I just love visiting factories. After finishing my Southern Road trip, I’ve now been to 99. I went on my first plant tour when I was 8 years old, and my family went to visit Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan.
Like me, you can visit many of the car plants that have been built in the South over the past 20 years. (See here for a list – and companies are adding tours all the time.) But, what are you actually going to see?
Here are some tips to help you understand what to look for.
1) Robots. Hands down, people who go on plant tours want to see robots. And you’ll see plenty at Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Pretty soon, it will have 1,000 robots in its body shop. It has some of the most interesting uses for robots of any plant in the South. It actually hands them upside down, so they’re easier to repair and maintain. Robots do a variety of things on the assembly line, but they’re primarily used to weld things together. Don’t let the sparks scare you.
2) Organization. Felix Unger of the Odd Couple would love going on a plant tour. It’s the primary example of how things are organized to reach an outcome. When you’re on a plant tour, look at how parts are arranged on the side the assembly line – and also look to see whether there are many parts at all. In some plants, big pieces of a car, like the dashboard, are now delivered to workers in one module.
3) Atmosphere. Is the plant well lit? Is it hot, or cool and does it smell? Odor is a problem in engine plants, like Toyota’s factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The women who work there don’t bring their purses inside, because the smell gets into leather. (That odor is coolant, which is used because there is so much metal being processed.) On the flip side, I don’t think I’ve ever seen cleaner plants than Toyota in Tupelo, Mississippi, BMW in Greenville, South Carolina, or Mercedes.
4) Flow. Car plants have a particular flow. The biggest ones, like Hyundai, in Montgomery, Alabama, start with stamping plants, where they make the hoods and sides and trunks from big coils of steel. All the metal pieces get put together before they go through the paint shop. Then, car companies take the doors off so that workers can get inside and underneath to add parts, without damaging the hinges (or themselves). You’ll always see a “wet test” at the end where the car gets sprayed with water to test for leaks.
5) Staging yards. Outside the factory, you may notice a huge lot filled with vehicles – rows and rows of them. This doesn’t mean the cars aren’t selling. These are called staging yards, where the cars are lined up to be put on rail cars and transport trucks. They’re busy places, with cars zooming out of the factory and into the yard. It’s fun to see how many different colors are being made and which models are the most popular.
Finally, one last piece of advice FOR you, not about what you’ll see.
6) Don’t touch anything. You’re not in danger of having anything fall on you, but please keep your hands out of the assembly line and don’t push any buttons. Also, don’t feel like you can help yourself to a free Mercedes emblem or a BMW hubcap. These things are expensive. And, many parts are lined up in sequence. If you somehow walked off with a rear-view mirror, you might wind up delaying the assembly line, and that would be some plant tour to remember.