This afternoon my son and I took a tour of the GM/Toyota NUMMI auto factory located in Freemont, CA. It's one of the few manufacturing plants in the Bay Area, and luckily for us they give free tours to the public. I've been trying to schedule one of these tours for years, but they are often either closed or fully booked on the usual kid's vacation days. The tour lasts 75 minutes; if you live or are even visiting in the Bay Area, it's worth signing up for.
It was one of the most interesting, awesome and fun things I've done in a while.
I was unprepared for how much activity was compressed into their 1 million square foot facilities. For the tour you ride an electric tram. As you wind through an elaborate maze of corridors, all the while dodging other small vehicles, avoiding autonomous robot thingies scooting along the floor, workers hurrying by on tricycles, huge robot arms sending out sparks toward you, and ducking monstrously large robot arms that flip over whole trucks, it really felt like a Disneyland ride.
The place is so packed with gear, tools, moving metal, bins, shop stuff, stacks of materials, that you can't see the end of the halls (that's how Disney would do it too). Beyond that are more space filled with moving containers of parts. Everything seemed to be in motion. They produce a car a minute. It will be either a Tacoma truck, a Toyota Corolla, or a Pontiach Vibe. The Vibes and Corollas are assembled on the same line!
In addition to this entertainment (there are 500 robots), there was a very visible lesson in the state of the art manufacturing. The NUMMI plant is one of the most productive in the world. It runs on the Toyota Production System, which is generally agreed upon to be the pinnacle of advance manufacturing. They perfected the just-in-time inventory and zero-defect methods. Books (best is the The Toyota Way) have been written on this ever-improving process. And what's really cool, is that you can actually see the system in action. On our tour workers yanked the strings that start dumb musical tunes and stop the assembly lines, in order to make sure there are zero defects.
My son really enjoyed it. He even thought about working there. (To an 11-year old, $30/hr is a fortune.)
The only bummer of the tour: no photos allowed.