Where the magic happens
It’s more than a kilometre long – with a corridor running the entire length of it – and around 6,500 people work there. Every day around 1,200 cars roll out of the doors and onto the roads, and every single one of them is made to order.
The human touch
Visiting the Volvo Cars factory in the company’s hometown of Gothenburg gives real insight into quality, care, teamwork, training – and the pride taken in a job well done. We strolled around the production line, explored the Volvo way of working, and found out how the car you love took shape on the conveyor belts.
Volvo Cars’ Gothenburg factory is an impressive testament to the power of meticulous planning and large-scale engineering. Spending a day walking around it gives a very clear impression of how your car takes shape from a roll of sheet metal and a collection of parts scattered round a few giant warehouses. But it also tells us a lot about teamwork, training, expertise, and a work culture that has helped energize the city, giving it one more thing to be really proud of.
In amongst the vast buildings housing the lines and workshops, you’ll find restaurants, cafés, shops and offices. And, most of all, groups of people. The human touch is extremely important when making the perfect car. As well as operating machinery and doing the detailed work, the people who work there are on hand to check and observe the quality of the work and the cars.
The press shop is the noisiest, most industrial-feeling part of the factory. Here, gigantic rolls of razorsharp sheet metal, weighing up to 20 tonnes, are unspooled, cut and stamped into shape. As well as simply making sure that the process runs smoothly, there’s always a team of people to check the panels, smooth out any inconsistencies, and finish the meticulous work that the machines aren’t capable of doing themselves.
Here’s where we start to notice a Volvo way of working known as “Right from me” – where each worker only hands over a part or leaves a task when they’re sure that it’s completed, in its best condition, and ready. The parts then move on to the body shop with a checkmark of personal quality control.
Robot welders, automated guided vehicles and mechanical arms bring the parts together into completed car bodies. The people who work here carry out detailed tasks like spot welding and quality control, but the heavy lifting is done by machine. In this part of the factory each car gets its personality, in the form of the Radio Frequency Identity card that dictates what colour the car will be and how it will be kitted out. It’s where the made-to-order feeling that characterises the rest of the production line is born.
Paint in black
The atmosphere inside the paint shop is clean and, in some areas, quieter than you’d expect from a factory. Here, the chassis is submerged in a long chemical bath that looks like a cross between a car wash and a rollercoaster. When it’s dried, it comes into a large and brightly lit warehouse for seals to be added manually. Finally, it’s painted: both by fabric-clad airbrush robots and by human hand.
The painted chassis makes its way to the assembly line and – in one of the factory’s most impressive looking sections – is mechanically joined onto the base of the car at the so-called marriage point. From here, it’s in the hands of the employees on the line.
As the car is ferried through the factory, everything from its wheels to its wing mirrors is bolted on. Again, robots do some of the heavy work. There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching a graceful mechanical arm slot a dashboard and windows into place in seconds. However, it’s when you see the crowds of people who dip in and out of this process, checking that everything is secure and perfect, that you understand the sheer amount of care and attention that goes into making each car.
Watching the final checks – where a team of people sit in the seats, run their hands along the lines, check the rear-view mirror and test the seatbelts – is enough to give a feeling of real anticipation and excitement. But more than anything else, it gives you the lasting impression that, despite the thousands of robots and machines that help with the heavy lifting and extreme efficiency, these cars really are made by people.
“We work as effectively as we can, and we balance it with cost-effectiveness and quality.”
Communication Manager VCT Volvo Cars
From the factory floor
Anneli Ericsson knows the Gothenburg factory inside out. She’s in charge of communications here, and so spends a lot of time showing people around: introducing them to the workforce, arranging meetings, answering questions and giving facts.
As a result, it feels like everyone knows her. No matter which bit of the factory you’re in, Anneli can introduce you to the person who can help you find out what you need to know. She took some time out of her day to let us know what makes working at the factory so special.
What’s it like to work in the factory in Gothenburg?
Most people enjoy it a lot: if you talk with people who work in the factory you get a feeling that they like Volvo, they like Volvo Cars, and they’re proud to work here. It’s a good place and a good employer. And you can progress in your career: you might come in as a student, then get employed full-time, make supervisor, and be promoted to work with special technology or whatever else you want to do.
Is there anything unique about this factory?
Well, it’s old, but it was built at almost the same time as our factory in Ghent. This one is based in Gothenburg, though, where the company was born.
How do people work here?
We work as effectively as we can, and we balance it with cost-effectiveness and quality. People are really proud of the cars we make here. They’re getting better all the time: they’re good-looking, well designed and special. We’re very proud of having worked on them.
There’s a very international and inclusive workforce in Volvo Cars – both in general, and in this factory. At the same time, Volvo Cars is a very Swedish company and a very Swedish brand. Is there anything particularly Swedish about the way the cars are made here in the factory?
Well, it’s a human-focused company – and all of the people in the plant are listened to. We try to improve their work situation, the ergonomics. We include all of the employees in tasks and decisions. I think that’s quite a Swedish thing – to reach consensus and to involve everybody.
Then there’s also the environmental perspective, where we try to recycle all of the waste produced. Most of the visitors to our plant remark on how clean it is. I’m not really sure what they expect from a factory, but that’s a comment we hear a lot.
Is there a lot of interest from the public about what goes on inside the factory?
Yes: if you talk to the Visitor Centre, you get the impression that they could probably take a tour around the factory every fifteen minutes or so.
What kind of fun things happen here?
Last year, we won a Swedish quality award (the Utmärkelsen Svensk Kvalitet prize), and the king came to the factory to hand it over. We ran a tour specially for him, then there was a ceremony and a lunch with him and a few guests. Then Sabina Ddumba, the pop star, gave a lunchtime concert here at the end of last year. You’ll often find people filming in the factory, which is often a lot of fun. And at the end of this summer, Zlatan came and hung out with the workforce – that was a pretty big event.
Bound by sound
1966 was quite a year for music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan all released groundbreaking albums that completely transformed the cultural landscape. But while Lennon and McCartney and their contemporaries were busy reinventing the way music was made, a classical music enthusiast called John Bowers was focusing his attention and expertise on reinventing the way we listened to it.
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Lobster fishing in Sweden
Nowadays, it seems a growing number of people are taking the time to learn to do things the traditional way. It may take a little longer but the reward can be well worth the wait. It was in this frame of mind that we set out to sea to try out a spot of traditional lobster fishing, and discover if there really is pleasure to be found in patience.