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!
I also have a podcast where I explore local Massachusetts business and find out how their products are made!
Your guide to factory tours,
Author and Factory Tour Consultant
During a recent trip to visit the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I made an excursion to take the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn. While driving there from Ann Arbor on I-94, I knew I was near Detroit when I saw the famous Uniroyal Giant Tire (made for the 1964 New York World's Fair) at the side of the highway.
The Ford Rouge Factory Tour starts at the Henry Ford Museum, where you take the 12-minute bus ride to the Rouge plant. First, in the Legacy Theater, watch an 11-minute film chronicling the history of the Ford Motor Company, including rare archival footage. Learn that initially it took 12 hours to assemble a Model T car, known informally as Tin Lizzy. Famously, Henry Ford experimented with the movement of work to man rather than man to work—the advent of the assembly line. By 1915, it was taking only 53 minutes to put together a Model T.
The Station 2 Manufacturing Innovation Theater presents a loud, dramatic experience that seeks to replicate the feel of being on the Rouge factory floor. Bright lights flash. Stamping, booming sounds encompass you. The floor beneath you rumbles during the final testing. At the front of the theater, a model car rises from below the ground. Two robots, one on each side, demonstrate the steps of production.
Ride the elevator to the observation deck, 80 feet above the ground. In the distance, you can see the smokestacks of power stations that turn paint fumes into electricity. But not all is industrial. The Dearborn Truck Plant's final assembly building has a green, living roof. The sedum plants that grow there collect and filter the water runoff from storms or melting snow. The vegetation also provides habitats for nesting birds and keeps the factory and its surroundings cooler than they would be under a conventional roof made of synthetic materials. At 10.4 acres, Ford's green roof is one of the largest living roofs in the world.
I visited my daughter, Hilary, who is studying abroad this semester in Quito, Ecuador. We went to La Casa de Suizo, along the Napo River in the rainforest of eastern Ecuador. In addition to beautiful nature walks, delicious food, and a visit to an animal rescue center, we had the opportunity to visit an indigenous Quechua village. There we met friendly locals who taught us about their artisanal handcrafts.
Carving a falcon in wood takes a whole day. With a machete, Samuel rapidly swats at the soft, light balsam wood to create the general shape of a falcon. Once he has arrived at the rough shape, he switches to a carving knife. Seated, Samuel hunches over the balsam wood, which rests on the trunk pedestal. The wood is so soft and light that he almost effortlessly carves the beak, the claws, and the body of the falcon. After being baked to remove moisture from the wood, the carving is painted. Upstairs, you can purchase some of his art.
Ceramics is the work of mujeres — women, whose craft is taught when they are young girls. Wearing pink flip-flops and a floral tank top, Lourdes sits at a small wooden table and explains in Spanish her Quechua background and the importance of ceramics to the Quechua culture. Dipping her fingers in muddy water, she grabs a clump of gray clay (only small quantities of clay can be dug at one time from the nearby riverbanks).
She pats it back and forth between her hands to form a ball and then rolls it on the table to create a coil, tapping each end to flatten it. Then she rolls out another clay coil. Next she pokes a hole into the main ball and squeezes and presses the sides to form a very thin bowl. She wraps one coil along the top rim and squeezes and pinches it to adhere it to the bowl's rim. Then she attaches the second coil.
Once the bowl has dried, but before it has been fired, Lourdes dips a rock made of hardened colored clay in water and demonstrates the painting of red or black hues on the bowl. Using minuscule brushes made from black human hair, she paints intricate geometric patterns. After each cup air-dries for one day, to prevent cracking, it is placed on a handmade rack and baked over an open fire in the corner of the same room. You can purchase some of Lourdes' creations — $3 for a tiny bowl to $25 for larger, more intricately painted bowls. Exact change is much appreciated, as change is hard to obtain in Ecuador.
Recently, my daughter Hilary and I participated in the factory tour of Taza Chocolate, located in Somerville, Massachusetts. Taza is the only American company to make Mexican-style disk-shaped chocolate, which all of us on the tour were very excited to sample.
After assembling in the Cacao Corner, our tour group listened to our Tour Lead, Krysia, describe Taza's history. We learned that Taza started in 2007 with three employees and now has 60. When its founder Alex Whitmore started the company, he roasted his cacao beans with coffee-roasting machines at J.P. Licks, a local ice-cream company, during its off hours. In 2007, Alex acquired his own roasting and winnowing machine and moved Taza Chocolate into its existing location.
Standing against the Cacao Corner's yellow-painted brick wall, adorned with a schematic of the cacao-harvesting process, Krysia used photo boards to illustrate the harvest. She explained that Taza is more than just a fair-trade company: it uses direct trade which abides by all fair-trade practices, and it buys directly from farmers. In fact, Taza pays farmers 30% more than the market price for cacao in order to keep their loyalty and maintain good relations with them.
After donning hair and beard nets, we proceeded into the roasting and winnowing room.
The winnower shatters the cacao beans and blows off the shell, leaving cacao nibs. We sampled these — very bitter. Taza lightly roasts the beans at 233°F to foster the fruity complexity of the flavors. Last year, Taza processed 100 tons of beans with the two machines located in this room. Krysia extolled the benefits of cacao, which contains antioxidants, raises serotonin (a neurotransmitter that can act as an anti-depressant), lowers bad cholesterol, and has good fats.
Next we walked to the shipping and receiving room. Depending on their level of expertise, between one and three people operate each wrapping machine. One person feeds naked chocolate into the machine while another one or two ensure that the wrapper is correctly glued and that expiration date is not crooked. Each wrapping machine handles 50 bars per minute—43,000 bars per week.
Back in the Cacao Corner, we removed our hair nets and looked through glass windows into the production room, also known as the "hot room" because of its 85°F temperature.
While we did not see much production in the hot room, a production video illustrated the process. The beans are ground until they have a texture resembling that of peanut butter. The chocolate liquor drips off the grinding stone. Krysia pointed out the overhead stainless steel pipes, referred to as "chocolate plumbing." Organic cane sugar is mixed in with paddles, and then the chocolate crisscrosses through the plumbing into the white holding tank. Flavors such as ginger and pepper are added. A unique feature of Taza's chocolate-making process is that many of their mix-ins, such as almonds, peanuts, and vanilla beans, are ground with the chocolate, exposing their additional flavors throughout the chocolate bars.
We also learned that chocolate is antiseptic. When Taza finishes making a flavor, it cleans the machines and plumbing by flushing them with plain chocolate. The chocolate scrub of the recently completed flavor is then bagged and reprocessed into chocolate bars when the company makes that flavor again.
After we had tasted a few chocolate samples, we peered through the windows at the back of the retail store. In the round vintage copper candy pans that we saw, chocolate tumbles to create a sheen on the outside.
Our tour lasted one hour, summarizing the bean-to-bar process, which takes three days. The store, which offers many samples, sells a wide variety of chocolate flavors.
Taza's blog has some great snapshots from the 2016 cacao sourcing season in Guatemala.
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.