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Plant Finds Second Life With Rivian—And So Do Ex-Mitsubishi Workers

Wade Jensen in the plant
Ryan Denham
Wade Jensen is the engineering manager for Rivian’s first general assembly line in Normal, Ill. Jensen worked at the plant’s former occupant, Mitsubishi Motors North America.";s:

Three years ago, Wade Jensen punched the clock for the last time at Mitsubishi’s manufacturing plant in Normal.

“I remember taking pictures the day that I left, sitting in my car, of the gate I walked in every day for years, and saying on social media, ‘Last day. Onto new adventures.’ Thinking I’d never be back here again,” Jensen said.

But here he is, once again. He's now engineering manager for Rivian's first assembly line, getting the electric automaker ready for production to begin next year.

"The opportunity to see this plant producing cars out the back door again, I was all in."

Of the 60 or so Rivian employees in Normal, about half are former Mitsubishi workers like Jensen. He said it was surreal to walk back into the plant.

“When you’ve done it for 28 years ago, it’s your passion. It’s what’s in your heart. It’s your desire,” Jensen said on GLT’s Sound Ideas. “And the opportunity to see this plant producing cars out the back door again, I was all in.”

Jensen was eager to give GLT a tour of the Rivian plant in a golf cart. It's massive—around the size of 24 Walmarts, or 2.6 million square feet.

It looks even bigger now that it’s so empty. Some sections are cordoned off by Rivian prep work. Jensen cruised past lots of old Mitsubishi equipment that Rivian is deciding whether to sell, use, or scrap.

It's a big difference from the days when Mitsubishi was cranking out 200,000 vehicles a year in the 90s and early 2000s.

“Our goal was to get at least one car a minute off the end of the line,” Jensen said.

Rivian is planning to make 50,000 electric pickups and SUVs here annually—about a quarter of the Mitsubishi's peak production. Jensen said that lower volume means Rivian won't be as heavily automated as Mitsubishi was.

That begins later this year with what Rivian calls “validation builds.” They'll build around 70 vehicles on roll-around carts—static builds, they’re called, instead of running them down the assembly line. Jensen said those 70 vehicles will be divvied up for crash-testing, manufacturing training, and other company needs. Later, full production will begin.

Making Batteries

GLT’s tour with Jensen stopped at a well-lit, newly painted, but very much empty section of the plant—a reminder that automakers' plans don't always come to fruition.

“Back in Mitsubishi’s time, in the early to mid-2000s, this was an expansion that Mitsubishi put on, for their SUV, the Endeavor. This is where production for that vehicle was going to be done,” Jensen said, looking out onto the empty space. “But obviously everyone knows what happened to the economy about that time and everything started going south, and this was never utilized for any of that.

“It lent itself perfectly to Rivian’s plan. This will become our first battery factory,” he said.

Those batteries will be the heart and soul of Rivian's vehicles. Rivian says the biggest ones will give 400 miles of driving range on a single charge. They'll sit on a skateboard base that'll be shared across Rivian's vehicles, and maybe even sold to other companies that will make their own electric vehicles with Rivian's technology.

Rivian's battery manufacturing process is being developed in Irvine, Calif., and will be re-created here in Illinois.

RJ with SUV
Credit Ryan Denham / WGLT
Rivian founder and CEO R.J. Scaringe introduces the company’s R1S sport utility vehicle at the LA Auto Show on Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2018.

“Everything out in Irvine is their design, technical process development. Working out all the bugs and fine-tuning it. And then from there, they’ll decide on what equipment and what layout they need to move that to the facility here,” Jensen said.

On The Ground Floor

For Jensen, this will be the second time he's been on the ground floor for a young automaker.

He was hired in 1988 as a second-shift supervisor as the Chrysler-Mitsubishi joint venture Diamond-Star Motors was launched. He rose through the ranks, spending time in Japan to help launch cars. He became maintenance and engineering manager.

But in 2015, he lost his job just like his 1,200 co-workers. Production was moved back to Japan. McLean County lost one of its Top 5 largest employers.

“It was kind of a shock to everybody. I was sitting at home and start getting all these text messages and phone calls. ‘Are you seeing the news? What’s going on?’” Jensen said. “The next day, you come in, and they make the official announcement in July (2015) that November 2015 would be the end of our production here.”

The 56-year-old father of three bounced from job to job doing engineering work in the years since, most recently for a Caterpillar contract company in Pontiac, his hometown.

Two years ago, Rivian bought the plant from a liquidator for $16 million, a bargain price. It hired back a dozen or so maintenance guys, and Jensen's name kept coming up. Soon, he was hired too.

“To see normally aspirated cars and try to change my vision to electric cars 100 percent, is not only a passion but intriguing to me at the same time,” Jensen said.

Jensen said the hardest part is all the new lingo and acronyms. Mitsubishi's final assembly line—snaking north to south through the plant—is now Rivian's general assembly line. "Structure studies" are now validation builds.

Aside from those differences, Jensen sees a lot of similarities.

“Anybody that you talk to in the automotive business, they all do the same things. They all know there’s prototype builds to prove out parts. There’s tooling builds to prove out tooling. There’s all these steps you follow, and it’s pretty much the same from company to company,” he said.

Rivian's hiring in Normal will ramp up throughout this year. It now has 600 employees companywide, with most in Michigan, California, and the U.K. To get its millions in local and state tax breaks, Rivian has promised to hire 1,000 full-time workers in Normal by 2024.

The first vehicles are scheduled come off the assembly line in 2020. Jensen said he's excited to be back.

“It’s intriguing and at the same time it can be daunting. But when you get my age, I’m not that far from retirement. But if I can keep doing this—and stay this excited about it—I don’t know when I’ll retire,” Jensen said.

You can follow all of GLT's Rivian coverage at WGLT.org/Rivian.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.