A massive robot swings its single arm left, and picks up the entire shell of a Hyundai Sonata, lifting it skyward, twisting it around, and setting down perfectly in place on a jig where more robots angrily attack it with welding guns. Sparks fly as more pieces find their way into the new 2015 Hyundai Sonata.
As you may have read in my review of the all-new 2015 Sonata, my recent time behind the wheel of Hyundai’s newest car also came with a quick spin around the automaker’s Alabama assembly plant. The behind-the-scenes tour weaved its way past massive robots, around long conveyer belts, and over thousands of square feet of floor space all dedicated to building cars.
Scenes like that above happen all over the three-million square-foot facility, around the clock and every day of the week. The Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama plant is responsible for making nearly half of every Elantra and Sonata sedan wandering American roads and every single Sonata Hybrid sold in the States. Each and every day, another 1,000 new Hyundais roll off the assembly line thanks to the work of some 3,000 workers and over 400 robots.
Click past the jump for an inside look into the HMMA Assembly Plant
Things start off with basic raw materials, and since the cars are constructed from high-strength steels, those are prime ingredients found near the start of the assembly line. Shipped as big rolls, cranes lift the rolls off trucks and prep them for the stamping machine. Speaking of shipping, Hyundai’s philosophy can be boiled down to “Just in Time,” a process that leaves little room for error and conserves space by not housing tons of inventory. Parts arrive on trucks just hours before they’re scheduled on the assembly line. Not only does it save space not having truckloads of goods lying around, it also saves cost.
Once in Hyundai’s massive stamper, the flat sheets of steel are pressed with some 5,400 tons of pressure to form everything from door panels and hoods, to structural supports and floor pans. It’s amazing how quickly bare metal becomes car parts in this station. It’s also amazing to see all this action take place with no human involvement. Peering through the small windows of the Stamper’s doors, all the robots move in synchronization and in perfect harmony. From there, the individual stamped pieces are moved via an automated conveyer belt to the welding station.
Though it’s hard to see past the metal grates, door panels and side structural pieces float overhead on their way to the welding station. There they are attacked in multiple directions by over 250 robots welding every seam and applying structural adhesives to bond parts together. Sparks fly and many parts emerge as one. Individual pieces are becoming more recognizable. The robots carry out about their business without any human interruption or assistance. Weld, reposition, weld, reposition, and so on.
At this point, the car is taking shape. The doors, hood, and trunk are all bolted to the bare structure. Once everything is in place, the car moves to paint.
Each car body is fully submerged in a bath of primer and rust inhibiter. Not only are the cars completely covered, they are spun 360 degrees end-over-end within the primer solution to completely cover each and every crevice within the bodywork. From there, the primer is allowed to dry before heading to the paint booth.
The automation continues within the paint booth. Each car is electrostatically charged opposite the electrostatically charged paint. As the bank of robots spray the car, the paint naturally clings to the bare body, minimizing overspray and waste. Once the water-based paint is completely dried, the shell moves on to General Assembly.
Interestingly, Hyundai removes the doors to each car after the painting process is done. The doors are put on their own separate assembly line that follows the main assembly line. Towards the end of the line, the exact doors are placed back on the exact car, ensuring an even paint match. The absence of doors also allows workers, or Team Members as Hyundai calls them, to enter and exit the cars without obstructions.
Each station along the general assembly line gets exactly 46 seconds for tasks to be completed. Automation is limited in this portion and human involvement is very high. It starts with the sound deadening, then moves to carpet laying and is followed by the dashboard. The headliner, windshield, and D-Pillar glass come next. Then comes one of the most crucial stages, the integration of the powertrain to the underside of the body.
As the car body is suspended from above by four large arms, the front suspension, engine, transmission, exhaust, and rear suspension are lifted from below. Without the assembly line ever stopping, the two upper and lower halves of the car come together in a perfect fit. Team Members use pneumatic tools to tighten bolts in a process that takes only seconds. At this time, the car is really starting to come together.
Continuing down the line, more pieces are added including the center console, seats, and steering wheel. Various exterior pieces like taillights and trim pieces find their way onto the car. The correct wheels and tires arrive at the line just in time to meet the specific car they’re meant for. Team Members use a special five-lug air gun to tighten all the lug nuts at once. Fluids like coolant, windshield washer fluid, brake fluid, and fuel are added. The front bumper, grille, and headlights make their way onto the car as well.
All this time, the doors have been getting their own attention. Sound deadening, speakers, wiring, window motors, glass, and exterior mirrors are all added. Once both the door and the car are complete near the end of the line, they meet back up again and are reassembled. With matching paint and a perfect fit, the car looks more complete than ever. With all the interior and exterior pieces in place, each electrical system is tested for proper operation. With a green light, the car arrives at the assembly line’s end.
The car is then started for the first time. As the engine purrs to life, Team Members waste no time subjecting the car to its first test, the rumble strips. As the car exits the line, offset bumps cause the car to bounce and jostle, locking everything into place and ensuring the suspension is working. The cars are then staged for the battery of tests each Hyundai must endure to be considered complete.
Each car’s suspension is aligned, headlights aimed, and interior systems checked. The cars are then sent to the rain chamber where they’re subjected to high-pressure water jets to ensure all everything is completely sealed and watertight. From there, the cars are driven on a 2.3-mile test track to check for quality. Hyundai touts a 97 percent First Time Through success rate with every vehicle it builds, meaning only three percent of the nearly 400,000 vehicles produced annually at HMMA fail an initial quality inspection and must be repaired and retested. All this happens before the car leaves the factory grounds.
I’ve been to other automotive plants before, but I was taken aback by just how large Hyundai’s HMMA plant is and the shear volume of vehicles it produces every day. Not only is the HMMA plant building cars, it’s also building the community around it. Many of the smaller parts suppliers are located in and around Montgomery, Alabama in close proximity to HMMA, not to mention the secondary businesses like stores and restaurants located around the area. One thing is certain, Hyundai knows how to build quality cars quickly.