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Vrrrooom! What does it take to build a car?

Ever wonder how a car is made? Today we visit a manufacturing plant to learn the first steps. Part 1 of two.

By Text by Steven EllisStaff, Photos by Mary Knox MerrillStaff / June 19, 2007



Belvidere, Ill.

By the time you finish reading this article, seven more Dodge Calibers will be built at the Chrysler Assembly Plant in Belvidere. That's one completed every 42 seconds. Not bad considering that just 19 hours earlier, each car was little more than steel and roughly 1,800 different parts.

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The Caliber is one of three models of automobile produced by the Chrysler Group at the massive facility, which is the size of about 77 football fields.

Every day more than 3,400 people and 900 robots work in three shifts around the clock to transform those parts into nearly 1,450 Dodge Calibers, Jeep Patriots, and Jeep Compasses.

Those automobiles travel some 11 miles of track along the assembly line, a series of automated lifts and conveyor belts that carry them to and from workstations, where the cars are put together.

Teams of workers and robots cut, mold, shape, weld, sand, wipe, paint, attach, move, wire, polish, and inspect the cars at various stages of the process.

If all goes well, the line doesn't stop except for a few scheduled breaks and when workers take a brief lunch. Every man, woman, and machine must work fast. That's because in order to build a car, teamwork is essential. If one aspect of the assembly process breaks down, production usually stops in other areas of the plant as well.

The workers depend on one another – and on the machines that help them build the automobiles. Each person's role is important, just like the role teammates play on a sports team.

Two of those team members are Cardell McAlister and Al Porter. They work at the beginning of the assembly line, in "stamping." It's a portion of the plant where rolls of steel weighing as much as six elephants are unloaded from trucks. The steel is used to make what's called the underbody, or metal "skeleton" of an automobile. A steel "skin" also covers the underbody. No plastic body panels are used in these cars.

It's Mr. McAlister's and Mr. Porter's job – with the help of heavy machinery – to load the steel rolls onto a press called a blanker. It's a giant, orange machine about the size of a two-car garage. The blanker unrolls and cuts the steel into car parts in much the same way a cookie cutter shapes dough.

Every few seconds, the noisy blanker clamps down and shoots out various-size steel shapes that will be welded (or bolted) together.

From behind a clear plexiglas wall, Mr. McAlister and Mr. Porter monitor the process using a giant computer. When a roll of steel comes to its end, they quickly replace it so that their co-workers farther down the assembly line have the pieces they need to do their job.

The most distinguishable parts of a car's steel body – the doors and the hood, for instance – are molded in the tool and die shop, the next station on the assembly line.

Next week, as we continue our trip to see how cars are made, you'll hear about storage racks that seem to move around the plant by themselves and dusters made of emu feathers that ready cars for paint.

You'll also learn why you can't wear certain deodorants or use some laundry detergents when working on the second floor of the facility. Hint: It has to do with car colors.

The math of making cars

Building cars involves a lot of numbers. Here's a look at the digits behind the making of cars at the Chrysler Group's Belvidere (Ill.) Assembly Plant.

3.7 million – Square footage of the main assembly plant. That's roughly the size of 77 football fields!

3,400 – Approximate number of employees working around the clock, in three shifts, to build cars.

900 – About the number of robots involved in building cars.

3 – Models of cars currently made at the facility – the Dodge Caliber, Jeep Compass, and Jeep Patriot.

19 – Approximate number of hours it takes to build one Dodge Caliber.

11 – Approximate number of miles of assembly line track an automobile will travel from start to finish, as it's being built.

1,800 – Number of parts in a car, not including "preassemblies" such as the engine, which alone contains thousands of parts.

4,500 to 4,800 – Number of welds in a car, depending on the model.

42 – A new Caliber, Patriot, or Compass rolls off the assembly line every 42 seconds. That's about 1,450 automobiles per day.

15,435 – Manufacturer's suggested retail price, in dollars, for a Dodge Caliber SE produced at Belvidere. How many months – or years! – will it take you to save up enough allowance money to buy one?

– Compiled by Steven Ellis

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