Volvo US factory
10:30 PM | September 20 2019

Making it in the USA

I Roll visits the brand new S60 factory in the US to find out what makes this new factory such a perfect and timely addition to the Volvo Cars universe.
Instead of Sweden’s tall spruces and birches, the factory is fringed by palm trees. Redtail hawks, not seagulls, wheel in the air. And the small road signs alerting drivers to the presence of elks in the woodland are gone: in their place, you can see large billboards urging you to not feed the alligators.
 
This brand-new Volvo factory near Charleston, in the heart of South Carolina in the south-east of the USA. It’s been hailed as a perfect, timely development for Volvo Cars and excellent news for the local community – creating thousands of jobs within its own walls, and thousands more in the extended universe of its local supplier network. And it’s where the All-New Volvo S60 made its global debut and is being built.
 
The Charleston plant covers a total area of more than 200,000 square metres, branching out at the end of a newly-laid road called Volvo Car Drive.
 
Volvo Cars has been selling to the US for decades – successfully. And current sales are growing healthily.
 
According to Katarina Fjording – Volvo Cars’ Vice President of Manufacturing and Logistics – – the company has been toying with the idea of a US plant for decades. Now the time felt right to expand manufacturing operations into the loyal and thriving market.
 
As Katarina explains: “We have a philosophy that we want to build where we sell, and we want to source where we build. Selling cars in the US and having them all imported wasn’t optimal. And by being here, we’re saying to our dealers and customers that we are here, we’re serious about this market, and we’re not going anywhere.”
 
A NEW CAR FOR A NEW FACTORY
In early 2018, the first Volvo S60 test cars started to roll off the line in Charleston, even as the finishing touches were being put on the factory around it.
 
The premium and dynamic All-New S60 is a car of which everyone who’s worked on it can be proud. And Katarina knows that everyone in the Charleston plant has to hit the ground running.
 
“It’s extremely important that this plant gets to prove itself,” she says. “That means the people, the operations, the processes – everything.
 
“We’re the new kid on the block.  “We’ve already announced that we have a second vehicle coming, and this can’t come soon enough. People should see that we work fast in this plant.
 
“And if it feels like we’re setting expectations high, that’s because we are – we have high ambitions.”

volvo s60 R-Design, fusion red
 
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
All Volvo Cars factories are meticulously planned and structured – then built to be as streamlined, safe and effective as possible.
 
There are also benefits to starting a factory from scratch.
 
“We learn from our operations in Asia as well as those in Europe,” says Katarina. “This means[for example] we have more automated processes here, compared with our Chengdu plant [in China].
 
“In the paint shop we have installed a unique system – which we don’t
have anywhere else – that makes us best in class in terms of emission to air. We really tried to build this plant from a green perspective, from day one.
 
“With regard to our environmental impact, the highest authority that we can apply to is LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a global sustainability certification for the building industry] – and this whole plant is LEED certified. That’s something we’re very proud of, not least because it matches our core value of care for the environment.”
 
DESIGNED AROUND PEOPLE
Ergonomics and efficiency are not the only thing that Volvo considers when opening a new factory. Although there is a lot of automation, it’s never just robots that make the cars.
 
Nurturing a happy workforce is also essential – and the Volvo Cars way of working, where managers and workers are constantly in contact with each other, has been warmly welcomed in South Carolina.
 
“I have operators coming up to me here when I walk the floor to speak their mind: for positive things, and also when they have constructive feedback. We want them to talk about it, if they see something that isn’t safe, or if they’re missing tools or other basic things that will enable them to actually do their job.”
 
This isn’t just talk: a walk around the factory floor with Katarina, or any other manager, is punctuated by greetings and conversations with people working in every role. The mood is extremely friendly, collaborative, and resonant with a quiet sense of pride and achievement.
 
There’s also a real sense of community – an almost family-like atmosphere. This is doubly impressive when you consider that the factory has around 1100 employees.
 
“When we ask people why they want to come and work for Volvo, or why they’re happy staying here, most of them actually relate to the culture," says Katarina. "They feel as if they’re part of a family, and as if we treat people differently. And people say that this is the first place they’ve worked where they are genuinely seen as an asset – not as a potential liability.”

volvo car manufaturing
COMMUNITY SPIRIT
In an uncertain world, new opportunities for work, investment and infrastructure development are seen as real boosts to communities like those that surround the Charleston plant.
 
The people we spoke to were all happy to be able to contribute to a company that makes products they are truly proud of: one that also stands for positive values, and that takes them seriously as individuals.
 
The founding members of the Volvo Cars team in South Carolina also understand that merely turning up and attempting to impose the company’s values on an historic community in the south-east of the US isn’t the right approach – there needs to be plenty of give and take.
 
As Katarina points out: “People always say that the culture in the US is so young. But in Charleston you have things that are just as old as in Gothenburg. So there is a lot of heritage, and you have to respect that.
 
“You have to find the right balance here – inject the culture, but still understand that you’re doing business in the United States. You have to gently put a footprint in place in the culture where you’re going to operate.
 
“We have to have our ears to the ground and understand what is important to the people here in the factory, but also everyone else in the community around it.
 
“Here, there’s a lot of can-do, a lot of support. We’re very welcomed here, and we have a lot of support. But we’re also giving back, and that’s what’s most important.”
 
 


Click here to read the rest of our September I Roll stories.