As part of the annual conference of the European Regional Science Association (ERSA), held in Slovakia, a guided tour of a Volkswagen/Audi/Porsche car assembly factory took place. We visited the Bratislava plant, one of the largest and most sophisticated in the world. It produces ~400,000 cars per year and has contributed over 3 million wheeled metal boxes to humanity during its 45 years in operation. This post describes the visit, from the perspective of an environmentally minded transport geographer.
Behind the dry power point presentations and formalities lurked a festival of thought at the ERSA 2012 conference, hosted this year by the Economic University of Bratislava. A good conference is a symposium of ideas, a celebration of debate, an unrelenting expression pursuit of information and understanding, wherever it may lead, and a pulse of information about the real world. The event contained all these ingredients in abundance, and for me evoked Karl Popper’s magnificent vision of an Open Society which relies on evidence rather than dogma to decide the way forward.
Although the sense of economic crisis that grips the world today may pale in comparison with the dread of the early 1940s in which Popper’s masterpiece was composed, the feeling of urgency was palpable. It felt like being with the ‘elite’, the people who were making long-term planning decisions, allocating budgets, and influencing the direction of academic debates which eventually affect thousands of lives. This impression was solidified when Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia, opened the conference. He spoke the language of power: strategic decisions to maximise inward investment, policies to reduce regional inequalities, and competitiveness in global markets were his domain. To paraphrase: “On Europe we are united. Continued integration with the European Union is the best way out of the current crises. Those who complain of loss of sovereignty or mismanagement in Brussels are destructive; Europe is the only solution.” This honesty and naked expression of political power contrasted with the couched statements and apologetic sound-bites we usually hear from politicians.
This vibe continued with the trail-blazing plenary speech performed by Ann Markussen, president of the North American Regional Science Committee (NARSC). She rallied against the regurgitation of embedded ideas in the discipline: “Why do you continue to re-hash the stale and empty formula ‘Here’s method X to achieve BAU outcome Y in region Z’ over and over again in clear contradiction to the vision of diversity created by the discipline’s founders?” Markussen seemed to be lambasting the audience with every new line of argument delivered with a dynamic passion for the subject. The hard “science” she was overthrowing was the export model of growth, whereby an export market (fur, cars, etc) is the cause of prosperity. No, she said. It is in fact endogenous factors such as a strong regional craft sector or beer brewing fame that kicks off development, in many cases. This opening speech in some ways contradicted the car factory visit; the event organisers were keen to emphasis the economic benefits, framing the factory as a dynamo of economic growth.
Car factory: first impressions
Located just over 10 km Northwest of central Bratislava, the factory can draw on a large pool of skilled labour, gain rapid road access to Europe’s largest markets (30 % of the cars are exported to Germany), and also take advantage of export opportunities to China (20 % of the plant’s export market) through a number of road/port options. The low population density (111 people per square kilometre, compared with 229 in Germany) and presumably low price of land were immediately in evidence as we alighted in the spacious car-park and custom-built visitor reception.
Volkswagen have clearly focussed on creating an enjoyable working space for their employees and in terms of personal transport this means ample parking space at the factory’s entrance and use of the most efficient form of personal transport currently known: the bicycle. It did seem a little ironic that a company who prides itself on efficiency relies on an external company to provide personal transportation for its employees, via the beautiful simplicity of the bicycle, traditional nemesis of the complex and resource hungry car.
Inside the plant
The level of sophistication reached in a modern day car factory is difficult to put into words, especially if the author does not fully understand the processes himself, as is the case here. However, I can mention some of the most fascinating features. To start with, the robotic mini trains that ferried hardware around the building, following magnetic strips on the floor. The had an uncanny sense of people, politely stopping when our group of site-seerers got in the way. The moving floor was equally amazing. This constituted an entire strip of flooring that moved slowly but continuously across the entirety of the factory carrying workers, tools and half-finished cars in its wake. Finally the assembly robots. These don’t look like much when seen still and from a distance, but up-close their revered importance is clear: a large stay-clear zone surrounds them, and a couple of workers will down tools to watch as one of these single-armed robots performs the “marriage” – when the car body and chassis are joined in holy union.
Due to the size of the plant, a fair amount of attention seems to have been dedicated to designing efficient transport systems, to allow people, tools, cars and components fast and unhindered carriage around the site. This is another irony of the plant, that such a coordinated transport system in the factory can contribute to the scattered uncoordinated messes of modern-day traffic jams. Taken to its extreme, the car factory can be seen as a giant illustration of the second law of thermodynamics: taking in energy and resources to create internal order, while kicking out disorder in the form of cars that will burn thousands of litres of precious liquid fuels and eventually degrade into rust.
While the factory is an ordered site of coordinated machine interaction, it is not necessarily always harmonious for the human workers, who seemed to me to be second class citizens in company of such expensive and productive robot colleagues. The eating zones were bare, allowing little space for even the smallest personal touches such as the photos, calenders and personal belongings that inhabit many offices. The 12 hour shifts sounded gruelling, and frustration, determination, and pure hard work seemed to be etched onto the faces of he silent, regimented employees.
Things brightened up as we left the plant. We passed team Volkswagen Football Club playing all-out in a football pitch in the middle of the factory site. Whoops and shouts emerged from what seemed to be a very good game, perhaps the human antidote to the many hours spent grinding away at endless bolting, drilling, fitting and testing shift work. The car factory is undoubtedly popular in Slovakia: from Prime Minister to factory floor workers, the nation seems united in its opinion that export-led growth is the way forward. Low-paid, hard jobs are better than no jo
Things brightened up as we left the plant. We passed team Volkswagen Football Club playing all-out in a football pitch in the middle of the factory site. Whoops and shouts emerged from what seemed to be a very good game, perhaps the human antidote to the many hours spent grinding away at endless bolting, drilling, fitting and testing shift work. The car factory is undoubtedly popular in Slovakia: from Prime Minister to factory floor workers, the nation seems united in its opinion that export-led growth is the way forward. Low-paid, hard jobs are better than no jobs at all, and Volkswagen’s announcement that the Bratislava plant is set to double production in 2012 compared with 2011 is a source of pride.
As for the long-term future, when global oil production begins to decline, that can be considered another day. For now, the narrow short-term priority of increasing production and improving quality provides more than enough to be getting on with. Raising the question of peak oil and its implications for the factory to director of the car industry body in Slovakia, he looked at first nervous and then regained his composure as if he had remembered the ‘correct’ answer to such challenges: hydrogen. Never mind the inefficiencies of hydrogen electrolysis or fuel cells, the technical difficulty of compressing and reliably cooling this most escape-prone and explosive gas. Never mind that a decent alternative to vanadium in fuel cells has not been found, or the scarcity of rare-Earth metals needed for electric motors powered by fuel cells. Ignore all that, the businessman seemed to say. Hydrogen will solve the peak oil question.
Such short-termism and wilful ignorance of its inevitable eventual demise is perhaps a feature of all industries that depend of vast flows of fossil fuels. Technological optimism, in this case taking the form of a mythical hydrogen fuel cell saviour, represents a sanctuary away from the harsh reality that building cars, much less using them, is fundamentally unsustainable.
However, optimism can still be extracted from my car factory experience: Volkswagen’s clever factory design shows that highly automated industries do not always have to degrade its human servant, and hope can be found in any workplace that has a football pitch – temple of fun and cooperative teamwork – at its centre. More importantly for me, and returning to the Open Society mentioned in the introduction to this article, the same factory can be harnessed to build things other than cars. Freedom of thought may one day allow our industrial and political leaders to convert the car factories of the world to another use. This has happened before, when factories were commandeered during the Second World War. Hopefully bicycle parts and buses will be the focus of the next factory re-tooling, though, instead of bombs. The news that bicycles have outsold cars in Italy for the first time in decades illustrates the potential uptake of alternatives to the car, as a proactive response to deeply embedded transport problems.
Article by Robin Lovelace for the TGRG