According to the plant web site, tours were available at 8:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 12:45 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. Since Bowling Green is approximately 35 miles away, we figured the 11:30 a.m. tour would be the best option for us.
Rather than drive Interstate 65, we took back roads including Route 31W. We had read favorable reviews about a restaurant, Porky Pig Diner in Pig, KY, located at the intersection of KY 422 and KY 259 so we thought we would give it a try.
This joint is in the middle of nowhere and as we pulled into the parking lot filled with nothing but pick up trucks, we figured this definitely was a local hangout. Often those are some of the best places to go, so in we went.
Despite the 4 or 5 trucks outside, there were only two tables occupied with customers. We sat at a booth and within a minute or two, a rather large man (turned out to be the owner Calvin) came over to the table asking us what we wanted. When I asked him if they had menus, he grunted yes, then proceeded to tell us about two specials. We both ordered one of the specials – two scrambled eggs, one biscuit with gravy, bacon and home fries (yes, we’re beginning to feel like Porky about now).
Food was okay, nothing great. While we were sitting there several more of the local yokels came in. When we went to pay at the register, we asked about using a credit card and the young woman there got kind of a horror stricken look, so we said never mind we’ll just pay cash. She explained that she was filling in. Calvin had already totaled up the bill and left the check at the register – it came to around $12.25. Rob gave the woman $15 and said keep the change. She stared at him blankly and seemed confused, so Rob said the difference was for the tip. She still had that deer in the headlights look and seemed surprised that we would leave a tip. We really weren’t sure what was going on with that, needless to say we got out of there in a hurry. Besides the checkout woman, we both thought that the place was a little weird (Rob used the word spooky) – can’t really explain why, but we won’t be going back real soon.
After that delightful experience, we continued on our way to the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green. According to the plant website, if you didn’t have reservations for the tour (have to be made two weeks in advance) then you should arrive 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time. Since our arrival time was close to 11:00 a.m. we weren’t sure if we would get on the 11:30 a.m. tour – if we didn’t, our plan was to go into Bowling Green to pick up a few supplies.
As you turn into the road to the plant, there are probably 30 or so roadsigns indicating that photographs are not allowed (big difference from our Tiffin tour) along with purses, backpacks, cameras, cellphones, etc. and these items should be left in your vehicle. Okay we got their point!
Once parked, we reluctantly left our faithful companions (our smartphones) in the car and walked about 1/3 mile to the Visitor’s entrance. Once we entered we were given placeholder cards for Group 2 and then directed to a kiosk where we could purchase our tickets ($7/person) for the 11:30 a.m. tour.
While waiting we watched a video about test driving the ‘vettes for racing and a few other shows from the Speed Channel that featured Corvettes. After about 30 minutes, Group 1 was called for the tour and then about 10 minutes later, Group 2 (about 20 people) was called. A young man named Aaron would be our tour guide – we decided later that he must have been new at the job since he didn’t seem that knowledgeable and there was lots of room for improvement in his tour guide skills.
Before we went into the plant, Aaron talked a little bit about what models and what colors we would see on the assembly line. We were instructed to stay in the green pathway and be aware of our surroundings since it is a working plant.
Off we went on our walking tour! I guess compared to other tours we have been on, I was a little disappointed – no narrative was provided as we walked along except at certain designated stops. This was probably just as well because there were no headsets given and it was pretty noisy.
So as we toured the assembly lines, we (or maybe I should say I) really didn’t know what we were looking at. Thank goodness for Rob – as we walked along he was able to tell me what component of the car they were assembling. Aaron was very busy talking to the people at the front of the tour, but those of us at the back of the pack couldn’t hear anything. At certain places, we stopped and Aaron using a microphone installed at that point would talk about what we were seeing. He would then ask if anyone had any questions. If someone did ask a question, he didn’t repeat it and he didn’t answer it using the mike.
Seeing how the cars were assembled generally was interesting but Rob will need to provide a more in depth narrative about what we saw. I was surprised that there wasn’t a separate line for a particular model or for a particular color. Each car is custom built for either a dealership or a direct customer, takes approximately 33 hours (3 days elapsed time) from start to finish on the assembly line and approximately 80 cars are completed a day.
Overall it was worth the time spent and but I think the tour dynamics could be improved especially after paying $14. Perhaps we would have a different impression with a different tour guide. Headsets would be a big improvement over the dedicated microphone stations, for example.
If you are in the area looking for something to do or are a Corvette owner/lover, then it is definitely worth the trip unless you have zero interest in vehicles or manufacturing techniques. They do have a Corvette Museum here as well which we didn’t go to.
I agree with all that Linda said about the tour guide and the lack of info provided. On the other hand, if you tend to be a little geeky and/or know your way around the mechanical aspects of a car, a lot of the assembly process is self explanatory.
Then again they really could have done a much better job telling us about the factory systems and techniques and facts about the facility and processes in use. For example, I had to ask how long it took for a car to complete the line (33 hours over a 3 day period) and how many cars were produced per day on average (80) – Aaron had a mike in his hand when he answered my question but did not share the info with the rest of the group. I wonder how many other factoids we didn’t get to hear?
For me it wasn’t surprising that all models and colors shared the same assembly line, that is probably the most efficient way to do it and all the proper components are tracked by bar code or other systems and delivered to the right chassis at the right time. Most likely other just-in-time (JIT – if I remember my manufacturing parlance correctly) processes are employed for parts coming in from off site suppliers as well.
Anyway, the plant itself was converted from some other purpose and is over 1,000,000 square feet – we were advised that this is considered small for an auto production facility. The predominant feature of the areas we were allowed to see was the slow moving “line” that moves the chassis along as different workstations install the various components.
The “line” had different vertical levels and would move the cars up and over other parts of the line as it snaked its way throughout the plant. When we first walked onto the floor, we saw a tiny piece of the painting operation. It appeared that fenders, hoods and other body parts were painted individually and then delivered by conveyors at the needed stations.
The part of the line we first were allowed to see had a vette frame and some body parts like the rear fender areas installed. There were no wheels, engine, doors, seats, hood, hatchbacks, or front fenders (etc.) installed. The frame rested in special notches on the “carrier” that moved it along the line.
To one side of this area of the line were two huge “hydroforming” machines. These were making the main chassis rails with a system that uses water pressure to bend the parts – allegedly this results in a stronger assembly. These rails were then sent off I assume for welding operations. We could only catch a glimpse of the robotic welding systems as they were behind plastic spark guards.
The first parts we saw get installed were the dash, seats and other interior items. Then the hatchback, doors, shock absorbers and some other suspension related components. The hood, front fenders, drive train and wheels are still not installed at this point.
Eventually, the partially complete vehicle is lifted up and off it’s carrier and heads off to have some other operations done that we were not privy to see. As the line came back to the tour route, the vehicles are now suspended well off the floor so underbody operations could be performed. The drive train assemblies are mostly one piece and are moved under and up into the frame while various stations complete the various operations needed to mate these two major assemblies.
Eventually the line begins to lower the vehicle and the wheels, fenders and hood are installed. Finally, the now drivable vehicle is resting on its own rubber and rolling down the line. Here, it is started for the first time while huge ventilators in the floor suck the exhaust out of the building.
Several other operations are then performed including some final inspection activity. Next, the completed car is driven off the line to an alignment pit (the workers are under the main floor level). During this short drive the driver nails the accelerator and rides over a number of rough staggered bumps in the floor – this is “to settle the suspension” we were told.
After alignment, the vehicles go to a test booth (with dynamometer) where hundreds of computerized tests are run under dynamic conditions. When this test is passed each vehicle is taken out on the track for a test drive. Then into a “rain booth” where the vehicle is thoroughly doused with water to check for leaks.
There were several vehicles that had failed the various tests and were undergoing the needed repairs. When the car is ready for transport, protective plastic film is applied and they are loaded up on a vehicle transport truck.
Definitely interesting to me, and worth the $7 but the tour process has a lot of room for improvement. The vettes were interesting but at a low of $55K and a high of $135K one of those is not in the cards in this lifetime. Personally I was really more intrigued by the plant itself which is a marvel of engineering and organization. The line and all of its subsystems, the special tools designed specifically for each station and the overall design of the process itself must have taken a great deal of effort to create and refine.