The first thing you notice when you start the tour at the Subaru plant in Lafayette, Ind., is the noise. Even with earplugs snugly stuffed into your skull the deafening sound of the factory permeates your eardrums with its constant roar, and it does not cease until you exit into the lobby. Everywhere you turn there is danger, as autonomously operated robots zip by beneath four-story stamping machines that spit-out entire Outback halves, all while forklifts and trolly cars careen around corners at a breakneck pace as Subaru tries desperately to keep up with demand.
While Subaru of Indiana Automotive, Inc. (SIA) has been up in operation since the latter part of 1989, things didn’t really crank up to 11 until around 2009, when the Outback won Motor Trend’s coveted SUV of the Year Award. From there things steamrolled as demand went through the roof and the Legacy side of the plant’s operations also started cleaning up awards and accolades, as Americans began to rediscover their love for the station wagon. Sure, the Outback has been categorized as a full-blown SUV, even when everyone knows that it’s a station wagon on steroids, but that’s another diatribe for another day. For now, take a look at what makes a Subaru, a Subaru.
Deep within the heart of the plant you are confronted at every turn by a busy work station or assembly section, and while each one is fast-paced and fascinating, your eye gets drawn upward because it’s impossible to ignore all of the cars rolling around overhead. While factory workers strive to turn over as many products as they can down bottom, a continuous stream of cars roll above them on massive metal catwalks. Since there’s no room for them down below, Subaru has devised a system that stacks the unassembled cars above the factory lines in order to save space. It’s a 10.7 mile-long series of conveyor belts, ramps, and lifts, complete with industrial-sized pincer clamps at various stages, that autonomously swoop down to grab cars, like massive, quarter-robbing arcade games with partially complete cars as the prize.
All of this is designed to keep production flowing smoothly, and to relieve as much strain on plant workers as possible. Subaru has taken this discipline so seriously that assembly lines adjust the workers’ height at various stages to relieve any unnecessary physical exertion on employees, and every two hours there is a shift change, so they aren’t stuck doing the same repetitive task all day. Perhaps not surprisingly, this also happens to be one of the safest and highest awarded plants in America.
As I snaked through the labyrinth of assembly lines with my trusty tour guide Randall, I began to take pictures of the most intriguing areas of this monolithic operation. It’s pretty amazing to think that in one end of the plant giant coils of precious metals roll in, and on the other side fresh cars come out, with countless stages and hands joining the two together. Everything from the 4.5-ton Komatsu transfer press, which in 1989 was the largest item to ever be shipped down the Ohio River, to the robotic arms that deliver doors and seats to assembly-line workers are timed and orchestrated without issue.
But perhaps the craziest thing about this whole operation is that it only makes two Subarus: the Legacy and the Outback. Sure, starting next year it will begin cranking out the Impreza where Toyota Camrys are currently being built, but until then this is 100% a two-Subaru show. This leads us to one of Subarus largest dilemmas: While the car company has seen serious growth over the years, it’s having issues keeping up with demand. A good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. So in order to help combat this issue, the Indiana plant is in the process of growing from a 3.4-million square-foot space, to a 3.9-million square-foot facility. The only question then is: Will this be enough to satiate America’s thirst for these clever little cars?
When we did an article on Subaru’s unequaled dedication to the environment, we made mention of how their approach to environmental stewardship is one of the key reasons why the brand has seen such unprecedented success over the years. People dig the idea of buying a car that has been built in a zero-landfill plant, nestled in the center of an 832-acre Backyard Wildlife Habitat. It’s this uncompromising interest in being as green as possible that tickles your curiosity, as you meander between massive stacks of metal die-casts and metal stampings. Everywhere you look there is industrial waste and well-greased machinery, but somehow it all gets turned into something useful and never taints the earth despite 310,000 rolling units getting churned-out annually.
As Randall pointed out areas of interest like the five-lug simultaneous wheel attachment process the dyno-testing station, it became apparent that Subaru’s unique flat-four and boxer six-cylinder powerplants, Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, and quirky design cues have indeed carved-out the Japanese automaker quite the niche market here in America. To get a better grasp of what all this means for this particular Subaru plant, we wrapped up our tour and headed upstairs to meet with one of the bigwigs, who supposedly had been here since day one and could answer any questions we might have in regards to the brand.
Tom Easterday is like a walking assembly plant encyclopedia for Subaru, for he has has seen it all since day one, starting-off as one of their lawyers back in 1989. Over the years, as business grew, so did Tom’s interest in covering more than just the legalities. As I settled down into a comfy conference couch, he handed me a card that shows his current titles as “Executive Vice President” and “Secretary and Chief Legal Officer” for SIA.
This is quite a change from the humble title he started with all those years ago, and as I looked around at all of the awards and honorary display pieces shipped over from Japan, it was apparent that not just the man in front of me has morphed into a greater entity.
I asked him what retired Subarus he would like to see resurrected, to which he responded that the space-age SVX would be cool to see come back, as well as the XT, which made our list for having one of the best bad car commercials of all time. We also talk for a while about all of the 1800s, period-correct prairie the company has developed around the plant, and how it is both green in that is good for the environment, and in that it saves Subaru serious green every year because it doesn’t need landscaping or care of any kind.
That aside, Easterday had some interesting insights, and explained how the EPA is currently limiting the plant’s production numbers until the new paint booth is finished, and how once it is complete they will then be able to turn out 450,000 rolling units a year instead of 310,000. He also tells me how one of Subaru’s biggest weaknesses is a lack of brand awareness, even though it has grown exponentially over the years.
As we begin to wrap up, Easterday offered up a bit of advice to potential Subaru owners, saying, “If you’re considering one online, be sure to drive it first, and then retest it in different weather to get a feel for our Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.” He went on to talk about how Subaru’s new Eyesight Driver Assist Technology bailed him out one evening, and how Subaru’s interest in cutting-edge safety systems is one key factor buyers should not overlook. Contrary to common belief, these systems are not made equal. As I was packing up my notepad and pen, Easterday offered an extended handshake and a smile. “I’ve also got a message for all the current Subaru owners out there too. Don’t hog the wheel guys. Let your friends drive for a while!”