From raw steel to a new car in 19 hours flat
For kids: Part 2 of the Monitor's visit to a Chrysler factory to see how flat steel is transformed into an automobile.
Belvidere, Ill. — We continue our trip to the Chrysler Group's Belvidere Assembly Plant, where we follow the making of a Dodge Caliber along roughly 11 miles of assembly line. It takes about 19 hours to turn steel into a car. On June 19, we explored an area of the plant called "stamping," where car parts are cut out of steel. Today we start with a visit to the next stop on the assembly line, the tool and die shop, where some metal car parts are molded.
The tool and die shop is divided into three areas, each containing machines that produce car parts of varying sizes – small, medium, and large.
Steve Youngblood is overseeing a team of workers operating a two-story-tall machine that produces the Caliber's medium-size body parts.
"We can produce about 400 parts an hour," he says, shouting over the loud noise and pointing to the equipment behind him.
Why are the machines so large? Try to bend a piece of steel with your bare hands, and you'll understand why, suggests one worker.
In the area where large parts, such as the sides of cars, are molded, workers run gloved hands over newly pressed metal and buff out any "high spots" or bumps they come across, says Gary Hyser, a team leader in the section.
Then the "sides" are loaded onto a yellow storage rack. But this isn't just any storage rack. Stand back, because after 18 or so parts are placed on it, the fully automated device beeps and rolls off to another portion of the plant – guided completely by lasers.
Other car parts take a ride on the "headless horsemen," trains of computer-guided carts that transfer supplies between workstations and storage areas.
But the real "fireworks" don't start until you reach the welding shop, where armies of robots – some taller than basketball hoops – fasten each car's steel parts together.
Sparks fly in every direction as 4,500 to 4,800 welds are made on an automobile, depending on the model.
Once the underbody is assembled, the cars follow a conveyor belt up to the second floor of the plant. There they're sealed, primed, and painted one of eight different colors. It takes about 3-1/2 hours for each car to be painted and dried.
Workers in the painting area wear blue and black "lab suits" to keep the work area free of dust and other particles. The garments also keep paint off their clothes.
Workers on the assembly line aren't allowed to use many deodorants, perfumes, and laundry detergents because some of these products can cause defects or bubbles in paint, which are expensive to repair.
While most of the paint process is automated, some paint is applied by hand in tough-to-reach spots, such as under the hood.
What makes the painting operation special, says Mr. Barrett, is that the robots can apply a different color of paint to each car that passes.
On the day I visited, alternating Calibers passing through the glass-enclosed paint area received coats of steel blue or light khaki.
The area's glass wall enables workers to monitor the robots and cars from behind it.
By the time the freshly painted cars descend to the main assembly floor from the second-floor paint shop, they're ready to get some "trim and chassis" – that is, wire harnesses, instrument panels, lights, glass windows, an engine, wheels, brakes, and all the other parts that make a car work. This is where the cars really start to come together.
Many parts along this portion of the assembly line, which is longer than a city block and snakes up and down the floor seven times, come preassembled. That speeds up the time it takes to install them. Workers snap or bolt them into place as though they were pieces of a giant puzzle.
What happens when cars are finished? Workers drive them off the line. They also give them a little "workout" or roll test – revving the engine up to 60 or 70 miles per hour to test the speedometer and the brake and shift functions. They also check for any faulty codes in each car's internal computer system.
Then, one by one the cars are washed and inspected. Those that are ready for delivery get a little sticker – a seal of approval – before being taken to a parking lot outside, where they're loaded on trucks and delivered to dealers around the country.
"It's fun and interesting work," says Emmet St. Andre of labor relations at the plant. "The day goes by quickly because we work in teams and rotate around." He adds that to work on cars, you must be good with your hands, be able to think rationally, and be able to learn something new quickly.
The next time you go for a ride with an adult, try to figure this out: If a new car is completed at the Belvidere Assembly Plant every 42 seconds, how many cars were finished in the time it takes you drive to your destination?
• To see a slide show about carmaking, go to www.csmonitor.com/slideshows/2007/chrysler.