A peep under the bonnet

26th September 1997 at 01:00
People in the workplace: Carolyn O'Grady sees how the world of work has changed, as she visits Rover's car manufacturing plant at Longbridge and watches the morning's news being put together at speed in Plymouth

A car plant is a spectacular sight. The vastness of the hangar-like workshops and the sheer scale of the operation is always impressive. Even those most indifferent to the wonder of cars will probably find something to interest them. If it isn't the very latest robot technology and logistics systems, which ensure that parts of cars come magically together so that they emerge with the right specifications at the end of the line, it will be the history of car manufacture or changing ways of working.

A pupil may like the design area, or the sewing section where the upholstery is put together or enjoy investigating the environmental considerations. Also interesting is how much of a self-sufficient community many of these plants are with their own fire-stations, doctors, and sometimes railway lines.

Unfortunately, fewer and fewer car plants now cater for tours and those that do tend to get over-subscribed and pull up the draw-bridge for long periods. Occasionally, too, they will close while a new model is being designed and built, for this is a highly secretive industry, which keeps its new products under wraps until they are ready for the showrooms.

One manufacturer who on the whole manages to keeps its plants open to schools and other visitors and is working on building up a strong partnership with education is the Rover Group.

There are five plants: Longbridge which makes small to medium-size cars; Solihull which makes the four-wheel drive cars including the Range Rover; Gaydon, near Warwick, the high tech design and engines centre; Cowley, another manufacturing plant in Oxfordshire, and Swindon where body pressing is done.

All except Cowley, which will close for visits in 1998, are doing tours into the foreseeable future, though be warned you should give plenty of notice.

In July, Park High School from Stanmore, Middlesex, visited the Longbridge Plant just outside Birmingham as part of a wide-ranging programme of visits to industrial sites.

They were greeted by Teresa Kelly, an ex-deputy head and co-ordinator of the plant's Educational Partnership Centre. The large room specially designed for schools is furnished with tables, audiovisual equipment, and is decorated with visual aids and work by other schools groups.

Her introduction included masses of rather mind-boggling statistics: the plant has 42,000 employees and 110,000 jobs are dependent on it (suppliers etc); 125 cars are produced an hour; you could fit Wembley stadium four times into the Solihull site; it covers 430 acres. There were also some safety warnings: pupils cautioned not to get in the way of fork-lift trucks which buzz round the factory floor.

A recurrent theme of the tour was changes in ways of working. Previously a foreman controlled the lives of workers who were expected to leave their thinking processes outside the plant. Now "associates" of almost equal status work in teams which are given a fair amount of control over their particular part of the action, opportunities for progression and forums for their views to be heard.

To test their team-working skills pupils were divided into groups of four and given a task. The difficulties encountered during this exercise were discussed. "Teamwork and processes" were the most important ingredients of a successful plant, emphasised Teresa Kelly. "If there is a problem we ask 'Is it the process, or is it the people?'" After lunch, pupils were given a talk by an engine designer who explained the processes involved. Essentially there were three: design, manufacture (initially making a prototype) and test. New materials including plastics and alloys had opened up many new opportunities, as had computer aided design which enabled designers to build a virtual 3-D model of an engine on screen and test it.

Finally came the part most of the young people had been waiting for: the two-hour tour round the factory. Leading this was John Cockayne, an avuncular giant with a wry sense of humour. To save his voice and the young people's ears in the very noisy plant, each of the students wore headphones through which his words could be heard.

The assembly plant, which is where the parts are put together before being painted, resembles a vast hangar in which parts of cars travel alone lines on the ground or overhead on moving racks and somehow come together into a car shell.

Cockayne moved from one part to another explaining what was going on. So pupils saw spot-welding done by men and an occasional woman and also by robot teams with their disturbingly human prissiness and balletic movements. Testing was also done by computerised machinery which like a giant clam folds around each car before it leaves the line.

Visits to the paint shop are not allowed for practical and safety reasons, so the group then moved on to see the Rover 400 vehicle assembly plant where the car receive engines, brakes, suspension parts and other bits while suspended from a conveyor belt until finally it emerges to be put through its paces, not on the road but in a static testing bay, where speeds can be simulated without the car moving an inch.

Most of the group agreed that seeing a car put together from the start was a fascinating experience and one which also gave them an insight into the world of work.

Most of the Rover plants have education partnership centres which work with schools on a number of levels including study days for primary and secondary schools which may or may not include a tour, in-service training, teacher placements and work experience. The group will try to tailor talks and tours to the needs of schools.

PRIMARY PUPILS are not usually allowed on site for safety reasons, but they can do projects on, say, materials or machinery in the centres - Solihull has opened a computer room where classes can use an electronics, word processing and control packages linked to Fischertechnik models. Representatives also visit schools.

Rover Group Education Partnership Centres: Cowley: 01865 746244. Gaydon: 01926 643497. Longbridge: 0121 475 4628. Solihull: 0121 700 3035. Swindon: 01793 551593

Other manufacturers offering tours include: Ford Motor Company Ltd, Dagenham, Essex: 0181 526 4570. Peugeot Talbot Motor Company Ltd, Coventry: 01203 886000. Lotus Cars, Norwich, Norfolk: 01953 608000. Jaguar Cars Ltd, Coventry, only 16-year-olds and above; long waiting list: 01203 402121. Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Burnaston, near Derby. Tel: 01332 282121. Vauxhall Motors Ltd. Luton. Tel: 01582 721122

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