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Building An Amazing Audi: The R8

It looks like high-velocity sculpture. It is how Audi has translated its sports car racing expertise into a hand-built vehicle that could be a daily driver. And the build process is out of the ordinary, as well.

The 2008 Audi R8 is produced in a plant in Neckarsulm, Germany. In a special area. That’s because the car is made at an exceedingly low rate: 20 cars per day, during two shifts. This production is done in a team-work manner, with specialists following each vehicle as it is being built. Because they’re not building a lot of them. Nor should they. This is a special vehicle. A halo vehicle. The type of vehicle that is to the city streets what the Audi R10 is to the Le Mans series. Not your ordinary car. Not by a long shot.

The R8 is a mid-engine sports car. The vehicle has a 420-hp V8 FSI engine. It provides 317-lb-ft of torque @ from 4,500 to 6,000 rpm. The engine is visible through the rear glass on the car. (The “trunk” is in the front.) One thing that’s interesting about the engine is that it has a cast iron block. The heads are an aluminum alloy, of course. What’s surprising—although not entirely, when the fact that this is a high-revving engine with a maximum speed of 8,250 rpm (the maximum vehicle speed is 187 mph)—is that the block isn’t aluminum, as well as the heads. This is because the R8 is all all-aluminum car, as in body panels, structure, and even chassis (forged aluminum double wishbones at the front and rear). The curb weight of the R8 is just 3,605 lb. for one with a manual transmission and just 11 lb. more for those opting for one with the R tronic transmission (i.e., a sequential shift transmission that can be shifted with paddles mounted to the steering wheel or with the gear shifter). The weight is deployed with a 44/56 front-to-rear ratio. And there is quattro all-wheel-drive.

There’s another thing that’s significantly different about the R8. Which goes back to that facility in Neckarsulm. Audi has been concentrating on aluminum vehicle construction since 1994, when it established its Aluminum and Lightweight Design Centre. 1994 is the year when the first vehicle using the Audi Space Frame (ASF) concept, which deploys extruded aluminum sections and die castings to form a high-strength frame, the A8 was produced. The various elements of the structure are not uniform in shape nor cross section. Their design is predicated on the needs of the macro structure. Not only did engineers and technicians at Neckarsulm have to work on various aluminum alloys, but they also had to gain expertise in welding, bonding, and punch-riveting. This vehicle build process is not at all your basic stamp-and-weld unibody. The Audi A2, which never made it to the U.S. market, followed the A8 with an ASF structure. Some 176,000 of these aluminum-intensive vehicles were built. The center was originally named just the “Aluminum Design Centre,” but its name was modified in 2003 because of the determination that there would be other lightweight materials involved in car construction—even steel. For example, the second-generation TT Coupe (the current model) is actually a hybrid that is 69% aluminum by body weight with the remaining components (including the doors and decklid) being made of steel. Another function of time has been the development of other assembly processes for the lightweight materials, such as the use of self-tapping screws. What’s interesting about the use of the screws is that as they are robotically inserted into the aluminum, the friction generated actually melts the aluminum so the connection goes beyond the threads. And while aluminum has been troublesome to laser weld, they’ve worked on that process in Neckarsulm, too, and use it to join the roof and body side of the TT.

So in the years that they’ve been producing aluminum-intensive vehicles at Neckarsulm, they’ve gotten up to approximately 378,000 vehicles. One way of looking at this is that they’ve gotten a handle on high-volume production of aluminum vehicles. And that expertise—at least the high-volume part—is not being used for the R8. Not more than 20 per day, remember?

The R8 is not only a vehicle that is largely hand-crafted, but given the fact that they are working with small teams that are doing long cycles, Audi management decided that R8 production represented an opportunity to start addressing something that is happening to its production employees: They are getting older. “In five years’ time,” says Dr. Werner Widuckel, member of the Audi Board of Management for Human Resources, “the average age of the Audi workforce will have increased by five to 45 years. We must therefore react to this right now in order to ensure that our staff remain employable and that we remain competitive.” Projections show that in production operations there will be 7,000 employees, or one in three, who will be older than 50. So in order to get proactive experience with the aging workforce, some of the R8 production is being performed by “SilverLiners,” people who are 40 or older. There are 120 employees on the R8 line, ranging in age from 22 to 53.

One of the differences for the team members assembling the R8s is that there are as many as 50 parts that an individual must handle during a cycle (there are 14 cycles involved in producing a complete vehicle), rather than two or three that is the norm in a high-volume operation. One of the SilverLiners, Jürgen Nölte, 53, who has been working at Audi since 1969, says, “A few people, young and old, want to go back to the regular production. For them, it is really stressful for being responsible for fitting 40 to 50 parts in a fixed order—and to do it with up to 12 different tools.” Another SilverLiner is 46-year-old Thomas Helter, who has been working on the Audi production line for 21 years. “I said to myself, you’ve been doing the same thing for so long—you need a new challenge.” Now that challenge takes the form of fitting oil coolers, seat belts and cockpit modules in the R8. There is a little bit extra for someone working the R8 line, it seems. Helter remarks: “When you work on the R8, they look at you differently at home from when you work on the A6.”