Some go to production hell. I went to production heaven.

Stampings are checked at Volvo car factory in Luqiao, China. Picture Kalinda Zhang.

The world’s most talked-about car factory sits in California. It is sued for being “a hotbed for racist behavior,” and for targeting pro-union employees in mass firings. Working conditions at the plant are labeled as “grueling.” Submitted to “aggressive production goals,” workers receive “life-changing injuries,” reports say. The quality at this plant is described as so bad that quality checks “routinely revealed defects in more than 90 percent” of the cars , wrote Reuters. The shop floor at the factory is characterized as “messy, it hiccups, modules are repaired on the line, stockpiles of parts lie around in “semi-organized” fashion. The current situation at the factory is “production hell” said its CEO. Now that’s an interesting car plant, especially because the company that owns this both loathsome and lonesome plant, Tesla, is valued close to General Motors, a company with more than 100 plants all over the world.

Normally, a hot-blooded journalist would just love to get into such a scandalous plant, but for some reason, journalists are not invited.

I had to make do with the world’s second-most interesting car plant. I went there to experience the opposite of production hell – that would be what, production heaven?

For that, I had to travel to China. Until not too recently, Chinese factories used to be closed to outside observers for some reason. Doors miraculously opened a crack to one of the most modern car factories in China, and most likely in the world, and I leapt to the chance.

I am in Luqiao, an industrial town close to the port city of Taizhou, four hours by car south of Shanghai, two hours from Ningbo. 10 years ago, I stayed here in hotels with hard mattresses, and with pillows filled with what felt like sand. Now, I’m in Ningbo to stay in the biggest, and fanciest Hilton I’ve ever seen, so big that people get lost on their way to the room, which has floor to ceiling windows in the bathroom, overlooking a lake, hopefully without peeping Toms.

Plant chief Benoit Demeunyck. Picture Bertel Schmitt.

The car factory has been built by Swedish carmaker Volvo. The factory is “owned by Geely, financed by Geely, and operated by Volvo,” tells me the plant’s manager Benoit Demeunyck, a bearded Belgian with an imposing figure, especially when surrounded by smaller Chinese. Demeunyck has been mass-producing car factories for many years. Luqiao is the third he built in China, “after Daqing and Chengdu,” and it looks like there will be more.

How Volvo came to China is another platitude-defying story.

When Volvo’s former owner Ford was perilously short of money during carmageddon, Geely bought Volvo in 2010 for a bargain-basement $1.5 billion. It was one of those rare deals that worked all around. Ford came through alive, if not entirely unscathed (it also sold Jaguar Land Rover to India’s Tata, Aston Martin to private investors, and its controlling share in Mazda to Japanese banks.) Volvo was not dismantled and shipped-off to China, as many predicted.

Geely did not buy Volvo for its worn-out toolings, or its dated manufacturing lines from the Ford era. Geely bought Volvo for its ability to come up with class-leading, future-proof technology. Volvo engineers gave Geely a head-start in autonomous tech, and they developed the Compact Modular Architecture (CMA), a smaller but equally advanced version of Volvo’s acclaimed Scalable Product Architecture (SPA). Flexible and scalable architectures are the secret to success in the auto business. Volkswagen has MQB and MLB, Toyota has TNGA, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi has CMF-A, B, and C.

The factory makes the cars of Volvo’s lifestyle brand Lynk & Co. Picture Bertel Schmitt.

For its new electric cars, VW needs a new kit, called MEB. Volvo’s modular architecture is built from the outset to embrace electrification. Without compromise, it can accommodate ICE, plug-in hybrid, and BEV powertrains. Geely also understood that without well-engineered car production, there will be no well-built car.

Flexible, modular car architectures work best with purpose-built flexible factories. Luqiao is made to measure for Volvo’s CMA architecture. As we walk down the line, rolls of steel are turned into the first model of Volvo’s lifestyle brand Lynk & Co. Once a needed factory extension is finished, Volvo’s 40 series, also based on the CMA architecture, will be built here.

They are very proud of their safety standards in Luqiao. I must wear a stout, and most likely flame-retardant overall before I’m admitted to the shop floor. My shoes go into steel-capped booties. I receive a hat that looks like a baseball-cap, but it is hard. I receive safety glasses, and (completely unnecessary) earplugs. As we walk through the factory, our small group is permanently trailed by two firemen, with a big first aid kit in hand. Nothing happens.

Press shop. Five presses in a row. Picture Kalinda Zhang.

If you really want to find out how cars are built, follow the metal, and we do it. We walk through the stamping shop, a noisy affair at most car factories. Here, we have no problem talking, because rows of Swiss-made presses are working behind glass walls in perfect synchronicity, and in near-silence. Remember the high-speed stamping press, proudly presented by Elon Musk in a video? Volvo has a whole line of them in Luqiao, and workers are already adding a shop for an even longer line of presses, needed to bend the metal for the more elaborate Volvo cars.

Money did not seem to have been an object when this plant was built. The heavy iron of the press line comes from JIER, with automation supplied by Swiss specialist Güdel. At the end of the phalanx of presses, the Swiss placed a robotic quality inspector. It pulls a piece of stamped metal, a gate is locked to prevent human access to where lasers will probe the metal, and the robot starts looking for imperfections that would escape the sharpest human eye. The bot does that at the start, in the middle, and at the end of a batch of a few hundred pieces.

The lonely, caged measuring bot, Picture Kalinda Zhang.

Trust, but verify: Even after the bot signed off on the stampings, Carl Zeiss laser measurement units Integrated into the line  check each car.

How long does it take to build such a factory? From that other car company, you may have heard that car factories could be brought from no plans to mass production in two years, no time at all, or whatever is less. I ask Mr. Demeunyck how long the Luqiao plant took from start to finish, and he proudly tells me that it “took only five years. They do things fast in China.”

Here is the timeline:

12/05/12              Sign-off.
12/20/13              Ground breaking
10/10/14              Ground construction
01/07/16              Roof sealed
01/20/17              Paint shop completed
08/01/17              Stamping shop completed
08/28/17              Project completed
09/06/17              Job One

“In Europe, or in other places with tight permitting, it would take a few years longer,” Demeunyck says.

If anyone tells you he has picked no location, and secured no permits, but wants to have a new car plant up and running in two years, call an ambulance.

From the widely communicated Tesla stories, one might get the impression that the road to success in car making always goes through “production hell.” Not so at Luqiao. Less than three months after the brand-new line was started, cars roll unhurried off. No panic, no drama, no stress. 6,000 Lynk & Co cars were sold in the first minutes of the car going on sale, and at the hunk of a Hilton in Ningbo, I ran into a young and noisy group of customers that were there to pick up their cars a day after the official launch. The factory had three months to quietly get up to speed. Production hell waits only for those who deserve it.

Nearly 300 bots do the hard work in Luqiao. Picture Kalinda Zhang.

In California, we were told that their factory eventually will output cars at lightspeed, at least once its robots have overcome the friction of air. In reality, the alleged Alien Dreadnaught so far managed to produce only a few hundred of Tesla’s Model 3.

Luqiao also has its small army of robots, nearly 300, made by ABB and Kuka. The bots do the work unfit for humans. 253 stout ABB bots weld the cars. 33 of them paint the cars. There are 5 bots employed in final assembly, or what Volvo calls “Total Car Finish.” And then there is the lonely measuring bot in the press shop.

Neither the bots, nor the 4,000 people working at the factory are breaking a sweat, or concern themselves with air resistance. This isn’t a factory to make headlines, but to produce perfect cars. The line runs at a sedate 30 jobs per hour, finishing a new car every two minutes, the usual speed for a flexible line.

Journalist inspect every detail at the press launch. Picture Bertel Schmitt.

Maybe Elon Musk complained about slow bots, because he is slowly learning that armies of robots do not necessarily increase the speed of the line. Cars can be made much faster without bots, as long as a line is purpose-built for one car. However, all that speed is lost when the line has to re-tool, which took months in the bad old days. A one-car line will sit idle when demand drops. That’s why smart automakers have long traded line speed for the flexibility bots bring to the line.

Modern car factories routinely produce eight or more different car models on the same line, in many cases built-to-order, each one different from the next in line. This allows a car manufacturer to ride out the ebbs and flows of car sales. As long as the line keeps moving, it doesn’t matter which of its models sell more or less. Musk’s Dreadnaught 0.5 does not seem to be flexible at all. Apparently, the Model 3 will be made in batch mode, premium trim rear wheel drive first, more frugally optioned, and all-wheel drive cars later. Strangely, that doesn’t buy Tesla a faster line. From what we hear from suppliers, Tesla wants to run its Model 3 line at 40something jobs per hour, once its up to snuff and speed.

Final assembly. Picture Kalinda Zhang.

The Luqiao plant is flexible from the outset. Combined with an CMA architecture that allows ICE, PHEV, and BEV models to be built on the same line, the factory will definitely produce Lynk & Co and Volvo models, quite possibly also Geely, Polestar, or whatever.

The 30 jobs per hour line gives the plant an annual capacity of 200,000 units, if run in two shifts, and with overtime on Saturday, Demeunyck tells me. Could he double the output of the plant if there is need to? “Sure,” he says, “with a second line,” and he points to the green strip of grass along the length of the plant. The Luqiao plant sits on 181 acres of land, a little less than the 210 acres of the Tesla plant. Only a little more than half of the acreage is under roof. Couldn’t he run the line faster? First principles, you know, density and velocity. “We could, but we don’t want to,” Demeunyck answers. “Quality is more important than speed.”

With two lines running in parallel, Luqiao will be able to produce 400,000 cars per year, and that’s when professionals won’t add more capacity, because a bigger plant would get unwieldly. It’s better to build a new one, elsewhere. Production experts roll their eyes when they hear Elon Musk talk about a million car factory.

Everything lines up. Picture Bertel Schmitt.

We go from stamping to body-in-white, where the metal is welded together by the 253 ABB bots, past the paint shop, and final assembly, until the cars literally see the light in the brightly lit quality control section.

It’s a boring job. All cars pass.

Of course I can talk all day of how marvelous that car plant is, but doesn’t the stock market know best? Apparently, it does. In the span of one year, Tesla’s stock rose a surprising 75%.

In the same time span, the Geely stock zoomed up nearly 220%.  

So right. Picture Bertel Schmitt.