DS23 Research trip, Part 1: Factories in Detroit

The studio research trip was very useful and enjoyable! After landing in Chicago and spending a night in the worst hostel I’ve ever stayed in, we went on to Detroit.

Detroit has a bad reputation, as far as American cities go, being the second most dangerous city in the US (ref). It rose and fell along with the automotive industry, on which it relied and still relies quite heavily. Along with the great success of the Rouge Ford factory, Detroit flourished and grew in size to a peak population of 1.85 mil people. However, its dependency has made it vulnerable and today it very much feels like an empty city, with too much space for too little people, with empty warehouses and tower blocks. I know that people tend to drive everywhere and walking is unusual, but even cars were sparse in the city. It generally felt dilapidated and  unsafe, in my opinion.  HOWEVER, the people we did meet were incredibly friendly and welcoming, from the tour guides to the r&b fans in Motown. This stuck with me and I do hope that their efforts will be rewarded, as their passion to rebuild the city is something I rarely come across.

We went to see some factories whilst in Detroit, which was useful observation for our projects. The Ford factory took us on a curated experience, complete with a light-show and rising thumping music, as well as a one sided subjective view on much of the things GM was or is involved in at the moment. I found it suspicious how the tour guide was trying to convince us of the sustainable agenda of the factory, which proudly showcased a sedum roof as a trophy (but only as far as you could take photos – beyond that there was no need for the roof anymore) and a few solar panels that I doubt were enough to even power the light-show we saw earlier on the tour. This was followed by a very interesting insight into how the assembly line works – the mechanisms and precision were mesmerizing. From a high level platform, visitors could observe the workers and robots assemble the various parts needed for the cars in production. However, after talking to the tour guide, it was apparent that the tour was meant to show the most human intensive processes on site, with the rest of the 4 + 1/2 plants being mainly automated and having little human supervision.  It was still quite nice to see it though !

Tom Kendrew kindly shared his photos from the Ford factory with me (do check out his amazing work as well):

After Ford, we went small scale and visited the Shinola factory. It was an odd tour, mainly due to the somehow both over-enthusiastic yet deeply sarcastic tour guide (he was head of production or something along those lines). We were told about the existence of closely graded Shinola secrets, which we would not be party to no matter our accent (ha?) and the long company history, which sounded more like a rehearsed marketing speech (which undoubtedly it was). Can you tell shit from Shinola? Well you should, because this is the running gag that justifies the current watch company having bought a failing famous shoe polish company (the initial Shinola) that was well-known for their shade of brow emulsion. They kept the brand association to help marketing.

The original brown Shinola shoe polish

They pride themselves on trying to offer continuous employment and hand-crafted products. They make bikes, watches, leather straps, bags, purses, journal covers, etc. Everything seemed to be done by workers using tools, no robot in sight. Quite characterful characters as well – they did try and make the tour engaging. I wonder if the motivation behind not having robots is a genuine concern for offering employment or at the moment it’s just not economically viable for them to invest in automation? Time will tell.

Photos from their website this time:

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