I work the line: What it’s like to assemble a 2019 Volvo S60

by admin April 9, 2019 at 3:17 pm

Owen Kowalski motions me over toward some fragile-looking glass while he explains how I can get through the next half-hour without breaking things and making his day go sour. His red beard gets wide with a smile, and he looks relieved when he hears I’ve done a little of this before.

It’s Owen’s first car assembly gig. In his before life, he made pizzas: First the crust, then the sauce, then the cheese, then the toppings. He got his job building Volvo S60 sedans at the company’s new factory in South Carolina by explaining the assembly process and quality control of pizza during his job interview.

Now he works the station that installs front windshields in an assembly plant that blends a human workforce with a small battalion of robots. They work in concert at Owen’s station, feeding off each other.

MORE: Read The Car Connection‘s 2019 Volvo S60 review

He walks me through the complex movements of his work life and jokes about how unrealistic the Safelite guy is on TV as he screws forward-facing cameras and rearview mirrors to panes of glass. He waltzes through with Arthur Murray precision as he positions the front and rear glass on vacuum-assisted carrier and swings them gracefully toward a robot-assisted line where they’re fastened to the car’s body.

Ready to try it? He asks. He pulls a carrier over the station, toward a windshield in a rack fresh off a supplier’s truck, and hands me over the controls. It hisses and pressurizes when I punch the rubber button. The windshield swings in my hands and we’re in a ballet together, as I slot right into place.

I’m one of the army of workers in orange and blue shirts now, in charge of a part of the birthing process of your next 2019 Volvo S60. The cars crawl along like newborns down the assembly line, where I swing into step and join the dance already in progress.

I work the line.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Welcome to Ridgeville

Last Friday, I went to Volvo’s South Carolina factory for some remedial car-building. It’s been more than 20 years, after all.

In the 1990s I worked at another automaker in the process of building a new factory in the South. A factory tour sounds like a forced march to some; to me it’s reliving a sliver of my past. I saw a shiny white temple to SUVs rise from the red dirt a few hundred miles away. In the span of a year it went from flat earth and trailers to a running body and paint and assembly line with an office building and a cafeteria that sold German food.

When the offer came to work on a Volvo station, I took it. It’d be a homecoming of sorts.

The Volvo factory’s come far since it was announced in 2015, when Volvo’s parent company picked Ridgeville, South Carolina, for the brand’s first U.S. assembly plant. About a half-hour outside of old Charleston, Ridgeville’s the deep South—not Stockholm, not even Goteborg. Volvo’s plant rises out of marsh land in Berkeley County, out past a thick suburban belt growing faster than the weeds and reeds that surround it.

Office buildings and training sites have sprung up across a broad boulevard, but the assembly plant stands aloof, a Taj Mahal of telemetry and tooling. It’s sited behind rainwater retention ponds where egrets and snakes take up light housekeeping, where an alligator—nicknamed Louis Vuitton by the plant workers—slips under the surface of the water and keeps his eyes above the waterline, eyeing the progress.

The Ridgeville plant sits far enough inland to weather a storm like 1989’s Hurricane Hugo. To the southeast sits Boeing’s 787 facility. Another few miles out, there’s a new Mercedes Sprinter plant.

The Volvo site takes up about 1,600 acres; eventually, it will hold a solar array to provide clean power, a training center, and an office building. There’s plenty of room on the site for a mirror plant to expand capacity. The plant’s built 13,500 S60 sedans so far; 50,000 are in the PowerPoint for this year. In 2021, it will build prototypes of the XC90 now on the drawing boards. By 2022, it’ll be a prime source worldwide for that SUV, and South Carolina will become one of the biggest producers and exporters of SUVs in the world (along with BMW, up in Greer). By then Ridgeville could employ as many as 4,000 people and may be capable of assembling 150,000 vehicles a year.

Every auto plant mingles hopes and dreams with commerce. The plant is a part of a larger Camp Hill site of about 7,000 acres that has been groomed by South Carolina for bigger prizes still. A forest of suppliers could fit here; so could a couple of other Volvo-sized projects. Charleston is growing, its population of more than 780,000 is headed toward a million people, and they need jobs.

For now, the Volvo plant is a slightly more humble three-box affair that still cost more than $1.1 billion. The A Shop building houses body assembly, B Shop paints the cars, and C Shop puts in engines and transmissions and performs final assembly of trim, lighting, doors, and interiors.

C Shop is where I stand semi-flummoxed. Owen’s explained the pre-work well, but I’ve never grabbed a jig like this, never have lifted a piece of glass so big. I’m no Safelite guy. I’m decades out of practice. I’m rusty.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

The marshmallow race

When the day began, I sat at a conference table, with a handful of marshmallows of various sizes and some coffee stirrers, wearing black steel-toe Timberlands, a bright orange polo shirt, and goggles that would do Kareem Abdul-Jabbar justice.

I’d just jabbed myself with a broken stirrer, and a dot of blood colored the marshmallow residue that stuck my fingertips together. It’s either practice for the real work, I told myself, or it’s the most metal pre-K program ever.

Before we could build, we had to be trained. Volvo instructors lectured us first on safety. Boiled down, it’s mostly the intersection of high-fashion orange and gray shirts and eyewear and not putting your fingers in moving machinery. That, and not using newspaper as a welding shield. Volvo has said it wants to prevent any deaths in its cars in the coming years, and in the plant, it wants to keep injuries near zero. Good thing I left the Steven Tyler homage scarf at home.

Volvo also trains its employees to volunteer ways to build its cars better for less. As a training exercise, we built a race car out of two large marshmallows, four small ones, and five coffee stirrers. One colleague was named the driver and raced the “car” around a cafeteria; another became a track worker and watched for rules infractions.

I was named pit crew, a perfect choice given my two liberal arts degrees and inability to count fractions. I built one car within reasonable spec: I stabbed a large marshmallow down the center with a coffee stirrer, flanked that spine with two more, then split the puff across its centerline with a pair of flimsy axles. The four small marshmallows became the wheels. The coffee stirrers snapped several times before we raced.

Go!

Before I knew it, my driver raced back into the pits and I had to swap out the large marshmallow. I yanked on the stirrers to release them from the big puff. They snapped again. Dammit! I jabbed them back through and they broke into even smaller pieces. Dammit! After the hand-off, somehow, we managed to come in second with a lap time of 2:04, well off the lead time.

We were given a second chance, our instructors explained: We could buy parts if we want to speed the process and run again. We opted to buy no parts, and improved from a 2:04 lap to a 1:40, with a clever trick: I rolled the marshmallow in my hands to warm it and make it more pliable. But I still broke a lot of axles and cursed more than a few times.

The marshmallow races quickly taught us the prime lesson of car making: There’s always a way to get better. I could have taken that as my learning moment, but instead I chose to get bitter. It’s possible to buy your way into competition, I decided, and people and parts will always let you down.

I don’t want to point fingers like a sore loser, but I will. Quality issues with axles cost us a half-lap alone. The coffee stirrer supply chain needs to be disrupted. Like, ASAP.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Training by Ikea

A few minutes later, I walked through the rolled-up doors of a vast warehouse that takes up much of the Ridgeville plant’s 2.3 million square feet. Climate-controlled and brightly lit, its unblemished blue paint and high-visibility yellow vests and orange and navy uniforms looked fresh and new. Snack bars and picnic tables dotted the landscape, between the snaking lines of car assembly fixtures that work to a fine point to bring the Volvo S60 to life, to a finicky degree.

Your vision of a car assembly plant may be a noisy hazy place, the very picture of Chaplinesque modern times, maybe without all the Communism and cocaine. Or maybe it’s Lucy and Ethel scarfing down chocolates they can’t package in time, their assembly line speeding up and out of control.

Today’s car plants don’t work like that. They need to run symphonically, on a schedule, but the large miracle of just-in-time production has led to a process that’s equal parts choreography and economy. A dealer places an order for a customer, and that triggers a chain of events; parts are packed into trucks, driven to Ridgeville, off-loaded on to dollies, cradled and ported through three different buildings, gradually put together in rhythmic precision until a real live car drives off the end of the assembly line, with its touchscreen Bluetooth interface and its cooled leather seats ready to roll.

Before any of that happens, assembly workers get lots of training which continues with every shift they work. This S60 that I’ll work on will have a VIN number and a sale date—it’s a real car—so I had to be trained, even if briefly, on how to ensure quality.

Training means an hour on a line outfitted with a series of plywood bucks shaped sort of like cars, a squadron of state-supplied ex-Air Force engineers as instructors, some power tools, and a thing called an andon cord, a cable pulled by assembly workers when things go wrong.

We zoomed through lessons and through a soup of alphabetic work instructions, SWEs and WESs and OISs. It was like being waterboarded by the folks who brought you ISO 9000. Then those same Air Force instructors assigned me to a task on the assembly line. My job: To check quality and remove nuts from a fuel tank, a steering wheel, a bumper, and headlights, all in a minute. That’s this station’s Takt time—the elapsed time allowed for a work process before the vehicle moves to the next station.

This is Assembly 101, I thought. I got this. I don’t even remember thinking why the instructors chuckled as they guided us to our work stations.

MORE: Read The Car Connection‘s 2019 Volvo S60 first drive review

I worried a little as the task took shape. When the Ikea-inspired car passed a green line in my work station, I was supposed to check each nut from front to back, then unfasten them, back to front, all in the span of a minute, before I released the car and pivoted it 90 degrees to the next station. Tests like these determine who has the talent for work like this, a mix of discipline, hand-eye coordination, and the ability to learn and listen. I have one or two of those on a good day. The assembly line moves anyway.

We started and I began to check for quality. The line was moving, so I stepped to the left. I grabbed an electric drill set to deliver 2 newton-meters of torque. I began to undo bolts. I realized I forgot to check some of them. Dammit. Check, check, check. The next car was already approaching and about to crease my bumper. I tried to speed up, but the drill hopped off the nut. Dammit. I pulled the andon cord for the first time and heard “Welcome to the Jungle.”

What’s goin’ on here? You wrecked a car? The instructors took glee in my errors, especially J.D., who says I’ve been assigned the toughest work station. He laughs like he’s going to audition for Kris Kringle in a Rankin-Bass reboot.

What’s wrong? I think. It’s mocking me. This wooden plywood Fred Flintstone training wheels mother$#&*%r of a car is mocking me and so is Axl Rose.

I gave it another go. The line started to move again. I tested the battery. I tested the nuts. I tested my patience. You can do this. I swore I could, though my tolerance for humiliation dropped every time Axl wound up.

The line moved more quickly than I could handle. I started to un-nut in the wrong order again. I aimed the drill at any part near me, swung it at all the nuts at once. Bring it on! How about we do just a Greek dance on the line? Opa!

I pushed off the bumper to pivot the corner. I was supposed to be using two hands, but I was improvising now. I skipped a step but I couldn’t move it. The next car had already rear-ended this one. I pulled the andon in defeat. I wanted to pull the andon cord on my day already and I had only been on the line for about 18 minutes.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Hot robot takes and Joe Biden stations

Before I melted down, J.D. and his crew pulled the andon on the exercise, in time to give us a quick electric-cart tour of the A Shop, where bodies are assembled.

Every car factory choreographs its own distinctive, elaborate ballet. Robots usually handle the most intricate, high-pressure and high-temperature moves. Most of the 300 robots at the Ridgeville plant build bodies; humans work in other stations, like the one where they gently touch steel bodies to detect slight imperfections. I thought of Joe Biden, and worried that cars can’t give consent.

We passed a Disney-esque vignette, where a half-dozen robots descended on an S60 and put its body in shape, a half-dozen velociraptors frantically feeding on exposed seams. It’s the kind of scene that makes you worry that our time at the top of the species charts is about over. (My robot hot take: If I can’t become self-aware, how will a robot?)

MORE: Read our 2019 Volvo V60 first drive review

What I missed were the sounds of dystopia. The body shop sounded like a busy subway, with none of the ringing clangs of a shop where panels are stamped out of hard steel. That happens somewhere else; body pieces get trucked to Ridgeville. It’s hard work that requires expensive tools and high volume projections. It’s saved for a later day here.

We shuffled on, headed toward our assignments and work stations, over in C Shop, the final assembly line where supple leather seats descend into place, where gray wood trim meets steel-blue sheet metal, where bodies and powertrains match up, until death do they part. Workers even call that last part of the line the “marriage” station—which leads to the place where they “get screwed” together in 58 points, a great honeymoon by any measure, and then on to “divorce,” where they lose their dollies but gain a lot of…wisdom? Let’s go with wisdom.

The robots even have that handled. With nothing for us to do here, we headed over to our work stations, where I met Owen.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Paul Krugman and “Made in America”

Before we get down to work, let’s talk about Paul Krugman, the auto industry, and one of the more recent ugly stereotypes of the South and its people.

Krugman, who has a Nobel prize for economics, wrote a column for The New York Times (“Toyota, Moving Northward”) that said Southern workers were not good enough to get new car plants. In that 2005 piece, he wrote that Toyota chose Canada over the South for a new plant. Eventually he reasoned it was because of Canada’s nationalized health insurance. First he floated the poisonous trope that Southern states couldn’t produce enough educated workers to take all the promised plant jobs. “Illiterate” actually appeared in his text.

That made me angry then, and still does now. I worked with some fine people in my previous work life and Krugman’s column felt like the same horseshit that’s been thrown at Southerners trying to move out of the past for decades. This time the thrower aimed at people who were friendly and kind to me. They weren’t uneducated; they weren’t untrainable. They built cars as well as their Canadian counterparts, over time—once given the chance to learn how to build cars. Krugman had missed how Toyota saved money by combining the back-office operations with another nearby plant. Econ 101, to my eyes.

Since his ill-reasoned column, the ACA has been implemented and the Great Recession happened. The economic landscape for car plants in the U.S. has changed, and as long as the president and Elon Musk think building cars is easy, it will continue to change.

Still, in that 14-year span, many car assembly plants have been built new or expanded in the South: Toyota and Mazda in Alabama, Toyota in Mississippi, Volkswagen in Tennessee, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama and South Carolina.

Long before that, Southerners built cars in Shreveport and Atlanta and Arlington and Doraville and Norfolk and Dallas and Hapeville and Chesapeake and Oklahoma City. Krugman may have forgotten about those places.

For the record, no new auto plant has been built in Canada, and a few are on the deathwatch list.

Volvo’s isn’t just the latest new assembly plant in the South, it’s the latest of three manufacturing sites just in the Charleston area. With Mercedes and Boeing before it, some substantial long plays have been initiated, markers put down on exactly the same Southern workers Krugman insisted were too dumb.

I’ll try to be fair. This was 2005, before he won his Nobel in 2008. People can learn, even economists that work a lot of overtime to suggest otherwise.

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Motor Authority builds a 2019 Volvo S60

Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Owen needs me to get to work, but for a moment, I daydream. I flash back to one of my last work days in Alabama, when a colleague taught me how to weld a fender on a unit-body, sparks flying through the air, carrying with them the sharp scent of cauterized metal.

The welding tool backfired like a small-caliber gun: Poom poom poom poom! I realized I’m a bad aim then, not a single weld sat along a recognizable arc. Each one dented the metal crazily out of line. I knew I was terrible at it. My colleague confirmed it: You’re terrible at this.

When I snap out of it, Owen’s already shown me how to do this part of his job. Ready to try it? he asks again. He blazes through his station one more time for me, so we can actually, you know, get some work done. Owen’s station has a 2.5-minute Takt time and I’m already behind.

Ridgeville is, too. Like most new auto assembly plants, Volvo’s first U.S. car plant is slightly behind schedule as it ramps up to full production, as workers and engineers map their way out of the unique quality-control issues and procedures that confront every new assembly plant as it opens, the same ones that confront every existing plant on a daily basis, too.

I pick up the tool and head toward the glass, remembering my brief training. Hiss! Phoomph! Hiss! It fixes itself to the glass and we dance, in a half-circle whirl that ends with the lip of the windshield perched carefully on green rubber grommets. I release it with the tap of another button, and Owen tapes a bar code to the glass. I waltz to the front of the line of glass and—phoomph!—pick up another piece of glass, press the rubber buttons to lay it horizontally, then set it down on a carrier that feeds it to the always hungry, robotically precise fitting station.

And that’s it. My work is done here. No shattered pieces falling out, no extra work for someone to clean up. It would take me awhile to get down to Owen’s proscribed Takt time, I know. Yes, well, has he ever written a Christmas letter on a short deadline and used the word incredulous? I worry he probably has. My skills are repeatable and unfortunately, not all that uncommon.

Have I gotten any better at building cars? It’s not a job for the poorly trained, the temperamental, or those on the prima donna spectrum, and I am all of those things. I still get the windshields in place. I get how Volvo isn’t just a badge to the people who work there. It’s a badge of honor.

I haven’t messed any of that up, not really. I’m not one to brag, but I only created about an extra half-hour of work time for Owen. Granted, I was only there for about 45 minutes. By my watch and my non-Common Core math, that’s an improvement of 52.43 percent. Wait, 41 percent? Send help for the poor trainer that has to teach me math someday.

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