Currently reading: Insight: The Chinese factory underpinning Lotus's bold expansion
New plant in Wuhan, China, will be the home of the 150,000 'Lifestyle EVs' Lotus plans to build annually

Hethel is set to remain Lotus’s spiritual home and the place where its sports cars are designed and built. But the vast new Lotus plant in Wuhan seems set to become the brand’s powerhouse, definitely when it comes to sales volumes.

Lotus’s hefty prediction that it will be selling 150,000 of its ‘lifestyle EVs’ a year globally as soon as 2028 seems a whole lot more achievable after I took the chance to tour the spectacular new Chinese plant.

Factory manager Xi Tan is one of Geely’s most experienced, with a well-established track record for setting up new facilities. The dramatic expansion of the group’s activities has given him plenty of experience doing so over the years: Wuhan is the seventh factory of which he has led the establishment, although he admits that the first of those was actually a joint venture with Honda.

Work on what’s officially known as the Lotus Global EV Production Centre started in 2019, and it was formally opened in July last year. Situated about 30 miles to the south-west of Wuhan city and close to the Yangtze river, it has plenty of company, being within the Wuhan Technology and Development Zone, home to numerous other car plants and suppliers.

The Lotus site covers around 250 acres and incorporates a press shop, paint shop and final assembly area. There’s also a test track, incorporating a kilometre-long main straight and 16 corners, which is used for both shakedown and validation work. In essence, it’s pretty much a self- contained production facility – one that Lotus has spent a reported $1.5 billion (£1.2bn) building.

Lotus global ev production centre

That spending is obvious throughout the plant. Production of the Eletre SUV began earlier this year, although it’s still ramping up towards high-volume production.

Yet even when it’s running closer to capacity, Wuhan will still be quieter than a traditional car plant, thanks to a very high level of automation.

The key to this is a very advanced parts control system that delivers components to different stations via automated electric sleds that glide around the factory on designated pathways, stopping and beeping politely if anything unexpected blocks their path. This means there are far fewer components in racks waiting to be fitted.

Back to top

Tan is particularly proud of the stamping shop, where state-of-the-art automated stamping lines can produce body components at high volume and very high accuracy.

There are no workers in the automated main presses, which are capable of delivering up to 2500 tonnes of pressure (which Lotus claims to be the highest in the industry) yet also operating up to 18 times a minute. That equates to 3.5 million strokes per year for a double-shift operation, with tools being swapped automatically for different parts.

Apparently, the 550mm ‘draw depth’ of the Eletre’s rear side panel, stamped from aluminium, is also world-leading.

Lotus eletre final assembly wuhan

A helpful display on the wall shows all the individual components made for the Eletre, known internally as the Lambda, and for the forthcoming Type 134 saloon, known as the Alpha.

The welding shop is noisier and busier, parts being manipulated and passed by around 200 robots between different stations. The use of both steel and aluminium in the structure requires numerous techniques to marry components, including spot welding, laser fusion welding, arc welding and lead stud welding. Again, apart from some super visors, there are almost no workers. Pretty much the entire shop is automated.

When I talk to Tan later, he acknowledges that labour is indeed cheaper in China than it would be in most other parts of the world, but he then points out that Lotus faces the same challenge of both training and retaining talent.

Back to top

Final assembly is where the Wuhan plant starts to feel more like a human endeavour. Robots haven’t yet managed to evolve the skills and dexterity to accurately fit parts in tight spaces.

The workers here are still clearly in the learning process, as small batches of cars traverse the line with large gaps between them. But if Lotus hits its targets, there will be more than 400 cars a day passing through the vast halls and into the brightly lit final inspection area.

Quality monitoring is taken very seriously too, with random parts subject to destructive test ing and a laboratory-like quality assurance room where coordinate-measuring machines – probes on robot arms – ensure the tight ness of tolerances.

Will Geely’s ambitions for Lotus work? That’s the billion-dollar question – but nobody could accuse the company of not backing its ambitions for the British brand.

Inside the Wuhan paint shop

Lotus eletre assembly wuhan side

We didn’t get to enter the paint shop in Wuhan, due to the risk of bringing contamination into it, but you will be unsurprised to hear that it’s equally close to the industry’s cutting edge.

While most high-volume factories have paint shops that spray three coats, Wuhan uses what’s described as a 4C3B process, with four coating steps interspersed with three baking steps. Cars are sprayed using small flow-spray nozzles to reduce wastage and the level of vapour contamination.

These nozzles can quickly swap between colours, with up to 98% of the unsprayed paint in lines recovered during this process to reduce wastage.

Painting and coating apparently accounts for around half the total energy consumption in producing a car, so efficiency gains here are particularly effective.

In terms of energy, Wuhan already has 12GWh of generating capacity through photovoltaic (solar) cells, many over the parking areas that help shade finished cars, with that figure set to be increased.

By 2025, the plan is for the whole of the vehicle manufacturing process to be powered by sustainably sourced electricity

Mike Duff

Mike Duff
Title: Contributing editor

Mike has been writing about cars for more than 25 years, having defected from radio journalism to follow his passion. He has been a contributor to Autocar since 2004, and is a former editor of the Autocar website. 

Mike joined Autocar full-time in 2007, first as features editor before taking the reins at Being in charge of the video strategy at the time saw him create our long running “will it drift?” series. For which he apologies.

He specialises in adventurous drive stories, many in unlikely places. He once drove to Serbia to visit the Zastava factory, took a £1500 Mercedes W124 E-Class to Berlin to meet some of its taxi siblings and did Scotland’s North Coast 500 in a Porsche Boxster during a winter storm. He also seems to be a hypercar magnet, having driven such exotics as the Koenigsegg One:1, Lamborghini SCV12, Lotus Evija and Pagani Huayra R.

Add a comment…