Quick, name the electric cars currently on sale. Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, and ... ummmm ... oh, yeah, Smart Electric Drive.

Now name the ones built in the States. Hmmmm. Volt, right?

Think about it

Yes, but you've missed out on one--in both categories. It's the Think City, which is now being assembled in Elkhart, Indiana, from kits imported from Finland. It will gradually be localized to source more components locally over the next two years.

GreenCarReports visited the Think assembly plant after the Detroit Auto Show in January, and we've been a bit negligent in writing up our impressions. Here's your tour guide to one of the few electric-car factories in the United States.

We spent several hours at the plant on a snowy winter day and spoke at length with manufacturing director Karl Turner. Think, the longstanding, small, but feisty little electric-car company, has big plans for its U.S. assembly arm.

'RV capital of the world'

The large factory we toured had previously been a Philips Products plant that made windows for recreational vehicles.

RV makers are clustered throughout the region, which is called "the RV capital of the world." Before Think arrived last October, the factory had been empty for a year.

Initially occupying just 65,000 square feet, the company expects to use the full 205,000 square feet when manufacturing is up to speed in a year or two. Fully 175,000 sq. ft. of that will be devoted to actual vehicle assembly.

Think hired its first employee October 4, and when we visited, it had 27 workers, assembling about 20 cars a day on a single shift.

'Good notion' of first 300 sales

As of our visit, Think had built 260 cars, and Turner projects a total of 2,500 Think City models will be U.S.-built during 2011.

Early buyers include the Indiana State Parks Department, which bought 15, along with Duke Energy in Plainfield, Indiana (10 cars), and Indianapolis Power & Light (4 cars).

"We have a good notion" where the first 300 cars will be sold, said Turner, with soft commitments from a number of buyers.

PHOTO GALLERY: Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana

Think is waiting to be approved for the U.S. General Services Administration schedule of plug-in vehicles for government agencies. Because it is domestically produced and meets certain targets, the company feels it has a good shot at that approval.

Think City electric vehicle

Think City electric vehicle

The factory's theoretical capacity is as many as 60,000 cars over three shifts.

Battery plant nearby

Think located its factory in Elkhart  because the Ener1 plant that fabricates its lithium-ion battery cells is only 2.5 hours away, minimizing transport of the completed 600-pound, 22-kilowatt-hour battery pack.

Assembling the pack in the U.S. alone saves roughly $2,000 on costs, Turner said proudly.

Phase One: cars minus batteries

The first stage of manufacturing ramp-up, from October to January, brought semi-completed cars known as gliders to the factory on pallets--similar to the process for the Tesla Roadster. Each standardized shipping container held four palletized Think vehicles.

There, the battery packs were installed, trim and interior elements were unwrapped and installed, and the cars were tested for quality, performance, and other criteria.

Production during Stage Two, from the end of January until July, expanded beyond the battery pack to include installation of the complete powertrain, made up of the electric traction motor, power electronics and other circuitry, and certain wiring.

Goal: full assembly

Stage Three, known as "full production planning," will start in May, with trial builds of completely knocked-down (CKD) kits. By the end of June, the last, or pilot build, of those trials should be completed.

Beginning in July, roughly 100 workers at the Elkhart plant will produce completed Think City vehicles entirely from components. Most of the non-powertrain components will still be imported from Norway, Finland, and elsewhere.

Assembly of a Think City takes roughly 10 hours from start to finish, of which five hours is actual installation of parts into the shell, with the rest being the many steps of quality control, acceptance testing, inspection, and final dress and preparation for shipping.

Stations of the Think

A total of seven stations, or production areas, is required for complete Think assembly. The first is for the powertrain: battery pack, which is installed from underneath the car on a hoist, along with the electric motor and the gearbox.

Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Second comes fitting of the seats and other interior trim, the pieces of which come wrapped in large plastic sheets to keep them clean during shipping. There's also an upgrade to fit the U.S.-mandated Tire Pressure Monitoring System.

The third station is for installation of the air conditioning system, which is standard on U.S. cars but not on European models.

PHOTO GALLERY: Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana

The fourth step is where the head lamps, side lamps, and composite front fenders are installed, along with the charging port and the door that covers it.

Fifth is for software downloads, end-of-the-line checks, and other finish work. And the sixth and final station is for adjusting the head lamp aim.

Quality control and inspection

After that comes quality control, in the person of a Think employee named Rose, who checks a long list of items and drives the car on a makeshift test track in the empty portion of the factory--possible with a zero-emissions vehicle.

There's even a temporary "rumble strip," made up of rubber tubing fastened to the factory floor, so Rose can hear any creaks, buzzes, or other interior noises under rough road conditions.

Anything that needs to be fixed is done after Rose's test drive. Then comes the formal Pre-Delivery Inspection, after which the battery is charged to 100 percent and the completed Think City is parked in a long row of cars that are ready to ship.

Assembly of Think City electric cars, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Assembly of Think City electric cars, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Think has so far had three very small recalls. The first two recalls announced in January covered a total of 39 vehicles for inadequate defrosting systems or incorrect passenger seat belts.

The third, last month, involves a linkage between the "park" mechanism in the transmission and the gear selector lever. Think said the mechanism "may be improperly adjusted" and allow the vehicle to roll even if the lever was in Park.

Local parts a "goal"

While localization of parts production remains a goal, Turner said, the "economics of duplicate tooling" mean "we may not be able to localize" economically. He cited small vacuum-formed parts as components whose tooling cost was low enough to make sense.

Assembly of Think City electric cars, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Assembly of Think City electric cars, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Turner plans to use automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) to carry the semi-completed City vehicles from workstation to workstation, eliminating the need for a conventional assembly line.

With no paint shop and no large steel presses, the Elkhart plant should score well on both low emissions and low energy use.

Target for retail sales: cheaper price

The current price of a 2011 Think City is $41,000, the same as a 2011 Chevrolet Volt--which has two more seats, is capable of unlimited distances using its range extender engine, and has a large corporation behind it.

Turner admitted candidly that Think "hopes to bring down" the price to roughly $34,000, the target for beginning consumer sales as early as the third or fourth quarter of this year.

More electrics on the road than anyone?

As of early this year, pointed out Think's public relations manager, Brendan Prebo, Think had 2,500 plug-in cars on the roads globally.

That's more than Tesla (with 1,500 or so), more than General Motors (roughly 1,000 Volts), and more than Nissan (a like number of Leafs).

Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Think City assembly plant, Elkhart, Indiana, Jan 2011

Only Mitsubishi can claim to have built more electric cars than Think--2,500 as of last November, substantially more now. In fairness, Mitsu has done that just since 2008, whereas Think has been around under various owners since the mid-1990s.

One selling point will be that Think is solely an electric vehicle company, unlike GM and Nissan who produce vastly more gasoline vehicles than they do plug-ins.

Retail rollout but 'not head-to-head'

The company will roll out three to five retail showrooms toward the end of the year in predictable markets, including New York, northern and southern California.

But, said Prebo, "we won't go head-to-head nationally with Nissan and GM," but instead target the rollouts city by city.

Think USA provided transport (in a rented Toyota Sienna) and a (very tasty) boxed lunch to enable High Gear Media to bring you this onsite report.


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