Plant People

By Terry Roorda

In the span of two weeks in June I toured five industrial facilities in three states. Even for the Detroit-born son of a plant engineer who’d been introduced to the phenomenon of the plant tour at a tender age, and who had then gone on to spend most of his working life in such places, this was a lot of industrial exposure in short order and I felt like the Kobayashi of plant tours, cramming in a lot more than I could possibly digest.

It all started at the Harley-Davidson CVO press launch where I’d taken the grand tour of the vast Pilgrim Road Powertrain facility in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, the birthing place of all Harley Big Twins. Shortly thereafter I was whisked away to the facility of Calibre, Inc.—the outsource outfit that does the screamin’ paint work on the Screamin’ Eagles—for a firsthand look at their industrial artistry. Two weeks later at the Victory Vision launch I found myself shuffling through the Polaris New Product Development Center, in Wyoming, Minnesota; a hyper-tech installation where all manner of electronic wizardry interfaces with all manner of design personnel to create all manner of powersports vehicles. The kibbitzing continued the next day down in Iowa at the Polaris Spirit Lake Facility where the Victory motorcycles are produced, along with some of the Polaris ATV models. Whew. That’s a lot of plant tours.

But wait a second. That’s only four. I left one out. Lemme think… Oh, yeah: I also took the tourist walk-through of the Miller Brewery at the behest of The Motor Company while I was in Milwaukee. Seems like I did, anyway. I can’t understand why that one remains hazy.

I think you’ll agree that a flurry of plant tours like that would give anyone a pretty comprehensive overview of contemporary American motorcycle design and manufacture—and of the beer brewing business, too, which is a closely related industry. And I suppose I could expound in detail on what I’ve gathered from it all, but I’m not up to doing that just now (I’m still a little post-traumatic), except to observe that the sci-fi robots of which we were warned are truly among us, now. And by robots I mean electronic brains and turnkey automation and, yes, actual vaguely anthropomorphic robots, welding things and spray-painting things and assembling things and tending other machines. There were times during the various tours when entire expanses of factory floor appeared utterly depopulated, even as machinery thrummed along in full-production mode.

There were people, of course, and in some settings there were a lot of them, and as I strolled with the tour group through the various plants, I got to thinking: Why not give Plant People Tours? Tours that would focus on the workers and who they are as individuals. And the more I thought about it, the more I observed the people instead of the robots and computerized machine tools. And I began to realize how familiar the folks I was observing were to me from my many years in similar facilities, and what a swell experience it would be to highlight these characters as part of the whole motorcycle manufacturing process. In my mind, the Plant People Tour materialized:

“Good morning and welcome to our manufacturing facility, folks. My name is Frank. I’m the director of human resources here, and I’ll be your tour guide today. Before we get started I’d like to point out Connie over there at the counter. Connie’s our receptionist and gal Friday, and what a bundle of energy she is. She hasn’t used a vacation day in three years. Her husband’s a real loser, so Connie also deals Mary Kay on the side to make ends meet. She’ll sign you in and give you your safety glasses.

“Now step this way, folks. Our first stop today is our shipping and receiving clerk, and his name’s Vince. Vince has been with us for… good Lord… how long’s it been, Vince?”

“Twenty-two years.”

“Wow. Twenty-two years. And how long have you been on that cheap beer bender of yours, Phil?”

“Twenty-two years.”

“Amazing. That’s great, Phil. Now, folks, let me draw your attention over there to Shellie. Shellie’s the shop hottie. Hey Shel!”

“Hey baby!”

“Shellie’s our bowling league coordinator. She’s the reason all the guys have joined up. And none of the gals. Go figure. I’m the official scorekeeper, myself.”

“OK, keep the group together now. Our next stop is Marvin, and you won’t want to miss him. Marvin’s our top seniority man; a real lifer. He’s got 41 years in and he would’ve retired a long while back, but all those divorces and kids have him pretty deep in a jack hole. You play, you pay, isn’t that right Marvin?”




“Damn, Marvin’s dead. Somebody call maintenance. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. Our next stop is the lavatory. Go ahead and take care of your needs, and while you’re in there say hi to Billy. Billy’s been on the payroll for eight years, but nobody’s ever seen him outside of the John except at quitting time. Good hygiene, I guess. He’s a fine bowler, too. Don’t be long in there, though. We’ve still got a lot of people to get to on the tour. We’ve got a stoner, a Bible thumper, a mother hen, a Don Juan, a gun nut, a dog groomer, a dreamer and…”

And bless ’em all. There are some things a robot can’t even begin to compete with.

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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