Ever wonder how the fortune gets into the fortune cookie? How toothpaste gets into the tube? Or how sheet metal is welded into a shiny new car or motorcycle? Having traveled thousands of miles and personally visited hundreds of factory tours since 1992, we invite you to explore some manufacturing mysteries of the world. Since most of the tours are free, and many give free samples, factory tours and company museums remain the best vacation value in America. Come along for the ride!
Your guide to factory tours,
Author and Factory Tour Consultant
Although manufacturing is our primary theme here at Watch It Made in the U.S.A., the naturally occurring resources that exist on and under American soil have always been one of the country's greatest strengths; without them, of course, much of our manufacturing would never have been possible. If you are interested by geological subjects in particular, and if your summer vacation will swing through the heartlands of the US, the two tours described below may be of interest.
Kansas Underground Salt Museum
Kansas is often considered to be the archetype of a place as far as possible from the ocean. About 275 million years ago, however, a large inland sea spread over this region. While that sea disappeared long ago over the course of geological time, its remnants persist in the form of thick, extensive salt beds deep below ground. In Hutchinson, you can explore one part of these ancient deposits at the Kansas Underground Salt Museum (recently restyled with the name "Strataca"). Here you ride 650 feet down to spacious, comfortable subterranean galleries excavated by salt-mining operations during the 20th century.
Deposited over many thousands of years as the ancient sea dried up, the layer of salt underneath Kansas varies in thickness between 100 and 500 feet and extends throughout most of the central and western parts of the state. After the salt beds were discovered in 1887, the first salt mines in Kansas were operating only a few years later. As in coal mines, workers descended in dangerous conditions to excavate minerals from deep chambers. The first salt mine in Hutchinson opened in 1923, and mining for road salt still occurs in the area.
The Kansas Underground Salt Museum is a truly remarkable experience. In the visitor center on the surface, you don the mandatory hard hat and then enter the mine's solidly built industrial elevator (or "hoist"). The descent of 650 feet takes a mere 90 seconds. You then emerge into a spacious, low-lit subterranean otherworld carved out of densely packed salt. The museum, fashioned in the disused mine itself, sprawls through an amazingly vast series of softly lighted salt-walled galleries with high ceilings. Indeed, the space feels more like a giant indoor sports facility than a manmade cave—no possibility of claustrophobia here. At a perpetual 68 degrees and 45% relative humidity, the environment could not be more comfortable. Explaining both the geological and the industrial histories of the Kansas salt deposits, the museum exhibits stretch extensively throughout the galleries, while a small train and a tram (called the "Dark Ride") convey visitors through other parts of the old salt mine.
Great Plains Synfuels Plant
Rising amid clouds of steam from the quiet prairie farmlands that cover western North Dakota, the Great Plains Synfuels Plant does something unusual. It makes natural gas. While natural gas (technically methane) is normally drilled from subterranean deposits, it is also possible to synthesize it from coal through a process called gasification. The Synfuels Plant is the only commercial-scale coal-gasification facility in the United States. Completed in 1984 and run by the Dakota Gasification Company, the plant now makes 145 million cubic feet of natural gas every day. Via pipeline, this resource is distributed throughout the eastern United States.
Although the plant's product is sent to distant places, its natural resources are local. Nearby deposits of lignite coal, the remains of peat swamps that existed 55–65 million years ago, are mined and delivered to the Synfuels Plant, which gasifies about 18,000 tons of coal per day. Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide generated in gasification is not spewed into the atmosphere, where it would add to greenhouse-gas pollution. Instead, it is piped north to oilfields in Saskatchewan, Canada, where a storage operation permanently sequesters the carbon dioxide underground. This environmentally friendly aspect of gasification at the Synfuels Plant is considered a model for the benign use of the abundant coal that the US has under its own soil. To many people, using this coal in a relatively clean way offers a sensible means to help the US become less dependent on foreign energy resources.
For obvious reasons, the work of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant is important to American national interests, and Homeland Security rules mean most of it is off limits to the public. Instead, the general tour at the visitors' center shows you an intricate scale model of the facility with interpretive displays and videos to illustrate how gasification works. The heart of the plant consists of its 14 giant gasifiers: cylindrical pressure vessels that tower 40 feet high and have an internal diameter of 13 feet. Gasification involves dismantling the molecular structure of coal through combustion: in the gasifiers, steam and oxygen are injected into the bottom of the coal to cause intense burning at 2,200 degrees. The hot gases dismantle the molecular bonds of coal and steam, releasing carbon, hydrogen, sulfur, nitrogen, and other substances to form a raw gas. This leaves the gasifiers and is cooled. Tar, oils, phenols, ammonia, and water co-products are condensed from the cooling gas, purified, and diverted. The gas enters a cleaning area, where it is scrubbed of other impurities, and then passes over a nickel catalyst that causes carbon monoxide and the remaining carbon dioxide to react with free hydrogen. This forms methane (i.e. what we call natural gas). The carbon dioxide is removed and sent on its way to Canada. After being cooled, dried, and compressed, the methane enters the gas pipeline—possibly on its way to you.
These tours may be featured in the next edition of Watch It Made in the U.S.A. Meanwhile, you can read about other tours in the current edition of the book.
One feature we offer in Watch It Made in the U.S.A. is a section of itinerary planners listing factory tours you can take during a trip through a particular region. One of our tastier ideas for a multiple-day trip: the Gastronomic Tours of Texas.
Day 1: Mrs. Baird's Bakery (bread), Fort Worth. Discover the bakery that introduced sliced bread to Texas. The company daily uses 100,000 to 200,000 pounds of flour to make up to 144,000 loaves of bread every day. As you move out of the ingredients area and closer to the ovens, the aroma of fresh-baked bread fills your senses. Tours are also available at the company's locations in Houston and Lubbock.
Day 2: Collin Street Bakery (fruitcake), Corsicana. From October to mid-December, what you can see here ranks among one of the most memorable sights described in this book. A sea of workers, standing in small stalls on both sides of at least three production lines, hand-decorate fruitcakes' tops with pecans and candied fruit. The cakes, at this point, are only dough in round baking pans. Each worker grabs a cake, decorates it with pecans, and then places it back on the line, where it heads for the ovens.
Day 3: Blue Bell Creameries (ice cream) in Brenham. Almost everything here happens inside a maze of stainless-steel pipes and variously shaped tanks. After the base-mix ingredients are blended, homogenized, and pasteurized, they are then cooled and piped into refrigerated holding tanks. The ice cream and "dry" ingredients (fruit, cookie chunks, cookie dough, etc.) meet in the white pipes before traveling into containers. All this whets your appetite for the samples you'll enjoy in the ice-cream parlor.
Day 4: Jardine Foods (Texas-style foods) in Buda, near Austin. A visit to Jardine's combines ranch relaxation, a warm homey feeling, and an opportunity to view the bottling and packaging of salsa, barbecue sauce, chili, seasonings, and more through windows in the limestone ranch-house "factory."
Safe travels and happy eating!
Whenever we, the authors of Watch It Made in the U.S.A., travel around the country on business or vacation, we try to find local factory tours. On a recent business trip to Oregon, I (co-author Bruce Brumberg) took the factory tour at Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukie. The company offers free guided tours of its mill Monday through Friday at 10 a.m.
As I eat their healthy whole-grain hot cereals and use their flour and soup mixes, I looked forward to this tour, wondering what the company is really like. All I knew about them was what I had read on their product packaging, with the friendly picture of their founder wearing a Kangol-style cap and red vest.
Having taken many tours, I compare my experience here to my first visit to the Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory many years ago in Vermont. I enjoyed their products too, with their similar folksy packaging. I had expected a small operation, with Ben or Jerry making and packaging the ice cream himself. Instead I toured a large, modern food factory.
It's the same at Bob's. While the founder still has an active role at the company, the mill itself is a large industrial facility spanning 325,000 square feet over 17 acres.
It makes more than 400 natural food products from whole grains. The operation is very modern, with the latest in milling and packaging equipment, including separate areas of the factory for the gluten-free and regular grain products.
You can get a close-up look at these machines through the glass windows on the tour (though the tour does not include the warehouse, shipping department, and testing lab). The busiest time for the factory, when you can see the most production, is late summer through the cold months.
The milling equipment is specially made: French hard quartz millstones (technically known as burr stones) are encased in Danish-made equipment to grind grains shipped from all over the Americas. Bob's has 14 mills of various sizes and speeds, and the tour tries to give you a peek at what goes on inside them. The grains fall in uniform amounts from vibrating trays into the space between the millstones, where they are ground. The milled grains are then vacuumed up to go through shifters, and are returned if additional grinding is needed. In the form-and-fill packaging line, you'll notice how the product drops from the hoppers above into bags formed from three-ply wood-fiber cellulose that are then sealed. Wherever you look through the windows on the tour, you'll notice large one-ton bags of various grains that are either waiting to be milled, already milled, mixed with other grains, or packaged.
The tour guide, Christie, is a true devotee of the company's work.
In fact, her health was saved by its gluten-free products. She enthusiastically explains the manufacturing process and the company's interesting history (it's now employee-owned), including the 1988 fire that destroyed a smaller factory but served to challenge Bob Moore to build his much bigger company. At the grain table, she relates all the details you may want to know about the various grains used in their products, whether flax meal or quinoa, including recipes. She also walked us through various displays highlighting the company's history and its older milling equipment. I found it interesting to learn that since ancient Roman times, no machinery has ground grains into flours as well as the flint-hard millstones still used today.
When the tour is over, you're offered samples of products, and you can visit a small gift shop. Either before or after the tour, you'll also want to go to the nearby Bob's Red Mill Whole Grain Store, Restaurant, and Bakery (800-553-2258), where I went for lunch with Christie.
On the gearhead factory trail that runs from Hyundai in Alabama all the way up to Harley-Davidson in Pennsylvania, Subaru of Indiana Automotive (SIA) in Lafayette, Indiana, is not too far out of the way—and it may be well worth the detour, as SIA is the only Subaru factory in the United States. At the plant, which opened in 1987, Subaru builds three models of car: the Outback, the Legacy, and the Tribeca, made here for North and South America. SIA handles both manufacture and assembly, turning sheets of raw steel into finished cars. But this is not the only attraction for visitors—SIA is full of surprises. The plant is located on grounds of 820 acres, which include a two-mile test track and extensive wooded areas that have been designated a "Backyard Wildlife Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation.
Departing from the building's public lobby, tours of SIA take place on a mile-long stretch of catwalk above the vast factory, which sprawls over an area of more than 3 million square feet. The immense scale of this plant and its operations is brought to life by a few statistics. The factory has nearly 11 miles of conveyors (seven miles in the paint department alone). The transfer press used to stamp out body parts from rolls of steel is three stories high—not including another two stories under the factory floor. Working in tandem, the employees and machines at SIA crank out 20,000 cars per month.
In the stamping section, newly shipped rolls of steel are uncoiled, flattened, washed, cut, and formed into the major body parts of each car. An overhead crane delivers coils of steel from the storage area to the blanking press, which flattens them into sheets and then slices them into "blanks" in roughly the shape of car parts. From here the blanks go to any of five massive transfer presses, where 500 tons of pressure shape the steel into finished parts.
Body assembly is where robots and associates assemble the parts into a vehicle. A typical car has 4,000 separate welds, nearly 99% of them made by the 266 robots operating here. Doors, hoods, trunks, and tailgates are also added at this point, as well as sealant on the doors for protection against leaks. Next comes the paint shop, which has three levels and 74 robots.
The area for trim and final assembly is where robots leave off and human beings really take over. Here more than 600 employees join painted car bodies with engine and drive components. They install wiring, lights, and interiors, combine bodies and frames, and assemble the drive and suspension components. Once parts have been installed and the cars are filled up with gasoline, oil, and brake fluid, each is sent to the tester line for quality control. The cars are then washed with a high-pressure water bath and then prepared for shipment anywhere in North or South America.
This tour will be featured in the next edition of Watch It Made in the U.S.A. Meanwhile, you can read about other tours in the current edition of the book.