West-central Indiana is just about as flat as you think it is: not billiards-table flat, not a geometric plane, but you would have to go a long way to find anything like a hill. This used to be prairie, or more accurately the prairie-dotted-with-trees ecosystem known as savannah, but for the last hundred-fifty years or so the rich, black soil has been intensively farmed. You see mostly corn, some soybeans; rows of trees between farms; and, here and there, small towns with small, neat houses. The names on the mailboxes and in the telephone book come from England and Ireland, Germany and Sweden, with a few Polish and (more recently) Spanish surnames thrown in for good measure. This is the land that produced "Small Town" and "Rain on the Scarecrow" and "Cherry Bomb", and while John Cougar Mellencamp gets the songwriting credit, I suspect that even he would tell you the Indiana countryside did much of the work.
The landscape gets a bit more industrial, though, as you approach Lafayette, and behind a high chain-link fence on State Road 38 is a mile-long factory building: home to Subaru of Indiana Automotive, or SIA. I've come here to take the tour. After checking in with security, I park in the visitors' lot, and walk toward the lobby. Before I even reach the building, I encounter a recycling station, the first of many I will see, for while the automotive industry as a whole may have a sinister reputation among environmentalists, SIA is one of America's greenest companies.
In the lobby are three cars, representing the three Subaru models built here at SIA: Outback, Legacy, and Tribeca. SIA builds Outbacks and Legacies for the Americas (the same models for the rest of the world are built in Japan), as well as Subaru's entire output of Tribecas. It's worth noting that while Subaru has five factories in Japan, SIA is the only place outside Japan where Subarus are manufactured. It's also worth noting that SIA is a manufacturing plant, not just an assembly facility: Rolls of steel come in, finished cars roll out. Thanks to the arcane rules of international commerce, the engine and transmission are considered of Japanese origin, but SIA's cars boast a U.S. parts content comparable to that icon of the American road, the Ford F-150 pickup. (And much higher than most other "domestic" cars.)
[A truckload of 2011 Outbacks ready to leave Lafayette. Good access to interstate highways as well as rail lines is one reason SIA located here.]
SIA is also one of three U.S. facilities producing the Toyota Camry. Toyota owns a 14% interest in Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), Subaru's parent company, and SIA builds the Camry under contract. This is nothing new; SIA once stood for Subaru-Isuzu Automotive, a joint venture between those two companies. (The SIA logo, I'm told, is 51% Subaru blue and 49% Isuzu red, reflecting the original ownership of the company.) Vehicles produced here have included Isuzu pickup trucks, the Isuzu Rodeo/Honda Passport, the Isuzu Amigo, the entirely forgettable Isuzu Axiom, and the sadly-now-extinct Subaru Baja. (On which more later.)
Okay, I've got badly off-track with all this business talk. Hardly my forté. Where were we? Oh yes, the lobby... Well, the lobby is much as you'd expect: glass cases full of trophies, flower arrangements on the tables, comfortable sofas, etc. Less expected, although it makes perfect sense: a framed photo of "Crocodile Dundee" actor Paul Hogan posing with a first-generation Outback, alongside his trademark hat and a largeish knife. Clearly the folks at SIA have not forgotten that the Outback, more than any other car, secured Subaru's niche in the American market. As the SUV craze was beginning, Subaru was without a truck platform on which to base an SUV. Their solution was to upgrade the Legacy station wagon into "The World's First Sport Utility Wagon", employ Hogan for a bit of Aussie cachet, and essentially invent the crossover vehicle before that term came into being. Subarus were already capable soft-road and off-road vehicles, thanks to their symmetrical all-wheel drive (AWD) system; but after a series of Outback advertisements starring Paul Hogan, the public knew it.
As tour coordinator Tom Elger arrives, the receptionist very politely confiscates both my camera and my cell phone, which I had quite forgotten has a camera as well. Tom explains that Subaru and especially Toyota are concerned that trade secrets might be divulged through photography, which sounds reasonable, but then why invite the public in at all? I don't ask that question aloud, just surrender my optical contraband and don the radio headset which will allow Tom to be heard by everyone on the tour even in the noisier parts of the plant. Our group includes a family with kids, a class of engineering students from Purdue University, and a trio of engineers from Fender Guitars—a treat for Tom, who has been playing for thirty-odd years and owns a Telecaster. While many Subaru enthusiasts such as myself take the tour, businessmen also make the pilgrimage to Lafayette to learn what has made Subaru in general, and SIA in particular, so successful.
[Virtual tours here: http://www.subaru-sia.com/qtvr/index.htm.]
One of those factors is Japanese-style management. SIA has a relatively "flat" organizational chart, meaning there is minimal hierarchy: Tom cites just five levels from associates on the factory floor to the top SIA brass. The atmosphere of egalitarianism is enhanced by the fact that each employee wears a uniform shirt embroidered with his or her name—even the "suits" don't wear suits—and the executive staff work in open-plan offices. These measures are meant to facilitate communication, which is crucial to kaizen: an ongoing process of small refinements, most suggested by the associates themselves, aimed at greater efficiency and quality.
Kaizen is behind one of the SIA plant's most notable achievements, its zero-landfill status. When FHI first proposed this as a goal in 2002, many at SIA were skeptical that it could be achieved. But employees made suggestions that made zero-landfill a reality in 2004, two years ahead of schedule. A few examples:
* Packaging, especially cardboard boxes, has been reduced. Most parts are now shipped and stored in reusable plastic bins, which are later sent back to the suppliers for re-use. (As an additional benefit, injuries associated with utility knives used to open cardboard boxes have been nearly eliminated.)
* A water-borne paint system has reduced both the solvent content of the paint and the amount of paint waste per vehicle. The now-reduced excess paint is sluiced off and the volatile compounds used to produce alternate fuels.
* Recycling stations found throughout the plant are not the familiar plastic bins but re-purposed shipping barrels, made of cardboard with steel lids. When their time comes, they are themselves recycled.
* Food waste from dirty dishes in the cafeteria and employee break areas scattered throughout the plant was formerly combusted in a waste-to-energy scheme, but more recently has been composted.
* Even the plant's dust is recycled. Welding dust and floor sweepings are sent out to a company that extracts the metals.
Result: If you've taken out your kitchen trash this week, you've put more waste into landfills than SIA has in the past six years!
I listen carefully through the headset as we wend our way through hallways and over the factory's catwalk, but despite Tom Elger's best efforts to include everyone (not just the Fender engineers and Purdue students) in the discussion, many of the technical aspects of the tour go straight over my head. My notebook records a few trivia items: The enormous transfer press used to stamp out body parts from rolls of steel is three stories tall, with another two stories under the factory floor; it was brought in from Japan through the Panama Canal, up the Mississippi and and Ohio Rivers, and unloaded at a specially-built port in Madison, Indiana. Die sets are retained at SIA, all the way back to the 1990 Legacy, for manufacturing replacement body parts. There are seven miles of conveyor chain in the Paint department. Ostrich feathers from South Africa (female ostriches only, due to their feathers' lower oil content) are used to dust the cars in Paint. The Trim & Final department finishes each car to trim-line spec; non-standard upgrades (window tint on a model that's not usually tinted, for example, or upgraded shift knobs and pedals) are completed not at SIA but at the SOA (Subaru of America) facility next door, which is considered a port for tax purposes.
At a certain point, I lose the ability to retain information on the manufacturing process, but I am particularly impressed by one point. The Toyota Camry line is entirely separate, but on the Subaru side of the plant, Outbacks, Legacies, and Tribecas are all produced on the same line, and the volume (hence speed of production) can be varied depending on demand. (Tom describes this as an "open, flexible" architecture for the benefit of the engineers and students.) Cars come through in no obvious pattern: you might see three Outbacks, then a couple of Legacies, then another Outback, a Tribeca, another Legacy, and so on. But SIA's computers are in constant communication with each other and with suppliers' computers, so that as each car makes its way through the line, the correct set of seats and wheels and tires shows up right on schedule.
Because of this unique arrangement, SIA does not stockpile cars. Every Subaru on the line has been paid for, either by an end user (a driver who has placed an order) or by a dealership. This is one reason Subaru didn't have to run a fire sale during the worst of the recession, whereas the Detroit automakers did. So, fewer opportunities for bargain-shopping, but more stability for what is still a small, niche-oriented carmaker—and for its employees, none of whom were laid off.
SIA would seem to be a great place to work, in fact. Newly-hired employees spend their first few weeks learning their jobs on the line, apprenticing with experienced associates, for half the day; the other half, they work out on company time to build up strength and endurance. Breaks are frequent, and each worker returning from break goes to a different station within his or her work area. As a result, repetitive-motion injuries and fatigue-related accidents at SIA are very infrequent compared with the rest of the automotive industry. And SIA employees do not buy health insurance through the company—SIA picks up the tab for health care as part of its compensation package. On-site recreational facilities, on-site child care, recognition for kaizen suggestions...small wonder there's no union.
As the factory tour winds down, I begin to anticipate an extra bonus: Knowing my interest in environmental matters, Tom has offered to give me a firsthand look at another of SIA's proud achievements. SIA was the first (and, as far as I know, is still the only) U.S. auto plant to be certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. At the tour's conclusion, Tom spends a few more minutes chatting about guitars with the guys from Fender, then excuses himself to go fetch a car.
After retrieving my camera and cell phone, I emerge from the lobby into bright late-July sunshine and rummage in the pockets of my cargo shorts for my Serengetis. A few minutes later, Tom pulls up in a 2005 Baja. "Nice choice," I tell him as I climb in, and he grins in reply. Based closely on the Outback wagon, the Baja is what Australian drivers call a "ute", a car with a pickup bed. Think of Chevy's El Camino, if you must, but the Baja's predecessor, the Subaru BRAT, is probably a better example. Anyway, the Baja had enormous potential Down Under...but, for reasons known only to Subaru's global marketing division, was sold exclusively in North America. Quirky, but then that's been the company's reputation. Sales were underwhelming, and the car was only made from 2003 to 2006, but it has a loyal following among Subaru fans and resale prices (always a strong point for Subarus) have scarcely dropped at all.
As we drive past a row of Outbacks serving as company cars, Tom expresses his hope that a new Baja might be in the offing. When I ask if he's heard rumors to that effect, he quickly disavows any inside knowledge. In fact, he says, new models are attended by deep secrecy. When SIA first started building the new 4th-generation (2010) Outbacks, even the assembly workers couldn't see the car in its entirety: the cars were covered as they came through the line, and each associate was expected to lift the cover only as far as necessary to do his or her particular job. Drivers on SIA's test track didn't get a good look, either, as the cars were disguised with foam and tape to prevent anyone from seeing the car's lines before its official debut to the press. No way would he have advance notice of a new Baja, Tom says, just out-loud wishful thinking.
Of SIA's 836 acres, 620 are developed, leaving just over 200 for recreation and wildlife. Among the animals that live here or make use of the habitat while on migration are coyotes, white-tailed deer, beavers, bald eagles, Canada geese, great blue herons, and snapping turtles, plus of course all manner of beetles, bees, dragonflies and butterflies. As Tom drives and narrates, I see a shady woodline, a wildflower meadow that includes both native and naturalized plants typical of the area (lots of Queen Anne's lace in bloom), and a rather ordinary-looking pond. I'm expecting our rapid drive-through to be followed up with an opportunity to walk around and take photographs, but apparently Tom has an appointment in town early in the afternoon and we only have time for this brief look, which doesn't even include the heron sanctuary inside the test track. Oh, well.
No one, if suddenly transported to SIA's wildlife habitat, would mistake it for Blackwater, or Brigantine, or Yellowstone or Yosemite. This is, first and foremost, an industrial site. Nor are any of the species found here (not even the eagles, really) particularly rare. But that is not the point. While threatened and endangered species grab headlines, and their management is obviously important to preserving our natural heritage, it is also important to provide space for common species so that they can remain common. SIA's habitat provides food, water, and cover; while it's certainly not as rich as the original savannah, it's more beneficial to most wildlife than cornfields and beanfields. And, as SIA's employees justifiably point out: No one made Subaru set aside land for wildlife, just as no one forced Subaru to operate zero-landfill factories. They did it because it's the right thing to do.
And if that also benefits Subaru's corporate image, that's as it should be. Consumers vote every time they spend money. Why not vote for a company that is a good corporate citizen, one that treats its employees and customers with respect, one that takes steps to help the environment at the local and global levels?
Back at the front of the SIA building, I say goodbye to Tom, find my car in the parking lot, and turn in my pass at the security gate on the way out. The harmon/kardon stereo belts out Mellencamp again as I point the Outback west toward home. Leaving Lafayette, cornfields blur to the sounds of "Walk Tall" and "Check It Out" and "Pink Houses". Ain't that America...