Driving a Future for EVs: Electrical contractors update a manufacturing facility for Rivian Automotive

Workers from more than a dozen electrical contracting firms installed the power network to energize Rivian Automotive’s electric vehicle plant in Normal, Ill.

Photos courtesy of Rivian Automotive
Published On
Apr 15, 2022

A team of electrical contractors is converting an existing auto plant into a new facility for Irvine, Calif.-based electric vehicle manufacturer Rivian Automotive. New electric SUVs and Amazon delivery vans are beginning to roll off the line. Behind the scenes, contractors have installed and connected power to everything, from the paint shop to battery units. Among the contractors building out the facility are large and small companies, including Weber Electric Inc., Heartland Electric LLC and Wm. Masters Inc. of Bloomington, Ill., as well as Motor City Electric, Detroit; Anderson Electric Inc., Springfield, Ill.; and Wilcox Electric & Service Inc., Normal, Ill. Kelso-Burnett Co., Laser Electric Co., Oberlander Electric Co., Quick Electrical Contractors Inc., Schaefer Electric Inc., Slifco Electric, Tri-City Electric Services Co. and Zeller Electric Inc. also worked in the facility.

Rivian Automotive launched in 2009 to make electric SUVs, pickup trucks and vans designed for on- and off-road driving. To ensure fueling for the vehicles, the company is also in the early stages of building an exclusive charging network across the United States.

Rivian was originally known as Mainstream Motors, then Avera Automotive before rebranding. Since 2011, its focus has been on autonomous electric vehicles. The long-term goal is to build an entire ecosystem aimed at ride-sharing and driverless cars. The company has a 2028 net-zero commitment, which means employing sustainable suppliers and service providers for Rivian’s operations.

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The company’s manufacturing plant is located at a site in Normal, Ill., formerly owned by Mitsubishi Motors Corp. Mitsubishi built its Eclipse model in Normal, and the plant came with equipment for stamping, injection molding, body shop, paint and final assembly for 250,000 vehicles per year.

After acquiring the shuttered facility and its manufacturing contents in 2017—all for $16 million—Rivian began restoration and renovation to serve its own manufacturing needs. It has invested $40.5 million in the project over the past 5 years.

The 2.6 million-square-foot factory now manufactures vehicles and components, such as battery packs. It also includes a paint shop, robotics and other production equipment. The company began assembling its R1T truck and is also working on the R1S SUV. However, vehicle shipments have been delayed in part because of the global shortage of semiconductor chips.

Bringing the plant online for Rivian’s assembly processes was a monumental task requiring many area electrical contractors to get involved. Among those were Weber Electric, which most recently helped build the battery-testing facility that launched in 2019 and is still in progress.

According to Josh Mosier, Weber Electric’s president, the company has worked for many general contractors, including P.J. Hoerr, River City Construction and Barton Malow, on multiple projects at the Rivian plant. Weber Electric also has worked for Rivian Automotive directly as a prime contractor.

The wide variety of projects has meant multiple collaborations. For instance, Motor City Electric Co. (MCE) and Weber Electric teamed up on two building expansions.

Weber signed its first contract in October 2019 for the battery-testing facility. It was a bid/design/assist/build project, Mosier said.

In 2020, Weber Electric provided installation for renovation of the stamping and final assembly site, the new service center and the plant’s entryway. Wiring of the vibration test lab was completed, while the paint shop fire alarm system is still underway. In 2021, Weber Electric provided electrical installation at the Rivian dyno test labs for transmission testing and the material storage warehouse. Many projects were completely new installations and did not leverage any existing Mitsubishi equipment.

“We’ve seen a full gamut of projects, including large building additions, small building additions, interior renovations, substation installations,” Mosier said.

The company has also provided medium-voltage cabling, process electrical power, data cabling, automation wiring, fire alarm systems, emergency lighting, site lighting and grounding.

Additionally, Mosier said, Weber wired the battery-testing equipment and process chillers. As of this printing, the company was about to start work on a new modular chiller plant installation.

When Weber electricians came on-site in 2019, they focused on installing the substations, transformers and switchboards at various locations. They installed distribution panelboards, large variable-frequency drives and the large-scale battery chargers and testing equipment needed for every vehicle. Altogether, the electricians installed many miles of armored 15-kilovolt, 600V armored and DLO cables. Weber also installed miles of feeder wire to serve the entire facility.

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Any large-scale project can provide challenges, and this one required great effort to navigate the scope of work and design changes while keeping on time within a compressed schedule. It also meant bringing in necessary manpower.

“Scaling the business to meet the demand has also been a challenge,“ Mosier said.

The scale-up was steady—Weber had 20 employees on-site in 2018 and peaked at 227 in May 2021.

“We’ve been successful for a number of reasons on these projects,” Mosier said.

First, many employees at Weber stepped up and, in some cases, worked out of their comfort zone to lead crews. They completed the work on a short deadline with numerous other contractors during COVID-19 and its related challenges.

The company also worked with MCE on a large building addition, “and it’s proven to be a great experience for our team personally and professionally. MCE is a great company, and we’ve been fortunate to work with talented people from MCE,” Mosier said.

Weber also leveraged numerous construction and software tools to keep the project on time, he said. In many cases, those tools helped ensure that all those on-site and off understood the project’s status and requirements, in real time, with a steady stream of communication.

“We’ve ramped up our communication and exchange of information from the office to the foreman on [each of] the jobs,” he said. “Additional data vaults, laptops and iPads on the jobs and in the hands of the guys in the field ensure they have and can receive information more efficiently.”

Throughout the project, the company has benefited from good relationships and free-flowing communication with its vendors, especially with the numerous delays related to the pandemic.

When it came to coordinating with the many work crews, BIM coordination meetings prior to construction helped whenever the other trades took part in the process.

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As of December 2021, the plant employed nearly 3,900 workers to assemble its R1T electric truck and R1S electric SUV models.

“The EV industry is growing, and we’re excited for new products, installations, technology and the challenges it brings. I hope we’re at Rivian Automotive for the long haul,” Mosier said. “We’ve been fortunate to meet and work with some great people there. Our team is grateful for the past and present opportunities Rivian Automotive has provided, and we’re excited for projects on the horizon.”

The work has proven to be equal parts challenging and rewarding for the Weber Electric team.

Other contractors have also been supporting the project, including Heartland Electric. Heartland Electric provided Rivian with switchhouse and substation construction. This small company was launched a decade ago by Will Hancock, the company’s owner and president. Hancock entered apprenticeship in Bloomington in 1999 at age 19 and worked for local companies through 2011, doing everything from residential to industrial construction.

He opened Heartland Electric on Jan. 1, 2012, “with just myself, and I hired my first guy about four months later,” he said.

The company started out providing local service work and small commercial/industrial construction jobs. Hancock’s wife, Heidi, left her corporate job in 2015 to manage the company office.

Since then, Heartland Electric has undertaken projects for several franchises with new locations under construction, including build-outs at Illinois State University, Heartland Community College and State Farm. The company today averages about 7–10 electricians—“truly a mom and pop shop,” he said.

With this in mind, the company took on a challenge with a project the size of the Rivian facility.

“When I was approached about doing work at the new Rivian facility, I initially hesitated,” Hancock said. “I knew how big the other crew sizes were.”

That changed when he got a close look at the contract.

“After reviewing the scope of work that we were being asked to do, I realized it was right up our alley,” he said.

When Heartland Electric came on board, the larger contractors had their hands full already, and the work needed to be done. It was contracted to add house power in the main switchhouse and in several substations. Company electricians installed several new electrical panels and feeders for new remote terminal units and LED lighting and rerouted several substation feeders.

While on-site, Heartland Electric employed four journeymen, including Hancock himself, and took about 10 weeks to complete the job. 

Ultimately, looking at the enormity of the project and the successful installation, Hancock said, “I am proud that we were able to contribute to the construction of the new Rivian plant in Normal.”

The finished plant is intended to help usher in the age of the electric vehicle. It employed nearly 3,900 workers as of December 2021 and will ultimately leverage 1,000 robots for vehicle assembly.

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