Sometime in the next few months, someone will buy a Volvo S60 sedan with a panoramic sunroof that I installed. Good news: The experienced operators on the assembly line at Volvo’s spanking new plant near Charleston, South Carolina, didn’t let me mess it up.
The Swedish automaker is so proud of its first U.S. assembly plant and its rookie workforce that it invited a handful of journalists to an expedited assembly training session—and then try our hand on the factory floor. I paid attention. I didn’t want to subject the car-shopping public to a Russian roulette of potentially buying a sub-par vehicle that I helped build.
Most of the 1,500 workers employed here had never built a car before joining the Volvo team. The upbeat training sessions mix with the buzz of a new facility to create a positive vibe. Employees are quick to pull the “Andon cord” that signals a problem on the line requiring help—and halting the line. Workers are quick (and empowered) to offer suggestions to improve the process. There is a palpable pride.
A quick historical side note: In the bad old days of manufacturing, workers would kick a problem down the line, to get (hopefully) fixed at final inspection. The credo of “nothing stops the line” was paramount; total output was key, even if a repeatable error was obvious to all. But once innovator W. Edwards Deming’s system of Total Quality Management (which included the Andon cord) was first implemented by Toyota in the 1960s, other automakers followed suit after Toyota quality quickly surpassed that of the competition.
Worksheet Tells All
I strode into Volvo’s 2.3-million-square-foot manufacturing arena, wearing a bright orange shirt identifying me as a rookie. My mission: install a glass sunroof into a sedan at Pretrim Station 8. All S60s start in “A” Shop where the bodies are built, then proceed by tunnel to “B” Shop for paint, and into another tunnel to “C” Shop or final assembly of powertrains, doors, cockpits, and anything else needed to finish the vehicle.
A worksheet indicates whether a charcoal or blond sunroof is destined for the car inching forward. Green lights verify that the assembly guns are torqued properly. I use an assistive device with suction cups to grab the glass sunroof and steer it to a station where screws pop out of sockets and start spinning. Green lights and a quick eyeballing indicate whether they’re all turning properly. One of mine was not.
I panic. I realize I literally have no idea what to do. I am way out of my depth. Fortunately, the regular operator did not even blink. I can’t honestly say what he did—I may have been somewhat paralyzed by the prospect of messing up a $40,000 car—but the errant screw promptly joined the rest in their synchronized, happy twirl. We were good to continue.
Pushing buttons, I lift the sunroof, guide it to the front of the car, over the hood with a frighteningly scant amount of clearance to spare, and thread it through the opening for the windshield. Once inside, the glass roof is raised into place. More experienced eyeballs than mine double-check that it’s installed properly. Further down the line, positioning adjustments will be made to meet the allowed tolerances. Whew.
For a worker on the line, this process is repeated every 2.5 minutes. To break up the tedium and monotony, each line worker is trained for two jobs, and they switch between tasks every two hours. I now also appreciate how many steps, checks, and balances are required, all under the pressure of a moving line.
Back to the Andon cord. When a potential problem is spotted, employees are empowered to pull the cord that stops the line and summons a supervisor. Each work area has its own identifying instrumental theme that plays when the cord is pulled. At the pano sunroof installation area, it’s Van Halen’s “Jump.” Nearby, we hear the theme from Sanford and Son and “Lollipop.” I am struck by how often music is triggered. In old-school think, the cheery music might have been seen as an embarrassing indicator that the group wasn’t doing something properly; today, it shows that employees are seriously taking their responsibility to build a quality vehicle. The songs change every six months because, honestly, how long can you stand “Lollipop” before that earworm starts eating your brain?
Supervisor Luciano Vennitti, a native of Lordstown, Ohio, and a GM plant veteran, moved to Charleston to work at Volvo. Compared with the massive GM empire, he says, Volvo has a tighter-knit feeling. The teamwork is organic, rather than orchestrated or forced. There’s a buzz in the new plant. “We had to teach everybody how to build a car.”
Volvo Project Thor
This is Volvo’s first U.S. factory (those with long memories remember Volvo’s North American final-assembly plant in Halifax, Nova Scotia form 1963-1998). “Volvo Project Thor” sprung up from the dirt on 1,600 acres of land near Ridgeville, South Carolina, and will eventually include the plant, a test track, a training center, an office complex, and retention ponds to catch floodwater. One pond is already home to “Louis Vuitton,” an alligator so named for his future prospects as a handbag.
Volvo briefly considered putting its plant in Mexico, but quickly discarded the idea. South Carolina, already home to BMW and Mercedes-Benz Sprinter plants, has a growing supply base and access to highways, airports, and sea ports. The state offered incentives and training programs for those eager to try carmaking. To ensure a local workforce, the state college system created a compressed 62-hour manufacturing program to pump out workers with the equivalent of a year’s manufacturing experience in time for the plant to start production.
Launching with a sedan is an odd choice, given the sales falloff compared to SUVs. But it’s a decision Volvo made years ago. In hindsight, Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Volvo Cars USA, likes the ability to break in the new plant with a low-volume vehicle and work out the bugs before adding assembly of the next-generation XC90 (which will include the complexity of both gasoline and pure electric versions) in 2021. At least the plant is ready; no tear-ups will be necessary to make future electric vehicles.
New-employee training is a weeklong exercise with a heavy emphasis on safety—this is the company that invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959, after all. There’s also a reliance on employees to standardize and improve the assembly process.
Fun with Marshmallows
In my time at the plant, I got a taste of what a new hire experiences. After the safety briefing, a team exercise has employees designated as drivers, pit crew, and race officials. Using an ugly facsimile of a car with a marshmallow power core and smaller marshmallows skewered on coffee stir sticks as wheels, our “driver” fast-walked the car around a makeshift track and then pitted for new wheels and parts before completing the second lap. After the results were in (my team was last after pit trouble with an errant stir stick), we were allowed to “buy” extra parts and assume a time penalty. We went for a full buy of all available parts, and while the car was completing the first lap, we built a second car so our driver could race, swap cars, and start the second lap immediately. We won by a landslide. The win for trainees: Think of ways to prep the line for smooth assembly.
Our next step involved heading down to the “simulated work environment,” where retired Air Force personnel trained us on a mock assembly line, attaching wooden parts to wooden cars. My job: headlights and taillights. My nemeses: a gun that was never at the right torque setting, and clumsy, gloved hands that dropped nuts. The line is relentless. The car moves to the next station whether you’re done with it or not (in manufacturing-speak, that is called the “takt time”). In another section, the cars were crashing into one another like the famous “I Love Lucy” scene with Lucy and Ethyl at the chocolate factory. Pulling the Andon cord to stop the madness triggers Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle.” Enough said.
The idea is to use the disastrous first attempt to brainstorm ways to improve the process, like moving gun holsters to the line and laying out the nuts ahead of time. On the real shop floor, it’s part of the culture to seek improvement.
With that rudimentary training in our heads, we were escorted down to the assembly line to try our hands at the real thing; obviously new workers get far more instruction before assembling vehicles for consumer consumption.
The plant is on pace to make 52,000 S60s a year with 1,500 employees to a shift. This pace will ramp up to make 60,000 a year. Volvo will add a second line to the body shop for the larger XC90 crossover and add another 1,900 employees to bring annual capacity to 150,000 vehicles, mostly XC90s. And the plant can expand if needed.
S60 Exports Have Begun
When Volvo broke ground on the Charleston plant in September 2015, the plan was to make it the sole global source of S60s, with half the volume intended for export. The plant is designated as a foreign trade zone, which requires tight security of who and what goes in and comes out. Exports began March 1 with a ship bound for Belgium.
Many flavors of S60 are planned: T5, T6, T6 plug-in hybrid, and T8 plug-in hybrid including the T8 Polestar Engineered PHEV with a 48-volt mild hybrid system, as well as a model with a new three-cylinder engine. So far, the plant is only doing gasoline T5, gas T6, and T8. All sedans are built to order.
As for me, I’ve washed my orange shirt in case Volvo needs me to return to duty.
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