Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. Click image to enlarge
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By Jim Kerr
Kia’s first North American automotive assembly plant is nothing short of spectacular. Located in the rolling wooded hills of West Point, Georgia, this 2,200-acre facility had the first production vehicle, a 2011 Sorento, roll off the assembly line in November of 2009. When you consider that the ground-breaking ceremony for this facility occurred in October, 2006, it is amazing that Kia could not only build the one-billion dollar facility from scratch, but also train a workforce of 1,200 and get all the dedicated and specialized equipment in place in such a short time.
Within the 650-acre plant site, there are several buildings. Some house support companies that supply steel to the stamping plant or transmissions to the assembly line. The Kia manufacturing and assembly plant consists of four huge buildings: the stamping plant, the welding plant, the paint plant and the final assembly plant. Let’s take a look inside:
My first impressions of the stamping plant were how clean, quiet and bright this facility is. Think of your kitchen on an organized day; the Kia plants are as clean and organized!
Production starts as rolls of steel go through the blanking press. Like a cookie cutter, the blanking press cuts the sheets into shapes that will later be formed. From there, the blanks move to a huge Rotem 5400-ton transfer press. Starting 20 feet below ground and rising nearly 40 feet above the floor level, the 186 foot long press automatically unloads the steel blanks and robotically moves them from station to station within the press structure. As the panel moves to each station, the blank may be shaped, holes cut in it or excess material removed to produce the finished panel, all at a rate of 15 strokes per minute.
The Rotem 5400 press forms 5.2 million panels a year, one type of panel at a time and the dies are changed to produce each of the 17 different body panels. It only takes four minutes to change the dies, so panels are stamped as the welding plant needs them.
After inspection, the stamped panels move onto the 374,000 square foot welding plant. Here, 244 robots assist the staff to weld the bodies together. At first it looks like chaos, with parts moving on conveyors overhead, through tunnels beneath walkways and along glass-walled or screened tracks. It reminded me of a marching band at a football half-time show. It appears everything is doing its own thing but suddenly it all comes together to produce something almost magical. Inner and outer structures are welded together by robots, accompanied by the occasional shower of sparks, until the subassemblies all come together in a master jig that laser aligns the panels before welding them together. The body moves through a glass-walled inspection area where the 2,100 welds are checked and the occasional sharp point ground off. Then it’s overhead by conveyor to the paint shop.
Access to the 934,000 square foot paint shop is limited because of quality control. Oil, hair, perfumes and deodorants can affect paint quality, so only select staff enter the area after passing through a clean room. The body travels on a conveyor belt as it passes through the shop and there is room for 700 vehicles on the line. Next it’s on to the final assembly line.
Four hundred and fifty staff work directly on the final assembly line. The moving line has wood floor panels that are more comfortable for staff to stand on than concrete or steel. Parts are delivered to each station, some by forklift, some by cart, and most by overhead conveyor belt. Here, the body is completely assembled at stations where the system automatically moves the body up or down to accommodate the person at that station. Each team member has only 63 seconds to complete their task before moving on.
The body meets the chassis and powertrain near the end of assembly and each vehicle is started and driven off the line for headlight aiming and wheel alignment. Then, every vehicle goes out to the 3.5-km test track, where is it driven over rumble strips, accelerated from 0 to 130 km/h and braked to verify performance. A final water test completes the testing and the vehicles are off to final inspection.
Kia has invested a lot of money into this facility, but it appears they are really investing in their future. Staff training and facilities are all designed to produce quality products, and Kia’s goal is to at the top of the quality ratings compared to other manufacturers.