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Volvo's US manufacturing operations are more human than machine

As automation continues to play a greater role on the assembly line, Volvo still invests heavily in humans.

Volvo is the most recent car company to begin assembling its vehicles in the US. On Sept. 6, 2018, the Swedish automaker rolled its first S60 sedan out of a new factory in Ridgeville, South Carolina, roughly 30 miles northwest of Charleston. The 2.3 million square-foot facility, Volvo's first car-assembly plant in North America, will eventually turn out 150,000 vehicles per year, after the next-generation 2021 XC90 SUV comes online.

Right now, though, the plant is operating at about one-third of capacity, which gives Volvo some wiggle room to invite members of the media like me -- with absolutely zero auto-manufacturing experience -- onto an active production line to help assemble a car. That makes me one of only a few people outside of Volvo to get this level of access.

I hope I don't mess anything up.

The new Volvo factory in South Carolina sits on 1,600 lush acres.


Pre-assembly jitters

This isn't my first tour of an automobile factory, but today is different. This time, as I amble along the wide aisles tracing through Volvo's fresh factory floors, I'm more excited than usual, but also nervous as I contemplate what's at stake. After shelling out for a home, a new car is typically a consumer's second-largest expense. This is important.

By the end of this particular production day, Volvo has plans to roll 216 finished S60 sedans off the line. Suddenly, that target becomes a little more difficult as an instrumental rendition of Van Halen's "Jump" erupts from a nearby assembly station. Someone has pulled the Andon Cord that runs parallel with all stages of production. The hanging yellow cable is a way to notify management that there's a problem.

It turns out the line has run out of a single component, necessitating a 10-minute production stoppage while supplies are replenished. This issue stems from the fact that warehousing parts on-site is incredibly expensive, according to Anders Gustafsson, CEO of Volvo Cars in the Americas. "We are a normal family, you know. We have problems, too," Gustafsson candidly tells me later in an interview.

It doesn't help my nervousness that the S60 is a darn-pretty sedan.


This supply issue is one of many challenges, but a necessary evil in order to control costs. There's a silver lining to this interruption, though. It buys me time before I have to work on the line myself, thus delaying my potential to make a mess of things.

As I swivel my head around just before noon on a Friday, none of the Volvo employees seem concerned about my abilities, or the obvious lack thereof. Instead, I see lots of smiles riding a wave of what I sense is good morale. Continuing to take stock of my surroundings, amid the state-of-the-art robotics, I notice the aisles are wider than other factories I've toured. Sure, automation continues its march toward further displacing humans on vehicle production lines, but as I peer about, I get the impression that the money saved on the supply side of operations is being invested on human capital, instead.

As I make a fool of myself power-walk-racing around Volvo's training center, I'm actually learning about improving manufacturing efficiencies.


Outside-the-box training

This investment is evident through the abbreviated training I receive all morning leading up to my time on the floor. My assembly education begins with a safety lesson, but things get interesting when the marshmallows and coffee stir sticks come out.

Rather than head to the parking lot to fire up some s'mores, my class (consisting entirely of journalists) is flung into an educational exercise. We're grouped into three racing teams made up of three people each: one driver, one pit chief and one official to help us keep the other teams honest. The pit person constructs a racecar out of the marshmallows and sticks. It's then my turn to take that vehicle and pretend-race it against the other "drivers," making a mad power-walk around the upper floor of Volvo's training facility.

As soon as the figurative green flag is waived, I'm encouraged to let loose with sound effects. Jumping to the front of the pack, I oblige by making obnoxiously loud tire-squealing noises in corners and engine revving wails on the straights. Right before I have to pit to get my battery (a big marshmallow in the middle of the "car") swapped, I'm still in first place. After a much-too-long pit stop, I'm in last place, unable to regain ground from the lengthy "battery" change.

It would be funny if Volvo was solely using this race to make fun of the media, but this is actually how the automaker trains new line workers. The team-building and conviviality inherent in assembling and racing marshmallow cars is kind of brilliant in that it makes the importance of proper assembly and teamwork evident in a fun way.

After the first heat, our instructor (or "racing team sponsor") sits down with each group to figure out an investment strategy to help shave seconds off the next race. We're encouraged to think of every possible way to improve before asking for investment parts, which will cost us a time penalty. My team elects to take the maximum investment, choosing to use two cars so that we won't have to pit at all. A more inventive competing team decides to enter with a two-wheeled marshmallow machine, in order to shorten its pit stop.

Happily, my team ends up posting a 58-second improvement in the second heat, earning us the win. But I have to hand it to the two-wheeled team for its out-of-the-box thinking -- which is the whole point of this exercise.

I'm all smiles here, but moments earlier, I was feeling the pressure of the assembly line's march as I rushed to get parts onto the wooden "training wheels" cars.


After racing like our livelihoods depended on it, we're sent downstairs to a training area filled with wooden cars on a mock production line. Here, we'll fit components onto the rigs (charmingly labeled "S60") to practice our assembly-line flow. It's on this line where new factory workers are encouraged to keep their outside-the-box thinking switched on, so as to invent new efficiencies and workflows for speeding production, ultimately solidifying the point of the earlier race exercise.

According to the Volvo plant's pretrim supervisor, Luciano Vennitti, line workers frequently find new ways of doing things: "A team member sees something and says, 'Hey, I think there's a better way to do this. If we add this tool onto this job,' or, 'If we're able to add [component] mutilation protection on this,' it happens without going through a lot of red tape."

"The days of just grabbing parts [and] putting them on -- they're over," says Kevin Graham,  Volvo's director of assembly. "They're not just wrench turners anymore [...] so the skill level is just increasingly coming up."

Volvo South Carolina Production Line

It's daunting, but also so much fun working the machinery that helps install the S60s sunroof.


Did the training work with me?

As soon as the line starts back up again, I report to Pre-Trim Section One, Station Eight in full eye protection and high-visibility orange uniform to install a panoramic moonroof on a real 2019 Volvo S60. Guiding me through this process is pretrim team leader Rennie Taylor-Gordon. With all that roof glass sitting before me, Taylor-Gordon's cool, calm demeanor is the antidote to any uncertainty or nervousness I might feel.

I grab hold of the suction-cup component lift machine and drive it over to the waist-high stack of glass. I pick a moonroof off the top and move it onto a jig that spins the 16 or so fasteners that help secure the glass to the roof. After using the jig to move the glass panel through the windshield opening and and home into its roof aperture, I trigger the machine to spin all the fasteners, and voila! The jig gives me all green lights, indicating all fasteners have been screwed in successfully.

To avoid frightening any of the workers, I try to restrain my excitement at the green lights, but my "Woo!" is still pretty loud. It may have been a relatively simple task. But with so much at stake, and never having done line work like this before, my success felt genuinely special.

Considering how labor intensive it is to install a replacement sunroof in the real world, the assembly line makes me feel like a superhero when I can fit roof glass into an S60 in under a minute.


Assembly work ain't easy

I've always respected auto workers, but after walking in their shoes for an afternoon -- we literally had to use job-specific steel-toed shoes in order to gain access to the production floor -- I have an even deeper respect for their craft.

Not only do I have a more informed appreciation for what it takes to work on an assembly line, I'm now more ardent about every component I touch inside or outside a car, knowing how much hard work, training and experience it takes to put all those parts together.

Not just anyone can cut it on the production front lines, so it shows a lot of courage on Volvo's part to grant me access to a particularly fragile and vulnerable portion of the assembly process.

Update, 11:11 a.m. PDT: Clarifies that this is Volvo's first US car-manufacturing facility, as Volvo Trucks USA had already been building vehicles in Dublin, Virginia.