What I Learned From Building A Car And Sneaking Around An Assembly Plant On Christmas
It’s a few million square feet. More than sixty football fields. And even on this holiday weekend, it’s not silent. In one corner, a group of men congregate around a folded-up seating assembly. Elsewhere, a tractor-trailer backs up to a dock and a green light flashes on as sensors click and an unattended door rolls up. Electric carts and small tractors whiz by me during my long walk through the darkened, cavernous interior spaces. A persistent, high-pitched whine emits from a timeclock. A poster details the instrument panel changes in a 2011 model.
In a society which has largely forgotten the divine and chosen to worship commerce, production, and marketing, this is a cathedral; still, I’m walking quickly without a genuflection to the rows of engine-transmission assemblies suspended above me, because I need to rush home and observe the same rituals. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine closet.
I have a day job now. Normally, I don’t work a day job, but my endless appetite for music, travel, women, and vintage Gibsons has exceeded the constraints of my modest independent means. Everybody asks me what I do there. I never give the same answer. I said, on Facebook, that I put the left rear wheel on a small CUV for a living. I received four messages from friends wondering if there was any room on the line. Times are hard.
I think of what I do as facilitating production. A modern automobile has thousands of components. Very few of them are made on site. The rest come on trucks which back up to any one of our hundreds of docks. They roll out parts in RFID-marked bundles. At some plants, an army of silent robots takes the parts to their places on the line, but my plant is old and so we do it with men and women driving electric tractors. Sometimes I see a once-gorgeous woman flying towards me, in command of enough parts to stop the line for precious minutes, at full speed, her hair blown back, and I smile.
The original automotive assembly plant, Ford’s River Rouge, took steel and coal in one end and spat cars out the other. Those are the old days. We are, truly, merely an assembly plant. We assemble.
I assemble, as well. My mother bought my son a “Cozy Coupe Cart”. This is a Cozy Coupe Cart. I don’t know what the hell it is used for. Perhaps to train children in shopping dynamics. Perhaps my mother bought the Cart because she was too untrained in shopping dynamics to understand that it wasn’t a Cozy Coupe.
As I followed the twenty-eight steps required to put the cart together, my son came over. He pulled it away from me and tried to climb in. He’s seen the Cozy Coupe on television. He didn’t fit, because the Cozy Coupe Cart is far too small to put a child in. He realized he couldn’t use it to go anywhere, and he started to cry. Cue a trip to the toy store to acquire an actual Cozy Coupe.
Cozy Coupes are assembled in what I think of as a “soft-tooled” process. There’s plenty of wiggle room in each part. I made a mistake and put the top on before the door. I used a screwdriver to lever the body apart so I could jam the door in. Until the advent of “hard tooling” in the Eighties, real cars all had to have their doors adjusted after installation. Big men with crowbars and a deft touch adjusted the massive doors of a Coupe deVille to produce a perfect “click” on closing, and other big men who didn’t care as much let Chevrolet Caprices close with a clunk.
I made a few mistakes, actually. I rectified them in post-production, using a hammer and screwdriver to reset the alignment and reinstall the faux gas cap the right way. The famed Mercedes-Benz W126, perhaps the finest modern automobile in many ways, reportedly took longer to “adjust” after production than it did to make. Every W126 was taken off the line and then gone over with a fine-toothed comb by a group of impossibly skilled and knowledgeable people who were capable of shifting a dashboard, reassembling a wiring harness, adjusting ignition timing.
If you took what a W126 cost and adjusted in to today’s dollars, you would be in Bentley territory. The current S-Class is built in such a manner as to minimize post-production adjustment. As in my factory, doors and body panels have holes, not slots. That’s important. A slot can be adjusted, but it will also never truly be right. A hole is either right or wrong. Binary. Once upon a time, morality was binary and assembly was analog. Today, we reverse the process. There’s a visibly pregnant girl sitting next to me in the break room. Her fingers are smooth and naked. A young man smiles at her and makes small talk. It occurs to me that he could be the father, or perhaps they met yesterday, putting the left rear wheel on a small CUV.
It took me an hour to build a Cozy Coupe. I think of the the signs we have, the LED scoreboards that compare our planned production with our actual production. I imagine my sign stating that, although we had planned to build zero Cozy Coupes today, we ended up building one.
The end of my long walk, or perhaps the halfway point of it, was a loading dock where a young man presented me with a box. The components in the box were worth one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. It weighed eighteen pounds. We’d been waiting for it. I would perform my own sort of ritual in this cathedral later and the gods of commerce would be appeased by this sacrifice, these golden calves laid at their feet, and production could continue.
So much to do, so many cars to build, and one little car to build at home. I was quick-walking away when the man said, “Hey.” I stopped.
George B on Dec 27, 2010
Great writing Jack! Really enjoyed the Ford Rouge Factory Tour, but it doesn't show all the work required to get parts to the assembly line. Wish there was some way to see the real operations of an automobile factory. It was a sad day 3 years ago when a company I had worked for shifted assembly work from a contract manufacturer with a plant in Texas to a factory in China. Engineers in my group used to be required to drive 3 miles to the CM and inspect first article boards at each manufacturing step. Helped find problems before production started and learning how the manufacturing and test process worked improved future products. Now we just get yield reports from China and some prototypes without ever seeing the factory.
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