Aerial view of Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. Click image to enlarge
By Chris Chase
West Point, Georgia – It’s not often you hear of people thanking God for a car company, but that was exactly what happened when Kia Motors announced in 2006 that it would build its first North American manufacturing facility in West Point, Georgia. Kia’s decision likely did seem like a Godsend in a community hit hard by unemployment after the West Point Stevens textiles company, formerly a major employer in the area, moved its manufacturing operations overseas.
Kia estimates that Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG), as the plant is known, will eventually directly employ 2,500 workers and will help create another 6,000 jobs related to its supplier base. To say that jobs were in demand when Kia announced its plans to build KMMG is an understatement: by February 2008, KMMG had accepted more than 43,000 applications from job seekers, which Kia says is an auto-industry benchmark, not only for the sheer number, but for the fact that all were received on-line.
To put the number of applicants into perspective, the total population of Troup County, in which West Point is located, is 68,000. The West Point plant began producing the 2011 Kia Sorento in December 2009, and as of January 2010 employs about 1,200 workers. Kia estimates that the majority of workers at KMMG live within a 50-mile (about 80 km) radius of the plant.
KMMG was a US$1 billion investment, making the facility a feat that a small car company like Kia probably wouldn’t have been able to manage without the help of parent company Hyundai, which saved Kia from bankruptcy in 1998. Incidentally, KMMG is a little more than an hour’s drive from Hyundai’s own southern U.S. manufacturing operation in Montgomery, Alabama, where that company builds the Santa Fe.
At the moment, Kia builds its second-generation Sorento at a rate of 60 vehicles an hour in West Point and will add a second shift this fall when a second vehicle goes into production. Company reps wouldn’t say what that second model will be, but speculation is that it could be the upcoming Cadenza sedan.
KMMG’s proximity to its parent company’s plant is likely no coincidence. Kia builds the Sorento and Santa Fe’s transmissions at KMMG, while Hyundai builds the four- and six-cylinder engines for the two models. The arrangement works well for the suppliers that make parts for the two vehicles, many of which have facilities of their own located between the Hyundai and Kia factories.
KMMG comprises four distinct sections. A stamping shop produces the body panels; the welding shop joins the panels to form the Sorento’s body structure; a paint facility applies water-based, lead-free paint in the Sorento’s available eight shades; and finally, the general assembly floor, where the majority of the plant’s “team members” work, do everything from assembling and mating engines and transmissions, assembling the chassis and bringing everything together to create the final product.
Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia training centre. Click image to enlarge
The manufacturing facility occupies 650 acres of the total land that Kia acquired for KMMG. The total 2,200 acre site, pieced together through the purchase of independently-owned farmland, is also home to a training facility where prospective employees and recent hires are trained for the jobs performed on the factory floor. Assembling cars isn’t glamorous work, but training is necessary: workers at each station along the assembly line have just 63 seconds to complete their task before the car moves on to its next stop and obviously, if one station falls behind, it affects the entire operation.
I got to take a tour of the factory and training facility along with other Canadian journalists in the area for a 2011 Sorento ride and drive. Building a modern car requires a modern production facility, and this one fits that bill. Most of the work in the stamping, welding and paint shops is done by robots (I wonder where I could get one these to do my housework for me?), but there is just one of these automatons in general assembly, where, ostensibly, it pays to have a human touch.
And it’s the human element that makes this factory more than just a place that builds cars. For the people working here, and for Troup County at large, this Kia plant really is like a gift from God.