Making Cars in the Great Lakes: Inside Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant

Before I left Chicago for points east, I had a chance to tour Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, a complex that finishes about 1160 vehicles a day. A great majority of those are Ford Explorers, pieced together by line workers wearing safety glasses and headphones, working pneumatic tools in a hypnotizing ballet of endless repetition. Whir, whir, whir.

Walking the floor, following pedestrian pathways marked by bright yellow paint, I watched linemen and women raise engine assemblies into vehicle bodies, hang doors and bolt wheels, as conveyor belts ceaselessly inched the unfinished machines ever forward. (A tip: When touring the plant, one steps over the drive-chains running through channels in the floor.)

My tour guide Larry, a dead ringer for Jesse Ventura, even let me jump in a just-finished Explorer the moment it rolled off the line. Videographer Stephen Greenwood, who’s riding along for this part of my ride, captured the mesmerizing shots after the break.

Traveling the American Road – Ford Assembly Plant Tour

Hitting the Road in Chicago, a City of Reinvention

If the story of this road trip is the reinvention of America, Chicago makes for a fitting starting point. Burned to the ground in the 19th century, its skyline now bristles with architectural gems, including some of the tallest buildings in the country.

And while the economy here has diversified over the years, heavy industry and manufacturing still exist, whether its on the industrial corridor north of Goose Island, a greening stretch of Cermak Road or at the Ford Chicago Assembly Plant south of the city, where cars have been built since 1924.

To get a handle on the evolving city, I spoke with Micheline Maynard, the senior editor of Changing Gears, a 10-month-old multimedia journalism project involving three area public radio stations that aims to tell the stories of residents in the changing Great Lakes region. At the WBEZ 91.5 studios on Navy Pier, itself a rejuvenated bit of infrastructure that now bustles with tourists, Micheline told me about Chicago’s path to a diversified modern economy.


“You visit Chicago now and you look at the beautiful parks and you look at the tall buildings-there’s a lot of money here-and it’s hard to remember that 100 to 150 years ago this was a city built on industry,” she told me. “The difference between [Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago] is that Chicago diversified. Chicago kind of saw decades ago that it couldn’t rely only on industry, and successive mayors Daley made an effort to have other kinds of businesses and other kinds of development.”

Micheline mentioned Millennium Park as an example, the blissful waterfront green space that’s probably best known as the home of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, the mirrored sculpture everyone calls The Bean. Opposed by many during construction, it’s now a major tourist attraction and a symbol of what sustained attention to long-term development can achieve, turning an underutilized public space into a bustling urban center.

Entrepreneurship was on view at Wrigley Field, too. I managed to catch the last half of Wednesday’s Cubs-Astros game from the upper reserved seats. My ticket was just $14 and the seat was great, on the first base side above the visitors dugout. (Never mind that my Cardinals fan of a father would be sorely disappointed I was attending a game at the home of the Redbirds’ regional rivals. Then again, the Cubs did lose, 3-1.)

But the seats that looked the most interesting weren’t even in the park. Apartment buildings near the stadium, along Sheffield and Waveland avenues, are topped with private bleachers that once sold seats for as much as $300 each. But business has been off, and fans can now get on the Wrigley Rooftops for as little as $99, still much more than $14 but a price that includes unlimited food and brews.

Creativity is also finding a place on Hubbard Street, a strip of decidedly average nightlife joints where a handful of local industry veterans have recently opened the lovely Hubbard Inn. With classic cocktails and a couple dozen beers on draft, it’s no doubt a drinking hall, but small plates-mushroom-topped flatbreads, steak tartare, grilled prawns-help keep everyone on the level. As one of the owners told Time Out Chicago about trying to do something new on Hubbard Street: “It’s not your kind of turn-and-burn vodka-tonic, Bud Light place.” It was a fitting location for our road trip kick-off party on Tuesday night.

Gulfstream’s $500 million expansion of Savannah, GA headquarters to create 1,000 jobs

According to many pundits, the so-called recession that gripped the world in 2009 is far from “over,” but we’ve been noticing steady signs of recovery in the travel industry over the course of 2010. While consumers and businesspeople alike are still pinching pennies and thinking twice as hard about where their funds are going, more and more bodies are moving about, particularly by plane. Gulfstream, which maintains a headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, seems more convinced than ever that we’re on the rebound, and it’s announcing today a huge investment that’ll better position it “to meet future demand for business-jet aircraft and support services.”

The spend? $500 million over the next seven years, and that’ll buy significant expansion of its Savannah plant as well as around 1,000 full-time Gulfstream Aerospace jobs (a hike of about 15 percent from its current level of 5,500 employees). According to Savannah Now, those positions will include production specialists, engineers, and support technicians. Needless to say, quite a few folks in the Peach State are celebrating the news, with Gov. Sonny Perdue being one of many on hand today for the announcement. Moreover, the expansion will result in new facilities at the northwest quadrant of the Savannah / Hilton Head International Airport.

Gulfstream suggests that the investment will also help it meet a growing demand for large-cabin aircraft, with large chunks of the cash used to build production plants for G650 (“Like a G6!”) and G250 jets, as well as maintenance capacity for all of the models that the company manufactures. Unsurprisingly, we’re hearing that the bulk of that demand is coming from international clients (Asia Pacific, specifically), but the company seems bound and determined to keep its roots in the south.

We know Gulfstream doesn’t speak for the entire aviation industry, but it’s definitely good to see a major player like this making such a tremendous investment in the future of air travel. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a beautiful turnaround.

[Via Twitter (@mksteele)]

Cathay Pacific Freezes Recruiting Because of Low Demand

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific has always been one of the world’s top airlines. But the ever-lower demand for air travel has touched them as it has every other airline. An article in an internal publication distributed to Cathay’s employees two weeks ago announced that there will be a company-wide recruiting freeze. No layoffs yet, but the hiring stoppage will include Cathay’s subsidiary, Dragonair. The freeze was confirmed today.

That means no fresh faces in an airline that is famous for its top-notch service (and leggy, poised flight attendants). Exec Tony Tyler remains optimistic that the industry, and Cathay, will return to their old ways in short order. ”I remain unashamedly optimistic about the future of aviation in Asia – just think of the potential in China and India alone.”

Cathay, like the regions other major players, is straining on its leash, waiting to carve out its space in new, lucrative routes in China and on the subcontinent. They just have to make it through these slow times intact.

[Via The Standard HK]