In the classic film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a young boy fulfills his dream of working on a deranged man’s assembly line made of candy. The only thing more verifiably nuts than the insane premise of the story was the factory itself, with its unorthodox methods of creating something from nothing. As it turns out, Willy Wonka’s factory ain’t got nothing on Porsche’s mammoth Leipzig plant.
(Full Disclosure: Porsche flew me first class (first class!) across the world to take part in their 2017 Panamera launch, tour their Leipzig factory, and drive Porsche-branded cars really, really fast around their test track and down the unrestricted autobahn for four days.)
Porsche is a company that, like its car of the people underpinnings, has made a name for itself by making the same car for the last 60 years. Well, almost. Granted, the car is one of the best in the world and has evolved thus far to be the best sports car value on the planet, but the namesake, design, and layout of the platform all hearkens back to the days when everything moved a little more slowly. I’m talking, of course, about the 911, a car with a quirky engine in the wrong place, which made for some interesting handling characteristics at the limit. This iconic model, made in Stuttgart, was the mainstay for the brand and its most popular seller for the majority of the company’s history. Until they came to their senses and started selling things other than sports cars, that is.
In 2001, Porsche opened up a plant in the largest town in the German state of Saxony, known as Leipzig. It would be the base of operations for their riskiest venture ever - the Porsche Cayenne, which gave way to what some would consider the ultimate analog Porsche, the Carrera GT.
Fast forward ten years and four factory expansions and the Leipzig plant now spans over one million square feet and is the starting point of Porsche’s best sellers, the Macan, Cayenne, and the Panamera, the latest generation of which sports VW’s new MSB platform. The Leipzig plant currently employs over 4,000 employees and is legitimately the most daunting operations process I’ve ever seen.
The giant complex is broken up into three main buildings: body, paint, and assembly. Although I wasn’t able to witness the painting process, I was fortunate enough to see how raw materials were turned into some of the most stylish cars on the road in the body shop, and how they were put together by man and machine working in unison in the assembly plant.
Walking through the double doors of the body shop, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone roaming the halls of the massive facility. In fact, out of the 4,000 claimed employees, I counted twelve - six of which looked as if they were on the most relaxed lunch break I’ve ever seen. The place was as dead as the Indy 500 the day after, without all the trash.
The only thing indicating that this may have actually been a running factory was the fact that the lights were on and there was a faint robotic whir, indicating that they were likely doing what good robots do, and that’s working until they die.
However, the lack of Homo sapiens in this part of the compound wasn’t the result of some scheduling error, but created by design. You see, as imperfect animals, humans lack the precision that laser-guided robots possess, so the process of creating a body from sheet aluminum is almost completely automated, other than Porsche’s quality control, which is done by people that you would definitely have do your taxes but probably wouldn’t invite to your bachelor party.
The lack of people buzzing about also gave me a good chance to take a look at Porsche’s new Panamera underpinnings, which debuted the use of Volkswagen’s MSB platform, the new standard for its large cars. Instead of gluing and welding steel together like most other car manufacturers, Porsche put together a blend of five materials, the majority of which was variations of aluminum, coupled with a pinch of high-strength steel, to construct their newest car.
To connect the various materials used techniques that included roller hemming, in which they use a high-strength skateboard-wheel-looking roller to bend metal around corners to build panel strength and allow for expansion of the material, and flow-drilling, where a bolt is run through two disparate materials at 6,000 revolutions per minute, and effectively melts and fastens the materials together. More traditional methods are used, such as clinching with a pneumatic press and laser welding, although the only welds I could see on the Panamera display body were on the rear of the transmission tunnel.
For a car with this much structural rigidity and heft, not including the prominent use of welding a big deal. It’s almost like finding out that the awesome scrambled eggs your mom made as a kid were made without the use of a stove. Mind blown.
After the body is finished by a combo of a person and a subservient robot, it’s taken via overhead conveyor to the part of the plant that everyone usually associates with the act of car manufacturing - the assembly plant.
If you’re ever on a factory tour like I was, being led along like the world’s most awkward looking herd of cattle, the one thing the tour guide says, other than “We’re taking your cameras,” is that if you step one foot out of the designated tour path, the consequences would be grave. You could potentially get sideswiped by an uncaring robot trying to fasten its 114,952nd trunk hatch, or you could start a chain reaction that ends in Jerry Seinfeld getting the wrong color stitching on his third new car this week.
Staying within the lines as best I could, I found the experience to be an overload of information. I saw row after row of worker performing specific numbers of tasks, the number of which was low because, as Porsche put it, they want to “Maximize the worker’s core competencies.”
This meant that the more time the workers spent putting specific bolts in specific holes was less time doing shit that didn’t have to do with building cars, and less chance of someone falling into a conveyor belt’s drive gears or leaving a pedantic dentist’s shifter loose, the second of which was obviously the unforgivable sin.
The conveyor belt that spanned the entire facility, held the cars precariously in the air when necessary and placed the bodies on floor-mounted racks that were individually controlled to raise and lower depending on the work done. The workers’ wheeled carts were tethered to the cars, to ensure every tool was at their disposal and had, as Adam Savage would call it, “first order retrievability.”
Parts were stocked by other workers on motorized forklift-looking carts or three-wheeled, foot-powered scooters, and unlike other factories where everything is done in-house, Porsche outsourced the logistics to a third party company, so it can take care of making cars and the company they hire can get on with making sure worker #3643 has promptly received his light and sweet morning cup of coffee.
The drivetrains for the three models made in Leipzig were installed in a ceremony called a “marriage”, in which an entire rolling chassis with suspension was brought under a body held from above, slowly guided into place by several robots that measures to tolerances within one tenth of one millimeter. Bolts are then done up by two workers, and the car actually looks like something you’d get a showroom, rather than a random collection of salvage parts, albeit in a ridiculously clean environment.
As an amateur greasy car tinkerer, I was thoroughly impressed by the lack of oil on the ground and general cleanliness of the entire factory. In my mind, an assembly plant was something in which impossibly dirty technicians wiped off their profusely sweating brows and dodged sparks while beating on panels with hammers before slapping a signed A-OK sticker on the car’s back end. Unlike my expectations, the Leipzig plant, like the Panamera’s wing, was clean, sterile, and absolute Iron Man shit.
The entire factory moved slowly and had a pulse, in part by the machines that moved with a frantic and compassionless haste that I struggle to put into words, and in part by the human elements that were used as figurative cogs in a $2 billion machine that produced a finished product every four minutes.
When cars are finished and cleared with Porsche’s quality control staff for complying with their insane standard of “100% Quality,” then the majority of vehicles are brought up to operating temperature and all components are broken in, while a small amount are put to the side for further quality checks.
This means that simply to check that everything is up to snuff, cars that just came off the assembly line are potentially broken down to make sure everything is up to spec with the manufacturing process, and this happens every single day to around two percent of the total output of cars made in the Leipzig factory.
Cars can then be track-tested on the Leipzig track, both on and off-road, if applicable for a number of miles, until they get the go ahead from the maniacs behind the wheel trying to break them before they ever leave the factory grounds and see a dealership lot.
Although the 911 isn’t made in Leipzig, I got a chance to drive various 911 models around the Leipzig handling track. It’s an amazing experience and it’s also one open to anyone buying a new Porsche from the factory, not just overweight journalists that almost fell asleep during the quality control Power Point presentation part of the 4-hour factory tour.
If you are so inclined, you can actually order a Porsche, fly out to Germany, visit the customer center and drive the rear-engined piss out of your car before taking delivery of it, all sanctioned by the company that built the car in the first place, warranty intact. Hell, if it breaks, you can fix it, like, right there.
As some of you may know, I’m not fond of new cars, but models like the new Panamera with incentives like this coupled with the knowledge of Porsche’s impossibly high quality standards, mixed with low depreciation for popular models could change the mind of jerks like me in the future. I’m not there yet, but Porsche is making it damn hard to resist the temptation. Damn you, Leipzig.