A riot of robots and gadgetry

Take a trip around a car factory - it's fun and free.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Beyond the Channel in mainland Europe, sales of cars are slumping, but in the UK production is booming. Almost 1.5 million cars were built in 1994, the highest figure for 20 years, and that count is set to top 2 million by the year 2000 if all the predictions are correct. So, since the motor industry is alive and well here, why not see it at work for yourself by joining a factory tour.

Although many manufacturing processes rival drying paint for observational excitement, a car factory is a riot of fascinating procedures as the skeletal frame of a vehicle takes shape. A car is not just a lifeless widget, it almost seems to have a soul. That is no exaggeration once you have witnessed the remarkable transformation of sheet metal into throbbing consumer durable as the car motors off the production line under its own power.

This is live entertainment at its best and, what's more, it is absolutely free. A couple of hours inside a factory could change your perception of the motor industry for ever. These days it is efficient, clean and strike-free.

However, you cannot just turn up at the factory gates and ask to be let in: you have to pre-book. Most car companies' public affairs departments will point you in the right direction and some, such as Rover and Ford, have dedicated plant tour offices. Most prefer party bookings, but individuals can tag along to make up the numbers. Rover, Ford, Nissan, Toyota, Peugeot, Honda and Jaguar all offer tours.

I visited two of the longest established UK plants: Ford at Dagenham and Rover at Longbridge and test-drove their tours. At sunny Dagenham I checked into the plant tour Portakabin along with some squaddies from the Army Medical Corps, a class of Essex comprehensive school sixth-formers and some Ford insiders from the Dunton Research Centre. Although operating undercover as an interested member of the public, I was attached to the Ford party. lt meant that instead of getting headphones and a receiver, like the other visitors, we were accompanied by Dave and a megaphone.

Dave was our guide and all-round nice bloke who had been retired from the production line, issued with a sports jacket and grey slacks, and given the mission to explain. Luckily, he was a natural with a nice line in East End banter that was well rehearsed, even though most of the jokes were predictable.

As the coaches negotiated the perimeter roads round the works, you are bombarded with facts and figures. At 1.1 square miles, this factory is bigger than the City of London and just as self-contained with its own barbers, doctors, dentists, fire station and mosque. Henry Ford created this fiefdom out of marshland back in the Twenties and an imposing statue of the man guards the entrance to the engine plant. Apparently, you could get 25 Wembley Stadiums inside this building.

Among all the hi-tech gadgetry here, we were confronted with the incongruous sight of a push-bike weaving its way down the aisles before being parked in one of many cycle racks. Well, if you need to run an errand and plan on making it back before the end of your shift, a bike is the obvious way to get around, even if it does seem like something out of the 19th century.

At the stamping plant they press out panels for full-scale Fiestas and, remarkably, human beings are still involved in tacking the bodies together before letting the robots take over. We even saw some space- suited workers in the paint, trim and assembly plant applying paint to areas the robots had failed to reach, so at least people are not completely redundant. Barcodes on the bodywork contain essential DNA telling the workers which Fiesta is destined to be plain L or a glitzy Ghia. We spent two hours in Dagenham, walked three miles and were rewarded with a trip to the canteen for tea and a sticky bun.

At Rover's plant, men of a certain middle age are willing to show you around and load you with as much literature as you can carry. There is a cuppa, too, but no bun. However, on the day that I followed my party of technical college students around the plant, it was not as much fun as Dagenham. The banter was not as good, fascinating facts were few and far between and I did not hear one gag.

Rover guides also will not let you near their low-tech Mini, so you spend most of the time in the less well populated, highly automated areas. But I loved the robots, and walking over a gantry as they pirouetted and sparked away below was hypnotic and rather beautiful.

Who said factories are boring? Not me.

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