TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Modern auto plants are clean, high-tech marvels even though some people, remembering the old days, mistakenly think they’re dank, dirty and dangerous.

That lingering perception needs to change in order to recruit top new talent to auto manufacturing, Jay Baron, president and CEO of the Center for Automotive Research, says here at the kickoff of its annual Management Briefing Seminars.

People who have not visited an auto plant lately don’t know what they’re missing, he says.

They are unaware of the transformation that has taken place over the years with  such facilities evolving into striking contrasts to what they once were.

Old auto factories were noisy places that subjected workers to hard labor and undesirable working conditions in a gritty and often dangerous environment.

Diego Rivera starkly characterized the darkness of it all in his famous murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But go into an auto manufacturing plant today and the scene is something much different, Baron says.

It’s no longer dehumanizing like the old factories, but for that matter there are a lot fewer humans than before.

“You will see hundreds of robots handing off parts to each other, welding parts and communicating with each other,” Baron says. “The technology is really phenomenal. It’s not the image a lot of people have.”

To attract young talent to the manufacturing sector, “we need to change the old image,” Baron says, adding, “The old traditional transfer line is becoming obsolete.”

Because robots have assumed much of the work, plants employ fewer people than the legions of laborers that once were required to assemble autos.

“Obviously the fewer people who work at plants today need to be skilled and have skill sets in different disciplines,” Baron says in calling for the need to draw young engineering talent to manufacturing.

The lingering image of grimy auto plants miffs some people here, such as Jason Prater, vice president-development for Plex Systems, which provides manufacturing software.

“The perception of some people is that manufacturing is in the dark ages and plants are filled with people banging on things with hammers,” he says. “Frankly, that perception infuriates me.”

David Dauch, CEO of American Axle & Mfg., says modern manufacturing is “high-tech, lean, efficient and full of innovation.”

In its auto plants, Honda has sought to eliminate the “three Ds,” says Honda North America Senior Vice President Jon Minton: “dirty, dangerous and difficult.”

Baron cites two examples of auto plants of today.

One is the renovated Chrysler facility in Sterling Heights, MI. It makes the all-new Chrysler 200 sedan. “It’s an amazing place.”

He also commends Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, TN, as a paragon of “green efficiency.” VW is using the plant design as a global template for building new manufacturing facilities.

Other automakers are going green with their manufacturing facilities and even their surroundings. Among environmentally sensitive features at a General Motors factory in Hamtramck, MI, is a 16.5-acre (6.6-ha) wildlife habitat, says Cathy Clegg, GM North America’s manufacturing vice president.

Plant work is fun in a way, Baron says. “Factories are the playgrounds of engineers and technicians.” 

sfinlay@wardsauto.com