Yesterday, Volvo announced that it plans to build a new $500 million assembly plant in Ridgeville, SC. Although this will be Volvo’s first assembly plant in the United States, it won’t be the Swedish automaker’s first factory in North America. Volvo operated a plant in Halifax, NS, from 1963 to 1998.
I’m curious to see what the South Carolina facility looks like when it opens in 2018. Let’s hope that it’s as groundbreaking as the Kalmar plant.
Never heard of it? Forty years ago, Volvo’s “human factory” in Kalmar, Sweden, was the talk of the auto industry.
The star-shaped building contained 25 workstations arranged in sequence with intermediate buffers. Volvo engineers tried to create a small workshop atmosphere by subdividing assembly tasks into separate team operations, with each group consisting of 15 to 20 people.
“In this manner, each team can vary its working methods and work rate, this being facilitated by the buffer stocks which can be built up between the different team areas,” touted a Volvo brochure.
The Kalmar plant also pioneered the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and ergonomics. Car bodies were moved down the assembly line on battery-powered AGVs that could rotate 90 degrees so that assemblers could easily access hard-to-reach areas.
Time magazine called the Kalmar plant Volvo’s Valhalla. “To Henry Ford, patron saint of mass production, the new Volvo plant in Kalmar, Sweden, would seem curious indeed,” quipped the newsweekly. “It looks more like a giant repair shop than an auto factory. The working space is airy, uncluttered by stacks of spare parts.”
Lessons learned at the Kalmar plant were applied to another Volvo factory in Uddevalla, Sweden, that opened in the late 1980s. That facility also experimented with new types of line layouts and assembly teams. It will be interesting to see if Volvo’s South Carolina operation incorporates any innovative production ideas or assembly processes that raise a few eyebrows.