CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Ever since a fateful summer decades ago, assembly lines have represented failure for me.
That year I was working in a dismal, dirty plumbing-parts factory near Philadelphia. Unlike the mechanized auto plants of today, this plant required a lot of physical dexterity; everything was done by hand. It’s a job I never cared for or mastered, and I was fired in less than two weeks. Unemployment never felt so good.
This barely registered in my subconscious mind when I got an offer to work on the line in Volkswagen’s Chattanooga Passat assembly plant for a day. Though I’ve driven hundreds of automobiles, I had never helped build a new car, so I accepted.
And as I soon learned, this was not the grimy workplace of my youth. This is a 21st century factory.
I immediately got an idea of how different it was. Rather than having hands-on training, job instruction started the night before, in front of a computer screen. My job would be in Chassis and Powertrain, Pitches One and Three. I quickly mastered both jobs in the simulation, but I wondered if it was enough. Instruction typically takes three weeks. Considering I had just 60 minutes, I wondered if VW’s reputation for German precision was true.
On the desks in the training room, black masking tape outlined exactly where the computer keyboard and mouse pad should be placed.
Other things spoke of a penchant for efficiency.
Forget expressing yourself through your wardrobe. If you’re a clotheshorse, you can kiss your favorite outfits goodbye. Employees wear metal-free clothing specified and sold by Volkswagen to prevent employees from scratching the paint on a freshly built car — a very costly fix. Jeans lack rivets, and belts are cinched using Velcro. Employees don’t wear watches or jewelry. The only metal is found in steel-toed sneakers, boots and wing tips.
My clothing was ordered by a secretary whose only guidance was that I was really tall. This explains the size 40 pants — I wear a 32 — and the extra-large polo shirt —I wear a medium. The belt was the only thing that prevented sartorial disaster. It, too, was oversized. But there was enough Velcro to prevent my pants from inadvertently causing me to moon the plant foreman, an imposingly large, sturdy man.
Plant employees work 10 hours a day, four days a week, alternating night and day shifts week to week. I would be working the day shift, beginning at 6 a.m. and ending at 4:45 p.m. I would shadow an employee who would train me and then watch my work to ensure proper build quality. There would be one break in the morning, two in the afternoon and 45 minutes for lunch.
10 hours. It was going to be a long day.
The large assembly hall’s bright and airy environment surprised me. It’s no day spa, but it’s cleaner and quieter than a shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon.
If the pleasing working conditions surprised me, my co-workers did more so. They were not the ones I remembered from my fortnight in the Philly plant. Of course, they were not doing the job I was doing then, either.
When the VW plant opened, tens of thousands applied for the available 2,000 jobs. Plant managers could afford to pick only the best of the best. They did.
I found myself starting on Pitch Three alongside David Underwood, a hardworking family man who would be training me, and team leader, Aleek Simon, an Armenian who has lived in five countries and speaks three languages. Like many here, Simon is a car guy, with a 1994 Toyota Supra and a passion for speed.
He put me at ease as I discovered that the jobs that microchips had helped me master the night before bore little resemblance to real life.
The art of working on the line involves becoming proficient despite its relentless pace. Underwood calls it muscle memory. It’s an automatic reflex, a learned behavior.
Getting there takes time. After all, performing Pitch Three’s 14 steps perfectly in the required 90 seconds or less means taking no more than 6.4 seconds for each step. After a minute and a half, the next job is ready for your attention.
And it’s at Pitch Three where the engine is mounted, various hoses are attached and the driveshaft is seated. As a sign that the driveshaft is properly installed, it gets marked with a Sharpie. Sometimes I marked it horizontally, sometimes vertically, sometimes at an angle and — at least once or twice — with two lines.
It may not sound like a big deal, but I can only imagine a car collector at some Volkswagen show decades from now having points deducted from their score by some overzealous judge because their engine’s driveshaft is marked incorrectly. A note to future judges: It is right. I was just trying to finish the job without stopping the line.
Because it will stop if your job isn’t done correctly.
Once attached, many of the hoses and driveshafts get torqued using an overhead wrench. If each item is torqued correctly — neither overdone or underdone — a sensor beeps and flashes a green light. If it isn’t, a red light flashes. The job cannot proceed until it’s right.
The computer will also know if you’re in danger of running late. If you are, a melody comes on. After 70 seconds, the tempo increases. After two minutes, the line stops.
It’s little surprise that my first time torquing on Pitch Three saw red lights flashing and music playing. Suddenly, I was a teenager in Philly again. I started to sweat. The line couldn’t stop; not because of me.
Simon leapt over the line and came racing down my pitch and, like an emergency room doctor, quickly fixed the problem.
I was mortified; Underwood laughed. “We’ve all been there,” he said. “The key is to not get flustered.”
When the bell rang and the line stopped, I was surprised. I never expected to endure 10 hours. Neither had the communications manager at the plant. Yet I had. Even better, I was filled with the satisfaction of having built something that would be highly valued by a family somewhere in America.
Some people have asked if I would take a job at the plant. Well, one day is not a lifetime. It’s easy to say yes after your only shift has ended, you’ve had a cocktail and a nice dinner and the ibuprofen has kicked in.
And I realized that, perhaps, my affinity for the job comes from the fact that the newsroom does the same thing every day. Similar job, different factory.
Still, I’ll take this one over that one. But I will always appreciate what it takes to assemble a quality car, perfectly, 40 jobs an hour, 10 hours a day, six days a week, 52 weeks a year.
Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
About VW's Chattanooga plant Plant size: 1,400 acres Opened: May 24, 2011 Cost: $1 billion Employees: 3,500 Production capacity: 150,000 Passat sedans annually, mostly for the U.S. market, although some cars are exported to Canada, Mexico, South Korea and the Persian Gulf. Future capacity: There's enough land to build another line. The plant is part of Volkswagen's plans to increase annual U.S. sales to 800,000 by 2018. Plant amenities: Fitness center, tobacco-free, cafeteria, clothing store, child-care center adjacent to plant, company health care center nearby.