, Project Manager at VW of Mexico Engineering. The 1.8 TSI replaces VW's 2.5-L inline-five-cylinder unit later this year.

VW’s EA288 Gen3, or third-generation EA888 (Triple-Eight), is one of three new engine families (including the EA211 and EA288 MDB) created primarily to achieve lower CO2 emissions. The flexible factory could manufacture the EA211 and EA288 MDB engines as well.

The Triple-Eights were engineered to share 90% of their components, Tille said. They will be shipped by rail or truck to the company’s long-running Puerta car plant 300 mi (483 km) away, as well as to VW’s Chattanooga, TN, assembly plant 1700 mi (2736 km) to the north.

In the past, VW has imported most of the engines used in its North American built models. The first-generation variant of the Triple Eight powers American versions of the Jetta GLI and Golf GTI. The new 1.8-L TSI has been in use in the Asian and European markets since spring 2012.

1.8-L Triple-Eight

The 1.8-L TSI is rated at 168 hp (125 kW) and 184 lb·ft (250 N·m), each a moderate improvement over the previous five-cylinder (170/177), but the new engine will feature improved fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions, Tille indicated. It will be matched with a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.

Of particular interest to VW performance enthusiasts is the 1.8 TSI engine in the “Passat Performance Concept” displayed at last month's North American International Auto Show. The show car engine produces 250 hp (184 kW), providing ready evidence of the base engine’s potential for tuning for high output.

Tille said that the new modular-design engine is lighter than previous versions, generates less internal friction, and features an integrated exhaust manifold that keeps the coolant in the head to more rapidly warm up both the engine and passenger cabin. The liquid-cooled manifold reportedly can reduce exhaust gas temperatures by as much as 160ºC (320ºF) before the gases enter the turbocharger. The engine uses Lanchester-type balance shafts to provide smooth, vibration-free running, he said.

The minimum wall thickness in the 72-lb (33 kg) cast-iron block is 3 mm (0.1 in) in some areas, which saves 2.4 kg (5.3 lb), Tille said, claiming that competitors’ minimum iron-block wall thickness is nearly double that figure. The VW project manager cited advanced casting methods that ensure good flow of the molten iron into the molds, “resulting in zero voids, inclusions, and no segregation.”

Tille also pointed out a lightweight bracket for auxiliaries that cuts almost a half kilo and other lightweighting components such as a plastic lower oil pan, a crankshaft with four counterweights, and aluminum screws.

2.0-L Triple Eight

The Silao plant will also produce 2.0-L turbocharged four-cylinder gasoline engines for the Jetta GLI and Beetle Turbo. Although claimed power (210 hp/155 kW) and torque will remain the same as the current engine, fuel economy will improve substantially, he reported.

Other VW models that use the 2.0-L turbo engine are built in the Győr, Hungary, facility. (Factories in Dalian and Shanghai in China produce for eastern VW markets.) Several versions of this iron-block four exist, in both transverse and longitudinal orientations, but they are all similar.

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