As everybody too acutely knows, the American automobile industry has been driving on fumes lately, along with the rest of the world economy. However, while some notable factories have recently closed, it would be a mistake to think that car-making in the United States is completely in the breakdown lane. While the industry may need a tune-up and a refilled tank (along with an electric battery or fuel cell), the great American tradition of the car factory is alive and well -as we learned while writing our travel book about factory tours, Watch It Made in the U.S.A. (www.factorytour.com).
You can kick the tires of the U.S. car industry for yourself in the many factory tours that it offers to the public. On these tours you can see just how the excellence of American automotive workers endures amid robotic technology and a nurturing corporate culture of teamwork. Despite the industry’s losing streak, the team on the field is still playing, and with everything to play for.
You will notice that several of the tours we list below are at the U.S. factories of foreign car-makers. While it may seem odd (or even unpatriotic) to consider foreign car-makers a part of the American automobile industry, it is important to realize that globalization has blurred national distinctions in big business. Even before you consider the American labor that assembled it, a “foreign” vehicle built in the US may actually contain more American-made parts than a car sold by any of the Detroit Three, which increasingly buy parts from Mexico, Canada, Japan, and China. It is also important to recognize that foreign companies operating in the US provide many jobs for American workers.
Taking Factory Tours For Fun
Educational as well as entertaining, factory tours in general make a superb day out for people of all ages. In fact, touring manufacturing sites to see how everyday products are made has become increasingly popular in America. The cost is low, and many tours are free. Moreover, along with their educational value, these tours can provide a needed reminder of American industrial strength.
It is most interesting to tour a factory during working hours. Before you take any of the tours listed below, you should call the company to confirm not only the tour times but also the manufacturing schedule, as sudden changes can occur. Also, some tours have minimum ages, and it is extremely important to find out in advance do not assume that factories will be flexible about a posted minimum age, as the company’s legal department may require them to adhere to it. During summer, be sure to watch out for shutdowns around Independence Day and Labor Day.
Obviously, when you are touring a real manufacturing site that bristles with machines and tools, it is extremely important to follow the company’s safety guidelines. In particular, children must understand that factories can be dangerous. Be sure to tell them that when they are on a tour, they must listen to the tour guide, wear any protective gear the guide gives them, and walk only where they are allowed.
Peering Under The Hood: Automotive Factory Tours
The following tours are all available to the public. While most of them are in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee, suggesting a Southern road trip, some tours are also still available in the traditional automobile belt of Detroit and the upper Midwest. You can learn more about the tours from the companies themselves or in our book Watch It Made in the U.S.A., a guide to factory tours of all types throughout the country.
Hyundai Motor Manufacturing, Alabama
700 Hyundai Boulevard, Montgomery, AL 36105
Like most tours of automobile factories, this tour is not just for car buffs but for anybody interested in modern manufacturing methods. Robots and people work together in futuristic harmony, and the atmosphere is friendly rather than forbidding. People wave a lot. During the tour, your guide may point out a (human) team member and encourage you to raise a cheer of support.
The tour shows a typical car-making operation. In the stamping shop, rolls of coiled steel are cut and then stamped under great pressure into 17 different vehicle body parts. Along with the human workers, here you meet the factory’s robots, which collect the parts and store them. More robots (over 250) await you in the corridors of the weld shop. They weld together, with precision and a lot of flying sparks, the stamped metal parts into the recognizable body of a car. These skeletal cars proceed by overhead trestle to the paint shop, where they turn 11 somersaults in a preparatory bath before robots spray on their coats of color and glossy finish. In the area for general assembly, humans join robots: over a thousand workers install the parts and pieces of each vehicle, including wiring, brake controls, engine, drive train, tires, battery, doors, seats, and glass.
1 Mercedes Drive, Vance, AL 35490
Many people associate early cars with Henry Ford. However, as you learn at the visitor center here, the very first automobile (invented in 1886) was a German Mercedes-Benz. To make contemporary Mercedes-Benz vehicles for North America, the Alabama plant brings in prestamped sheet-metal panels and welds them together in the body shop. The vehicle leaves with four doors, a tailgate, and a hood, but it’s only a colorless shell, so the next stop is the paint shop. In this clean room, workers wear astronaut-like suits and hair nets. The cars zigzag their way back and forth along the whole length of the paint shop, alternating between dip tanks and oven lines, and come out in front of you in glossy painted colors. One of the highlights in this tour is the “marriage” station on the final line, where the completed chassis is bolted to a completed body.
1400 Highway 101 South, Greer, SC 29651
This factory in South Carolina was BMW’s first manufacturing facility outside Germany. It produces sporty Roadsters, Coupes, and X5s for the American market, often using U.S.-made parts. (In fact, a BMW X5 contains more American parts than a Pontiac G8 from General Motors.) In the body shop, workers in green fire-resistant jackets weld the steel parts together at a “marriage” station, while bursts of sparks fly into the air. The paint shop is seven stories high, protected by a glass wall, and pressurized to keep debris from contaminating the paint environment. Cars pause at each station to be cleaned and coated with a sealant to reduce noise and water leakage before being primed, color-coated, and clear-coated. In assembly, the painted bodies are placed on a rotating conveyor and tilted 90 degrees so workers can install the parts in the car’s underbody without bending or stooping. Both the X5 and Z4 travel along the serpentine one-line assembly process where associates install the interior parts, such as the engine, fuel lines, gas tank, dashboard, seats, and radio.
983 Nissan Drive, Smyrna, TN 37167
Imagine 94 football fields under one roof: those are the vast dimensions of Nissan’s first U.S. manufacturing plant, located in Rutherford County, Tennessee. It employs thousands of workers and contractors. Indeed, since the plant opened in 1983, local unemployment has been halved. Look up at the conveyor systems suspended from the ceiling as sparks fly from tentacle-like robot arms welding together the main body parts of the vehicle shell. The Intelligent (or “smart”) Body Assembly System (IBAS) is a mixture of automation and computerization. IBAS robots replace the conventional jigs that hold steel panels together as the car body is welded. The computerized capabilities of the system allow for more than one model of vehicle to be assembled in the system before lasers check the accuracy of the welds. In the final assembly areas, you see the human touch. With heads bowed in concentration and fingers flying, people install the hundreds of parts that transform the painted vehicle shells into dynamic machines.
GM Spring Hill Manufacturing (Saturn)
100 Saturn Parkway, Spring Hill, TN 37174
To many Americans, the Saturn car by General Motors represented the rebirth of American automobile manufacturing. Since the first model rolled off the line in 1990, these cars have earned a reputation for high quality. The manufacturing plant began offering regular public tours in the summer of 1997. This highly integrated manufacturing complex includes areas for power trains, general assembly, and body systems. The manufacturing plant has been designed to blend into the countryside, so very little of the plant can be seen from the highway or the visitor center. The site sits on some 2,400 acres of what was previously farmland -in fact, General Motors here currently farms approximately 1,200 acres of land on which it raises corn, wheat, and soybeans. (These kinds of perception-changing surprises are a major part of factory tours and their educational value.)
1001 Cherry Blossom Way, Georgetown, KY 40324
This factory in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region is Toyota’s largest manufacturing plant outside Japan. It covers 7.5 million square feet of floor space, and about 7,000 workers build nearly 2,000 vehicles here each day. Toyota vehicles get their start in the stamping department. Steel is cleaned, straightened, and stamped into sheetmetal components that make up the vehicle bodies. With hundreds of tons of force, the automatic presses shape the steel into doors, hoods, roofs, and many other parts. The sheet-metal components then move to the area for body welding. Here team members and computer-controlled robots put together completed body shells, which travel by overhead conveyors to the paint department before moving on for final assembly. Your guide will explain the famous Japanese corporate concept of kaizen (continuous improvement) and the andon system, which lets work stop the production line at any time to address concerns or problems.
600 Corvette Drive, Bowling Green, KY 42101
Since its introduction in 1953, the Corvette (made by General Motors) has become an American automotive icon. During the early 1960s, the television series Route 66, about two bachelors who cruised American highways in their Corvette, enhanced the car’s popularity. In 1981, GM moved Corvette assembly to this complex in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Led by a guide who points out the car’s special features, you visit the factory floor itself. Computerized robots weld the steel frame together before the Corvette receives its signature fiberglass body panels. Once the panels are painted, they return to the main assembly floor, where workers install them along with other parts such as seats, wheels, and removable roof. While the car’s body is being assembled in the trim area, the engine and drive-train are assembled in another area. When the two come together, workers scamper underneath the car to connect the chassis and body. After your tour, visit the National Corvette Museum across the street (350 Corvette Drive, 800-53-VETTE).
Fern Valley Road at Grade Lane, Louisville, KY 40213
Since 1913, Ford has had a factory in Louisville, Kentucky. During the tour, you see almost all of the production steps, though not in the order of assembly, as all the vehicles are built on one long line. It’s an industrial symphony of sounds: machines and tools buzz, crunch, and hiss. With the help of more than 140 robots, the stamped sheet metal that comes from other Ford plants is fitted and welded to exact specifications. The robots help transfer parts, spot-weld, and apply sealer. In the trim area, most of the vehicles’ insides are added, filling up the painted shell. The chassis is built in another area. Notice how the frame is actually upside down when workers install the fuel and brake lines, body mounts, and wiring. The frame is then flipped over before the bumpers are added, along with the engine, transmission, and driveshaft.
Ford Rouge Factory Tour
The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, MI 48124
From 1928 through the 1940s, the Rouge complex was the capital of Henry Ford’s industrial empire. It once employed more than 100,000 workers and produced a new car every 49 seconds. The Rouge had its own power plant, police and fire departments, hospital, and railroad. Though not as large as it was, the Rouge (now known as the Dearborn Truck Plant) still makes vehicles, including Ford’s F-150 pickup truck. You can visit parts of it on tours run by The Henry Ford, a nonprofit educational institution (not affiliated with Ford Motor Company or the Ford Foundation). Departing in buses from the Henry Ford Museum, tours begin with a look at famous landmarks. Next you ascend an 80-foot observation deck to see Ford’s 10-acre “living roof,” a sprawling garden that flourishes atop the factory. Planted in thick mats of vegetation, the expanse of greenery absorbs rainwater to help prevent local flooding. The tour’s last stop brings you into the thumping heart of the modern Rouge factory. From an elevated walkway, you can take 20-30 minutes to view the final assembly area of the plant.
Mitsubishi Motors North America
100 North Mitsubishi Motorway, Normal, IL 61761
Opened in 1988, this is the only American automobile factory run by Mitsubishi Motors. Originally run as a joint venture with Chrysler under the name Diamond-Star Motors, the operation changed its name in 1995 to Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America. (In 2001, all the North American operations of Mitsubishi Motors were consolidated into Mitsubishi Motors North America.) Situated on 636 acres in central Illinois, the plant occupies more than 2.5 million square feet. Conducted from a catwalk above the action, the tour shows you how the production area is designed to accommodate several different models on one assembly line. The just-in-time inventory management here has made the facility one of the most technologically advanced automobile-assembly plants in the world. (Note: This factory will be closed through May 8, 2009.)
The automotive factory tours we describe above (and in our book) provide fascinating windows not only on how vehicles are made but also on the efficiency, thoroughness, and dedication of skilled American workers throughout our economy and our country. Manufacturing in the U.S. has changed over time, and some has been lost to other parts of the world, but it has not, despite rumors to the contrary, entirely left our shores. The hard work and ingenuity on display in factory tours can perhaps offer a note of hope for the future of American business in the current difficult economy.
About the Authors
Based in Brookline, Massachusetts, Karen Axelrod and Bruce Brumberg are the authors of Watch It Made in the U.S.A., a popular travel book about factory tours, company museums, and other work-related attractions for families. Matt Simon helped to research and write the book’s fourth edition.