Will Plant Tours Go The Way Of The Tail Fin?

We're standing amid 420 robots, watching the nearest ones weld the side panels to the floorpan of a Ford Probe on our right and a Mazda 626 on our left. Suddenly, sparks shower down on us, as if we're standing underneath a fireworks display. Teenagers jump and duck, even though our guide, Jim Kresin, has told us the sparks can't do any harm.

I'm walking through the AutoAlliance International Inc. car assembly factory with a group of 33 Garden City High School students as part of a plant tour. Each year, millions of students, senior citizen groups, and others join such tours for a close-up look at modern manufacturing. Celestial Seasonings Inc.'s tea factory in Boulder, Colo., hosts 50,000 visitors, and last summer's "homecoming" of some 44,000 Saturn Corp. car owners in Spring Hill, Tenn., was in essence a glorified plant tour. Yet at the same time, many companies are rolling up their welcome mats. I'm here to gauge the appeal of these tours, and to discover what will be lost if they vanish.

LEARNING JAPANESE. AutoAlliance, in Flat Rock, Mich.--about halfway between Detroit and the Ohio border to the south--is a Ford Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp. joint venture that builds Probes, 626s, and Mazda MX-6s. The group I join comprises students from a suburb of Detroit, most of them from teacher Susan Isern's first- and second-year Japanese language classes.

At first, we see mostly machinery. Stamping presses and robots bend, shape, and weld metal into odd patterns. Workers are few. Here in the metal-shaping section of the plant, traditionally one of the more dangerous areas to work, a sheet of steel can go from the coil off the delivery truck, through the stamping presses, and down the welding line without ever being touched by human hands. After the metal parts join to form the outer shell of a car, they're coated and painted in the paint shop. The car's doors are then removed to make it easier for workers to climb in and install interior components; the doors follow a separate track until they rejoin their original car near the end of the line.

Meanwhile, bumpers and instrument panels arrive from the plant's plastics department, and the engine, transmission, and suspension rise up as a single unit to meet the car's body overhead in a delicate mating ritual. More robots install the front and rear windows, plus the spare tire. More workers populate this section of the line, adding interior parts and the doors, inspecting paint finishes, and testing the car's engine and other systems as it rolls off the line.

As we walk the 11/2 miles of the tour, the group behaves like, well, teenagers. Some are attentive, others straggle along. Four boys take off their headsets, which allow us to hear our guide over the noise of the machinery, and talk sports. Interest picks up as the masses of metal begin to look more like cars. When our guide proudly points out a row of six right-hand-drive Probes being built for export to Japan, one of the guys has a more visceral response: "Man, I like that purple one," he says.

I admit, I love plant tours. In 10 years with BUSINESS WEEK, I have toured some 65 factories, all of them intriguing. I walked in awe through the Ingersoll Milling Machine Co. plant in Rockford, Ill., which makes machine tools bigger than a locomotive. Jeep Wranglers are literally pushed along by hand at one section of the line at Chrysler Corp.'s dated Toledo plant. It's low-tech, but hey, the place is paid for. At the Jefferson City (Mo.) plant that makes all the Q-tips sold in America, the original Q-tip-making machine is kept on display in a corner, like a shrine.

AT EASE. Mostly, though, I remember the people. At a General Motors Corp. parts plant in Livonia, Mich., I listened as workers and managers laughed over how they had to get rid of both the plant manager and the union local leadership before the two sides could work together at getting more competitive. A scruffy worker at a Grand Rapids (Mich.) spring factory told me how he had programmed his machine to run all night--and to dial his home phone on its modem if something went wrong at, say, 2 a.m. And I recall the worker at Ford's Kansas City (Mo.) plant who was going to take his break whether or not reporters were there that day: As we walked past, he snored away.

Plant freaks like me have a new guidebook: Watch It Made in the U.S.A.: A Visitor's Guide to the Companies That Make Your Favorite Products, by Bruce Brumberg and Karen Axelrod (John Muir Publications, Santa Fe, N.M.; 288pp; $16.95). This book gives information on nearly 250 plant tours across 48 states, including a synopsis of what you'll see, whether reservations are needed, and how far you'll walk.

I'm sorry to say, however, that plant tours are on the wane. Companies are cutting back for a number of reasons. Kellogg Co. closed its cereal plants to visitors after catching rivals taking photos while on a public tour. Other companies decided to replace their tours with sanitized company museums. Of the nearly 250 tours described in the book, 21 are actually held at company museums or visitor centers, not factories. Even Hershey Foods Corp. shut down its famous plant tour in Hershey, Pa., back in the 1970s because of overwhelming crowds and safety concerns. Today, the only U.S. plant that Hershey opens for tours is in Oakdale, Calif.

"A SAD THING." The decline of plant tours bothers me. Our kids need to see the role of technology in manufacturing. If they're inclined to mechanical work themselves, they need to see that a factory job is no longer a matter of grunts and brawn, that they must stay in school and finish their math courses. And perhaps the growing chasm between blue- and white-collar Americans might be narrowed if more white-collar-bound kids saw the skill and pride of factory workers.

As we wrap up our tour, I wonder what these kids noticed. The Q&A session goes slowly, until Erik Felt, the son of an electrician at Ford's Wayne (Mich.) stamping plant, says: "Seeing all the robots taking over--that's a sad thing, but a good thing, too." His comment loosens a stream of questions to our guide: How much does each robot cost? Do you plan to use more robots? How many people do you have? As Kresin explains about the mix of robots and humans and the need for skilled robot maintenance and programmers, the group listens intently.

The students leave without hearing much Japanese. Despite the Mazda connection, there are only about 40 Japanese on site at the plant, down from nearly 400 when it started operations in 1987. Instead, they heard about robots. But that, for me, is the fun of visiting a factory. When I enter a plant, I know what it makes. I don't know what I'll see--and learn.

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