Hard to tell the story of an Airhead Tech Day(s) without pix, and I can’t find the cable to transfer photos from camera to computer… Hopefully I didn’t leave it in Naples! So here I wait ’til I get to the rare Motel 6 with free Wi-Fi to upload dozens of pix, and I’m missin’ a cable. If I did forget it, I’ll just have to fake it by transferring pix with a memory card.

I didn’t get to Tech Day til friday afternoon, so I missed the early stages of at least one transmission rebuild. But I did get to witness and photograph numerous carb balancings, a couple front fork servicings, carb rebuilds, and the resurrection of an airhead after 15 years sleep.  As always, our kitchen crew outdid themselves, and a good week’s dieting was laid to waste. The rain and bugs joined us, but we had no reported cases of malaria or drowning. And after having no less than a dozen bikes under repair at one time on friday, by sunday morn we’d wrapped everything up and headed home after a leisurely breakfast.

On to Chattanooga and the VW plant tour, where they don’t allow cameras anyway. This ain’t your father’s or even sister’s assembly plant, VW has raised the bar that far. It’s the only LEED awarded auto assembly plant in the world, with environmentally friendly design throughout. Some of this is fluff to earn the LEED rating, like 10 megawatts of solar cells and 6 inches of insualation instead of the standard 2… Heck, we’ve been putting 6 inches insulation in Minnesota houses since the 1980s. But LEED is a comprehensive measure of environmental friendliness, and VW earned their LEED rating in useful ways by cleaning and reusing a brownfield site, restoring natural wetlands, capturing and using rainwater, and eliminated waste and pollution in dozens of ways.

The scale is huge- nearly two million square feet inside the assembly halls and support buildings. Now in the past I’ve noted that buildings often become less productive when their size exceeds a mere hundred thousand square feet… But at over ten times that big, this plant still functions pretty well. One of the reasons really big buildings usually don’t work so well is because just moving stuff around in them becomes a big hassle, but this plant uses well located loading docks, conveyors, and creative layout to avoid the congestion of most megaplants.

On to the assembly lines… Or should I even call them assembly lines? The classic assembly plant has a fixed rate assembly line, and it takes an act of god or NHTSA to stop it. VW is different… They spent over $500 a square foot on this plant, and the lines are short ones with buffering capacity between them and they’re not afraid to use it. The plant is highly automated, with robots doing most of the boring jobs, leaving the humans to care for the robots and fixed their mistakes. Back in the bad old days of assembly plants a defective car was dragged all the way down the assembly line and out to the storage lot if it’d move under it’s on power, and “rectification” consisted of getting it running just well enough to barely make it onto the train or truck for delivery. At this plant, there are bodies on “rotisseries”, assemblies, and even whole completed cars being inspected and repaired or awaiting same all over the place. Same for a few robots that were down for maintenance, and VW doesn’t seem the least bit worried about this. This pursuit of perfection, production rates be damned, is reflected in the plants production stats… A mere 130,000 cars a year on two shifts, which works out to about 30 cars an hour. That’s half the line rate the big 3 shoot for, and VW’s patience and this billion dollar investment are reminders that they’re a better kind of car company.

Which may also explain why VW isn’t anti-union. Unlike the UAW represented plants where workers tend to stay ’til retirement, VW’s had some turnover at Chattanooga. This ain’t a job for the good old folks with a strong back and weak mind, there’s computers and test equipment and tool boxes everywhere. At VW’s $14 an hour starting pay, no doubt more than a few employees have applications in for $20 an hour union jobs. So while a union contract may bring higher costs for VW, it’ll bring a more skilled and stable workforce, and that ain’t a bad thing.

Off to bed for me, gotta hit the road at dawn and make it the last 500 miles home…