A Tail of Two Tours

One of the perks of the job is networking with other industry professionals. Occasionally this means opportunities come my way that are too good to pass up. Luckily I’m not a selfish person and I would like to share some of those opportunities with you. In this case, while in Ohio, I had the opportunity to tour not one but two really cool factories.

The first factory tour took place on the Monday after the Toledo Jeep Festival. If you know anything about Toledo you know it’s home to the Jeep Assembly Complex that currently makes the iconic Jeep Wrangler and Gladiator. Sorry to all you non-Jeep fans, but be prepared for a lot of cool Jeep production line photos. The second factory tour happened a week later after the Muddy Buddys Jeep Jam show. The event occurred not far from the Bilstein Shocks factory. We were lucky enough to get an invite. So, read on for a look inside these two very cool factories…

A pilgrimage to the holy land

The first fun tour of the trip was the FCA Toledo North Assembly Complex.
This facility has been the birth of many Jeeps throughout the years
most notably of which is the Wrangler.
Luckily FCA has not (completely) forgotten their roots and pays homage to the military heritage of the modern Jeep Wrangler with a nice throwback display to the Willy Overland MB.
The first thing that becomes evident on the tour is there is a LOT of automation throughout the factory. Here a team of robotic welders attach body panels to the skeletal frame of the Wrangler. There were two “settings” one for four-door bodies and one for two-door bodies. It was interesting watching them switch back and forth since the assembly line is mixed.
This pair of robots had the job of attaching door hinges to the Wrangler bodies.
The one in the background was responsible for positioning the hinge and torquing the bolts.
The one in the foreground was responsible for placing the front doors.
The next robot up the line would add the rear doors to four-door Wranglers.
One of the reasons this facility is referred to as an “assembly” building rather than a factory is that very few parts are made on site. Many components such as this dash arrive as a sub-assembly and the workers here use a variety of lift arms like this one pictures to insert the sub-assembly into the vehicle’s cabin. In this case this Gladiator is getting a full dash unit complete with steering wheel, HVAC, radio, and airbags.
Here the Gladiator begins receiving trim pieces. Parts arrive “just in time” and “just in sequence” meaning assemblers do not have to waste time finding and picking correct parts. All the correct parts for the vehicle arrive in a timely manner having been pre-picked elsewhere.
Here the trimmed cab and bed of the Gladiator mate to it’s frame which has already been assembled with a power-train, drive-train, wiring, and fueling system.
The next station up the line torques the body mounts.
Another Jeep is born. Sláinte!
Here you can see the lineup of frames and bodies awaiting their union.
After body and frame become one, it’s on to final trim.
Here the front and rear seats are installed and bolted down.
Again, the “just in time” and “just in sequence” system takes the guess work out of making sure the correct seats end up in the correct Jeep.
Thought this was a cool shot showing the staging lanes for Wranglers.
You can get an idea of the magnitude of the production when looking down these rows and seeing all the colors line up and waiting.
As with most factory tours, there were a few things I got to see that I not only could not take pictures of, nor am I allowed to talk about.
All I can say is there are some cool things in the works at Jeep!
The icing on the cake was getting a chance to pose for a photo-op in front of the Jeep sign.
Most people who snap a picture of their rig near this sign are forced to do so from the bottom of the hill outside the fence. They’re also usually chased away by plant security.
Sometimes it’s good to be us and Dan and I were lucky enough to get this once-in-a-lifetime photo.

From one event to the next!

After our tour of the Toledo North Assembly Building Dan and I headed south for another Jeep show in Ohio. After a few days at a State Park (longer than planned due to me rolling my ankle) we made our way to the fairgrounds for the Muddy Buddy’s Jeep Club annual Jeep Jam event.

The event was typical of Jeep shows, which plenty of vendors, display vehicles, food, and what-not. I’ll spare you those details. However what I do want to share is an interaction that led to another factory tour.

Shortly after we started setting up our booth a large Bilstein box truck rolled in which I instantly recognized as one of their mobile tuning rigs. I went over and lamented the fact that I didn’t have the LJ and I knew the new 5160 remote reservoir shocks I installed would most likely benefit greatly from a custom tune. I also mentioned that Dan’s Jeep that had been around Africa was rocking a set of well-worn AEV tuned 5100’s. A few small conversations later we had an invite to tour their nearby factory.

The first view of the Bilstein Shock factory shows both the level of complexity of the facility as well as how many different shocks are being made at any given time.
(Blur spots in photos are intentional to hide sensitive proprietary data).
Step one in the process is cutting raw tube to length.
Once it is cut to length the end is induction-welded closed.
Retaining rings for strut assemblies are also cut and snap rings installed.
Here is another shot showing all the various bins of different shocks and struts being assymbled. While known for their aftermarket products, Bilstein is also an OEM shock manufacturer for a great number of automobile companies throughout the world.
Every valve body that goes into a shock is tested before installation.
Here you can see some of the various components that go into making the valve sub-assembly.
Here the automated picker assembles all the shims, valves, scrapers, and other components that make up the valve sub-assembly.
This thing was QUICK hence the (unintentional) blur.
Shocks have come a long way. They are no longer just a tube of gas and oil.
These shocks are destined for Tesla model vehicles and feature advanced active ride control both on the rebound and compression side.
Once assembly and testing is complete, it’s on to paint.
Aside from OEM black, the only other color besides bare metal, is Bilstein’s iconic yellow.
Components, sub-assemblies, or even finished shocks failing to met specification are disassembled and analyzed quickly to see what the problem is.
Here are finished shocks awaiting final inspection and packaging.
As you can see, they make a TON of shocks. This is just one of multiple staging areas throughout the facilty.
And then we got to go into their R&D lab.
So no photos and I can’t tell you what I saw.
I will say though some cool things are in the works.
Although not part of the tour, we did get to go for a ride in one of the R&D test-mule vehicles. This one was equipped with a prototype active ride system that blew – my – mind.
It’s the kind of system I would love to have my Jeep given the variety of terrain it sees.
Who knows, maybe I’ll help them develop an active-ride-control system for the overland market.

Conclusion

It’s not everyday you get to tour an iconic factory, nor is any likelier to get to tour two of them in just as many weeks. I will say getting to see both the Toledo North Assembly Complex and the Bilstein Shock factory made my inner schoolboy giddy. I grew up fascinated by shows like “How It’s Made,” and I watched entirely too much MacGyver. Needless to say, being a gear head and a Jeep fanatic means I still have not stopped smiling. I hope you enjoyed this peek behind the curtain and my take on two very cool production facilities located right here on US soil.

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