TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Volkswagen’s ambitious plans to become a 10 million-unit car company in 2018 depend on production from four factories under construction in China and an Audi facility in Mexico, with all patterning their environmental footprint on the auto maker’s new Chattanooga, TN, assembly plant.

“Sustainable, efficient production is a clear, competitive advantage,” says Jan Spies, head of factory planning for the VW brand, which “is pursuing a clear strategy that pools all environmental activities at our plants throughout the world.”

Blue has become a synonym for Green in the environmental language at VW. Think Blue Factory is the group’s program of plant sustainability, not only for new facilities but also for the German auto maker’s 100 existing factories around the world.

VW audited energy use in three of its typical plants and found 55.4% of the energy used, including 19.8% of electricity, supported infrastructure, not production. The auto maker since has decided to ask its factories for a 25% reduction in energy consumption, landfill disposal, water useage, carbon-dioxide and volatile organic compounds emissions by 2018.

Chattanooga Assembly’s architects planned for such efficiency. Designing the plant to achieve the LEED platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council helped VW look at the problems in detail, says Spies.

The reductions targeted by Think Factory Blue all are cost factors.

One key architectural element of the Chattanooga plant, the entrance bridge, was designed in a local student competition, meant to attract young people to the auto industry. The bridge was adopted by one of the factories under construction in China.

Sustainability is an industry goal.

James Tetreault, Ford’s North American manufacturing vice president, says in his speech at the Management Briefing Seminars here this week that Ford plans to reduce energy use in its plants 20% by 2016 and cut waste going to landfills and lower water usage 30% by 2015. Water savings in 2012 added $3 million to the auto maker’s bottom line, he notes.

Chattanooga built its first salable car in April 2011. Last year, it produced 154,000 VW Passats. The plant now is hoping to be chosen as the site for a cross/utility vehicle based on the CrossBlue concept shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January.

A major improvement at Chattanooga has been the paint shop, which will be copied throughout the company. It has one less spray booth and dryer than has been customary, because the system eliminated the need for a primer coat of paint, reducing energy consumption more than 20%.

VW looked at its manufacturing operations from Argentina to Russia for ideas when constructing Chattanooga, which has the same 6-in. (15-cm) insulation as the plant in Russia. In Chattanooga, says Spies, the insulation helps reduce cooling needs, where in Russia it is used to hold in heat. Chattanooga uses the heat sink of its concrete to warm the plant at night.

The Tennessee factory captures rainwater to cool equipment and flush toilets. It is surrounded by buffalo grass, which doesn’t need watering, and ponds formed during the construction period were retained for their environmental benefits. At night, light-emitting diodes are used for outside illumination only in areas where safety requires them.

Spies says the plants under construction in Foshan, Yizheng, Ningbo and Changsha, China, will use the layout of the Tennessee factory as a guideline, but each has been designed for its local situation and climate.

The idea of being energy-efficient is not simply a VW requirement. “The demand for a green plant is coming from inside the country,” says Spies. “That is a significant change from past years.”

While Think Blue Factory considers Chattanooga the benchmark, new ideas are sought continually. In a body shop being rebuilt in northern Germany, the ground requires VW to build deep pilings to support the weight. The pillings will have tubes inside that will use geothermal temperature differences to heat and cool the plant.

“We had the idea for Chattanooga, but without pilings it didn’t pay off,” Spies says. “Bit by bit, we are collecting new ideas.”