Everyone has probably seen the TV images of car manufacturing plants on TV, with robots, cars and all that jazz. That's just a little piece of the puzzle though...

The plant I visited was the PSA Peugeot Citroen plant at Ryton, UK (bought from Chrysler for (fanfare) $1 when that company fell into financial troubles. I suspect that the dollar was only to make the transaction a proper sale, cf Love Canal). This one factory manufactures every right hand drive Peugeot 206 in Britain (and some left hand drive ones as well) and as you can probably guess from that, it's huge. It's a few hundred square acres in size, and the whole tour took two hours.

You enter the plant, and immediately you notice two things. Firstly, that an array of pieces of sheet metal, nuts and bolts are stacked in shelves on the wall The second is that there are about 50 flatcar type things standing on rails in front of you. The purpose of these is clear if you look up above the factory-there is an upended monorail of sorts covering the top of the entire place, running these flatcars to their destinations. The flatcars themselves are designed to hold car bodies-the cars do not go onto four wheels until near the end of the production process.

Moving onwards, you notice the robots, which take the moulded parts of the car body (I assume that they are shipped in from elsewhere) and spot weld them together, like this:

|                 |
|                 |
|                 |
|-----> 3 3 <-----|
3 = one piece of sheet metal
Angle brackets = copper contacts
POWER = many, many volts of electricity
What happens is that the two copper contacts clamp together, sandwiching the metal, passing a helluva lot of current through that spot of metal and melting the two pieces together. Did I neglect to mention that this puts out lots of sparks, and happens every three seconds on one machine? That's a lot of welding and a lot of sparks...

The welding robots are both cool and scary-cool because there's a kickass-looking robot in front of you putting out searing hot sparks, and scary because the things had a very "Matrixy" feel about them. Also, having a large yellow arm-on-a-stick swing a large piece of metal round to face you is quite discomforting, but you get used to it after a while (not that you have a choice). This part of the factory is extremely loud-painfully so, even through the ear protectors I was given. Obviously, goggles were mandatory.

Moving through the plant, we see more people than there were in the welding shop-one man in a small room checks some car bodies for problems, and there are two people checking the cars as they pass by on a carousel. There still aren't many people here. It's not until you get onto the famous assembly lines when you see all of the workers.

Just after that carousel is the paint shop. I wasn't allowed in here, but there were inspection windows so you could clearly see what is going on. More carousels in here, with some cars dropping down from the ceiling rail network I mentioned earlier. Right now, all the cars are a dirty brown colour. They will be sprayed with water, dried, painted, sprayed again and dried again. They then go onto the production lines.

The production lines are long. Very long. They wrap around once or twice, and there are plenty of people there, at a stark contrast with the rest of the plant. First a little bit of quality control (whereupon a pink inspection sheet is slipped into the car, for others downstream to read) and the installation of windows/windshields. More robots swing down the glass, all the parts and everything that the production team could need. These people do this all day, from 6:30am to around 4/5pm. The production lines never stop, except for breaks (there are numerous perspex "canteen" boxes dotted around the plant, mostly around the lines)-the tour guide joked that even if a man fell dead across the line, the line would not stop and he would be lifted off and placed elsewhere while work continued.

The philosophy here is lean production, a mostly Japanese invention. Parts are delivered as they are needed (JIT, or Just In Time), suggestions are taken from employees for anything (they're the ones who are doing the work, they're the ones who should know how to improve things), everything is very efficient. 70% of all waste at the plant is recycled (drinks cans, pallets, cardboard boxes-any fscked aluminium parts are recycled into Coke cans for consumers. Mmm, roboticola.).

After the wheels, the engine and all of the parts required in a moving vehicle are fitted, the car is put onto wheels, and the flatcars are lifted up off the ground and are transported elsewhere. Then, after some final checks, the 206 is tested (using a sophisticated procedure involving lasers which I don't fully understand) and it is driven around a test track. The tests include being braked - HARD - and driving over a large, varied number of surfaces, such as alternating steps, cobbles, raised bumps and sunken bumps.

All this is powered by an onsite coal power plant (which consumes around 9000 tons of crushed dead foliage a day), as energy requirements are, as you can imagine, pretty huge.

Take a look at your car. Chances are that it was made in virtually the same fashion...by robots, people and a very long production line.