Working the Line: What's It's Like To Build a Volvo S60

Want to know what it's like to work on the line? I went inside Volvo's Charleston plant to find out.

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Nobody’s ever asked me to come work in a car factory. The reasons for that are fairly obvious: Factories could be dangerous to me, and I could be dangerous to the product. The car companies are probably more worried about that second part—digits can be reattached, but wheels can’t, once I cross-thread all the studs. It takes a long time to build a reputation for quality, but a very short time for me to install your turbo backwards.

Despite a few inherent risks, Volvo invited me to come build a 2019 S60 at their new 1,600-acre plant in Charleston, SC. That means they have a lot confidence in me, or maybe just confidence in their quality control procedures.

Clocking In

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Some Volvos are still a little boxy.
Gary Coleman for Volvo Cars America

Before showing up at the Volvo factory, I made a pit stop at TJ Maxx to buy yourself some khakis (some Izod chinos to be precise). Why? Because you can’t have rivets on your clothing when you’re working next to freshly painted cars, and it would be weird to wear suit pants while slinging a torque wrench.

After that, I'm suited up with an orange polo shirt and steel-reinforced sneakers—built for maximum comfort and maximum toe protection. Suitably attired, new recruits are sent for training in the processes that will apply out on the factory floor. The goals are simple: stay safe, build perfect cars, and do it all quickly.

To learn the routines, you’re dispatched to a practice line where the “cars” are wooden boxes with crude parts you’ll need to bolt on as the line moves. For a given component, you need to verify the part number before you start slinging wrenches. You need to make sure your power tool is spinning in the right direction, and that you’re fastening the part with the right nuts.

"The goals are simple: stay safe, build perfect cars, and do it all quickly."

None of that sounds too daunting, but when you’ve got multiple parts to attach while the car body moves inexorably toward the next station, discombobulation sets in quick. When that happens, you have one recourse: pull the cable the runs above your station and stop the line.

At the Volvo plant, any worker can stop the line for any reason. When someone pulls the cord, a song starts blasting—a different song for each area, so a supervisor will quickly know which spot needs help. In the training room, it’s “Welcome to the Jungle.” My petition to change that to Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” is swiftly rebuffed.

Joining the Line

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Gary Coleman for Volvo Cars America

Given a choice of assignments, I head for a powertrain station, where I’ll install drive shafts and purge valves with an exceptionally patient Volvo team member named Tramaine Smalls.

“Each car coming down the line is different, so you’ve got to check and see what it is—especially whether it’s hybrid or not,” he tells me.

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Righty tighty.
Gary Coleman for Volvo Cars America

The reason for that, I soon learn, is that the engine side of the hybrid driveshaft is exactly the same as the non-hybrid, but the overall length is way shorter, presumably because the electric motor takes up some real estate. So you don’t want to bolt one of those into a non-hybrid, lest you end up with a stubby driveshaft that doesn’t reach the hub, causing to pull that overhead cable further down the line (the song is "La Bamba" though no one knows why.)

Smalls’ job is to install driveshafts on both sides of the engine and then fit a nest of plastic tubes that seem to be part of the purge valve system. He’s so smooth and untroubled that this all looks easy—hang the loose end of the driveshaft with a cable, seat the splines, start a couple bolts, torque them down with a computerized wrench, mark them with a paint marker. That’s one driveshaft.

The other one is a little different (it has a snap ring), and the purge valve tubes require both some screwdriver action and crimping a clip in place. All of this happens as the floor moves beneath you: you’re not moving relative to the engine, but everything’s moving through the factory, with stripes on the floor denoting where your workspace begins and ends.

If you’re not done by the time your engine is on its way out of your area, it’s "La Bamba" time. The music never plays on account of Smalls, but for me—that's a different story. The good news is that when you try to install a driveshaft backwards, it won’t go in that way. Trust me.

Bring In the Robots

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Mega-Wrench, ready to bolt.
Ezra Dyer

Like any modern car factory, the Volvo plant is also highly automated. Parts of it are mostly dark, even when the line is running, because robots don’t need light. But you can see where automation hits its limits, where the dystopian darkness gives way to a bustling human enterprise.

Even at the marriage station (where the lower half of the chassis is bolted to the upper body), the mega-robo-wrench that motors up beneath each car has its bolts supplied by a person, who makes sure each of the 20-plus wrench heads is loaded with the correct hardware.

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The 2019 Volvo S60
Volvo

Having actually installed propulsion parts on somebody’s brand new S60, I have a newfound appreciation for the insane logistical nightmare of car manufacturing. Thousands of parts, assembled by man and machine, coalesce to become this single entity: a car.

When I climb into an S60 T6 for my drive home, I know that there are driveshafts driving and purge valves purging somewhere under that long hood. But it’s a tribute to the Volvo build process that once I leave the factory parking lot, I forget all about how damn hard it is to build a car.

Until the next time I hear "La Bamba."

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