Electric Car Factory: Think Sets Up Shop In Indiana, RV-Land

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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

Enlarge Photo

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.

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