“A revolution? We’ll see”

© Photo | Simon Koy

Helmut König worked at Audi AG in Ingolstadt for an incredible 50 years. Here the master of efficiency and lord of machines talks about the past and the future of automation.

Mr. König, under your desk we see Astrix and Obelix comics and a laser-cut Asterix sculpture. What’s your connection to these characters?

(smiling) My colleagues gave them to me for my birthday and service anniversaries. Some people say I share a certain resemblance with the little Gaul. In essence, I suppose it’s the whiskers, but he’s also described as being a cunning little warrior with sparkling intelligence, and as someone to whom dangerous tasks are entrusted without any hesitation. I can certainly identify with that. The appropriate adventure would have to be called “Asterix and the Automatons.

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Helmut König started off as an apprentice at Audi in September 1964. Most recently, he was responsible for the production of the entire car body.


At first he wasn’t sure where lasers could best be put to use as tools. But when a blunt fillet weld was required on the first Audi TT, everything changed.


König successfully connected the concept of energy efficiency to economic efficiency at Audi, and thus made a contribution to anchoring the idea in the industry.

Making the bodyshell for the new Audi A3

Efficiency and sustainability were the focal point of the planning process for N 60 production hall. More

Because industrial automation has shaped your professional life?

Yes — and because I’ve always been fascinated with technology and machines. The finely-tuned interaction of robots in efficient manufacturing is something that simply inspires me.

With that in mind, would you say Production Hall N60, at the northeastern corner of the Ingolstadt site, is your masterpiece?

I prefer to let other people judge how much I contributed to this outstanding joint output. But in truth, the new hall is the world’s most modern body shop, and it’s an industry benchmark, with 429 robots for welding, 335 for handling and 86 for applying adhesives working seamlessly together to produce the high-volume Audi A3 model. Some 800 employees in three shifts ensure that everything runs like clockwork.

Helmut König combined experience with insight in Hall N60, where the Audi A3 is built. It’s the most energy-efficient automotive manufacturing plant in history.

Which features make this production hall so special?

On the one hand, it’s the great flexibility and ideal use of space. It’s about 30 meters tall, and houses two production levels. In an area 219 meters long by 134 meters wide, we’ve created nearly 60,000 square meters of floor space. The logistics annex to the north acts as both a transfer and distribution area.

…and on the other hand?

Other important features include excellent ergonomics and highly efficient energy management. Our goal was to create the best possible working conditions for our employees, since light, fresh air and cleanliness make work more pleasant. The 2,000 square meters of windows alone allow us to make maximum use of natural daylight. The ventilation system comprises 16 elements and exchanges 1.6 million cubic meters of air every hour. Rotary heat exchangers reduce energy consumption.


Helmut König started off as an apprentice at Audi in September 1964. Most recently, he was responsible for the production of the entire car body.


That brings us to the catchphrase of resource efficiency!

That is a very significant aspect. Let’s start with the roof, where we’ve installed a photovoltaic system. Each year, it generates 460,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, thereby avoiding 250 tons of CO₂ emissions. The hall’s lighting is governed by natural daylight sensors, and we’ve installed motion sensors in connecting rooms. Lighting is dimmed in areas whenever machines are running in fully automatic mode.

The CFR plastic roof bell is a good example of how we apply lightweight construction in the plant itself. And at every A3 body manufacturing cell, a monitor displays the current rates of consumption for electricity and compressed air. This helps employees to quickly spot any waste and take corrective action. And finally, we can switch the hall to standby mode on the weekend; an intelligent shut-down strategy reduces energy consumption by up to 80 percent during idle times.

Why is energy efficiency so important? Because we owe it to future generations!
Helmut König

So why does the topic of energy efficiency matter so much to you?

For me it goes without saying that we should use energy wisely! We owe it to future generations to make sure that our children and our children’s children inherit a world worth living in. Today, using resources responsibly is anchored in Audi’s “2020 Production Strategy,” and that with good reason.If you consider a car’s impact on the environment during its entire life cycle, you’ll see that there’s a shift taking place right now.

As cars become ever more economical to run, the relative impact of their manufacture can only grow. Depending on the type of vehicle, a new car already has — by the time it reaches the dealer — a CO₂ footprint equaling about 50,000 kilometers on the road. That just proves all the more clearly why it pays to invest in effective and efficient manufacturing processes.

What is your conceptual approach?

It’s a pragmatic one! We act according to the principle of applying the right material and the right technology in the right place. Let me give you an example concerning lasers. Dr. Folker Weissgerber, the late head of production at Volkswagen, was big on promoting laser technology in automotive manufacturing. With his affinity for technology, he kept trying to convince us to adopt lasers as a tool here at Audi. At first, however, we saw no promising starting point for comprehensive introduction.

We’ve perfected the invisible laser brazing process for the roof joint.
Helmut König

What made you decide to adopt lasers after all?

It was the fact that we stayed true to our principle. When we were looking for the right technology for joining the Audi TT’s C-pillar, the laser turned out to be the tool of choice because it was the only way to
perform a butt weld on the flange. From that point on, we promoted lasers with great enthusiasm. We’ve perfected the invisible laser brazing process for the roof joint. We in Ingolstadt were the first to reliably weld together galvanized sheets, because we developed a patented process that ensures controlled outgassing.

And these days we use high-efficiency disk lasers on the Audi A3 as well — to braze the invisible roof joint by laser, for instance, or for remote welding the vehicle doors. And optical laser measuring equipment monitors all the car bodies during manufacturing, checking more than 4,000 reference points.

So the laser is nothing more than a tool?

That’s right, it’s no more and no less than a powerful tool. What really stands out for me, however, is the issue of modularization — breaking down the automobile into modules such as chassis, doors, seats, and the dashboard with its instrumentation. The RPS reference point system is another milestone. This integrated recording system follows defined rules for individual parts, welded units and assembly. At the same time, it is a prerequisite for our high quality and function-al standards and has become absolutely indispensable today.


Helmut König looks back on a rich professional life.


Do you think Industry 4.0 is going to be a revolution?

I think there’s a lot of hype around this topic, and — to be honest — some of it is downright presumptuous. Even pioneering inventors like James Watt and Henry Ford never saw their inventions as revolutionary; that’s something for posterity to decide. Audi has spent years working on these questions, so Industry 4.0 is not a revolution but a question of continuous development — it’s really more of an evolution. Automation technology is set to have a much bigger impact on productivity and will largely determine availability. The next steps include equipment that sets its own parameters, thoroughly networked manufacturing, and real-time tracking of malfunction data.Humans and machines will collaborate and work together even more closely.

You’ve been at Audi for an incredible 50 years. What has kept you energized after all this time?

I’ve always set myself exciting and challenging tasks. I was always lucky enough to work in good teams and to have good supervisors — people with whom I could not only concentrate on the task at hand with but also have fun with. If you can laugh with your colleagues, then the team works better.

Have there been any special moments in your five decades?

I’d like to single out two. First, I think my apprenticeship as a toolmaker was the ideal basis for my career. Working at precisions in the hundredths is something that stays with you for life. It’s the starting point for discipline, diligence and attention to detail. The other is my time in the Audi “fantasy team” between 1995 and 2000. We were allowed to have really crazy ideas and dream up the future for Audi. For me, as an engineer in love with details, that freedom was tremendously inspiring. Our mixed team made quite a few predictions that have come true in the meantime — trends like increasing electrification, alternative drives, the megacity boom and smart networks were all things we foresaw back then.

Is working at Audi simply unavoidable for someone born in Ingolstadt?

I wouldn’t say that, but my family history is inexorably linked with Audi. My father worked for Audi’s forerunner, Auto Union GmbH; he was employee number 112. My oldest son works here too. The youngest has already done several student internships here at Audi. Audi and Ingolstadt — they just belong together. For instance, I enjoy going to the hot dog stand at the Ingolstadt farmer’s market on Saturdays and meeting not just friends and acquaintances there, but colleagues too. We talk about both private and professional topics.

And where will you be spending your retirement at the end of the year?

We’ll be making for a more comfortable life at home. We’ll be converting the vegetable garden into a miniature spa, with a whirlpool designed for seniors. The garden shed has room enough for the kettle barbeque grill and a smoker. I’m especially looking forward to spending lots of quality time with my grandchildren.

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