One company's trailblazing path in China's electric vehicle evolution
By Zhao Wei  ·  2024-01-15  ·   Source: NO.3 JANUARY 18, 2024
A glimpse inside one of the SERES smart factories in Chongqing, where high-speed, synchronized laser-welding robots streamline production, on November 2, 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Towering robots with arms extending over 3 meters perform a precise, choreographed dance within the confines of the SERES smart factory. Amid a cascade of welding sparks, they effortlessly manipulate heavy metal plates, making building full-size vehicles look like assembling model cars. This futuristic spectacle marks a drastic shift from traditional automobile manufacturing, where human labor plays a major role. Now, over 1,000 robots operate tirelessly in the factory, bringing it to the cutting edge of automation and intelligence in manufacturing.

Situated in Shapingba District in the southwestern municipality of Chongqing, the SERES smart factory is an industry leader in smart manufacturing. A walk around the facility reveals the future of vehicle manufacturing not only in China, but around the world. Focused on crafting mid-to-high-end electric vehicles (EVs), SERES has established three such factories in Chongqing, each bringing the industry closer to an era when smart technology and industrial automation become the norm.

From a spring to electric cars 

In 1986, at the age of 23, Zhang Xinghai embarked on an entrepreneurial journey with a modest capital of 8,000 yuan ($2,320). This marked the inception of what would later evolve into the SERES Group. His initial venture primarily specialized in manufacturing seat springs. Over time, the factory broadened its production line to include shock absorbers and other automotive components, and established itself as a pivotal supplier for Changan Auto, one of the leading automobile manufacturers in Chongqing.

By 2002, Zhang had set his sights beyond supplying parts. His company, then known as the Yu'an Group, underwent a pivotal transition in the following years, venturing into the realm of motorcycle manufacturing. Concurrently, China witnessed a surge in the market for small commercial vehicles, such as vans. Capitalizing on this trend, Yu'an forged a strategic partnership with Dongfeng Motor Corp., one of China's preeminent state-owned automobile conglomerates, established in 1969. This was a groundbreaking collaboration between the public and private sectors in the Chinese automotive industry and led to the production of Dongfeng Xiaokang, a renowned mini pickup truck brand.

In 2016, the company made a significant leap into the EV sector, focusing on the production of high-end intelligent EVs. This evolution was accompanied by a change in both the corporate name and logo.

At a press briefing on July 31, 2022, Zhang elucidated the rationale behind the group's new name, SERES. Derived from Greek, SERES translates to "silk country," reflecting the essence of the East and denoting a sense of high quality and luxury. Additionally, the symmetry of the word "SERES" resonates with the aesthetic values of Chinese culture. Zhang articulated that SERES aspires to create a "silk road" of premium products, symbolizing China's embrace of openness and inclusivity, and its expansive global vision.

Automation without borders

The construction of the first of the three factories formed the core of SERES' foray into the EV market in 2016. Built through consistent investment and trailblazing research, the new facility brought together state-of-the-art technologies such as big data, the Internet of Things (IoT) and digital twin technology in its manufacturing processes, and set a new benchmark in China's automotive innovation.

Against the backdrop of China's booming automotive landscape, the company's inaugural smart factory began operation in 2019. Now, in addition to its more than 3,000 robots, the factory is also home to a colossal 9,000-ton integrated die-casting machine.

"All robots functioned in perfect harmony, pushing key manufacturing processes such as welding and painting toward 100-percent automation rate. This extensive automation ensured quality and consistency in parts production, markedly boosting the efficiency of vehicle production," Guo Feng, the company's director of brand marketing, told Beijing Review.

The factory also makes use of cutting-edge automation testing technologies to undertake exhaustive inspections at all stages—from component manufacturing to final assembly. This rigorous process enabled 100-percent inspection of vehicles, with each vehicle's test data being automatically uploaded to the cloud for analysis, culminating in comprehensive reports. "This meticulous approach fostered a 'one vehicle, one file' system," Guo added.

In the realm of EV production, three technologies are essential: the electric drive, the battery and electronic control systems. SERES has achieved a significant milestone in mastering these core technologies, holding over 1,000 patents. These primarily contribute to both the performance and longevity of the vehicles the company produces. The company's flagship hybrid product AITO M5 is capable of accelerating from 0 to 100 km per hour in 4 seconds and can travel over 1,400 km on a full tank of fuel and a fully charged battery.

The factory's ecologically minded construction, recycling program and waste disposal systems are also compliant with China's Green Factory standards. The factory has prioritized low-carbon processes from its inception, integrating solar and thermal energy sources to minimize its carbon footprint. In production, sophisticated systems ensure environmental compliance: centralized ventilation for welding, organic exhaust gas elimination for painting, and thorough wastewater and waste solid treatment, as well as noise pollution control. All these measures meet national standards. Emphasizing resource recycling, the factory's drying furnace uses a recovery-type thermal combustion system, minimizing natural gas use and reinforcing sustainable practices.

Recognized for its green initiatives, the factory received the Chongqing Green Factory award in 2021 and 2022, along with the Sichuan-Chongqing Energy Conservation Environmental Protection Excellence Award. In 2023, it was listed in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology's national-level green manufacturing projects, marking it as a leader in green supply chain management.

Mutual fulfillment

SERES' successful pivot to EVs has led the transformation of Chongqing's automotive industry toward electrification. In 2022, the city produced approximately 370,000 EVs, with 140,000, or nearly 40 percent, of them being manufactured by SERES. The company's vehicles are exported to over 70 countries and regions across Europe, the Americas, Africa, West Asia and Southeast Asia.

Chongqing aims to establish a world-class intelligent connected EV industrial cluster worth more than 1 trillion yuan ($139 billion). It is pursuing this goal through initiatives such as the Western Chongqing Science City's support for digitalizing SERES' factories, focusing on eco-friendly upgrades and enhanced production capabilities, and offering incentives such as tax benefits and export tax rebates.

SERES unveiled its premium EVs at an event in São Paulo, Brazil, on October 25, 2023, reaching a major milestone in the company's expansion into South America's largest economy under its commitment to deepening its strategic connection with Latin American partners, promoting environmental sustainability and delivering EV models that cater to local needs.

Lan Qinghua, Director of the Chongqing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information, lauded SERES' achievements and reaffirmed the government's commitment to supporting its ongoing success in his address at the event. His call to international industrial and commercial communities to collaborate with SERES reflects a broader ambition—to firmly establish "Made in Chongqing" EVs on the global stage.

(Print Edition Title: High-Voltage Vanguard)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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