Are they shiny, spaceship-like monstrosities plaguing the highways and back roads of the nation, or hand-made, hi-tech works of iconic American art? After visiting the Airstream factory in Jackson Center, Ohio, I say: Art!
And Gary Byrd agrees. He’s been working at Airstream four-plus decades and currently guides folks through the factory every day, explaining the entire manufacturing process. And what a process it is.
In a giant factory, you’d expect to see stamping machines and moving assembly lines and forklifts zipping around. At Airstream, not so.
“You’re not going to see any fancy robots in here,” Byrd explains just after we get inside the doors of the sprawling facility. “What you’ll see are a lot of people making furniture and putting things together with these.” He holds up his hands and wriggles ten fingers, smiling. And while he’s been with Airstream for decades, Snyder wasn’t around when the first ones were built — but he does give tour-takers a glimpse of some of the earliest models.
Everywhere, stacked on pallets, shelves and carts, there are Airstream components. From giant rolls of shiny aluminum and flooring materials, to stacks of thick plywood and counter-top materials, everywhere you look is filled with parts and pieces including plenty of wood. There is carpet, glass, refrigerators, steroes, kitchen sinks and more.
“All our furniture is made right here,” Byrd assures. Ditto windows, doors and just about everything else. Chassis are manufactured just down the road.
The plant creates about 18 trailers each week, with each one receiving TLC from hundreds of Airstream employees. The trailers range in length from 16 to 30 feet. And believe it or not, all are moved through the plant by hand on rolling dollies.
Sheryl and John Stankowski from Alexandria, Virginia, toured the plant recently, and both were impressed as they soaked up information. “We drove hours to get here today,” she said.
“You can see they have pretty good materials processes,” said John, who has a technical background. He noted that as he glanced at paperwork at some of the stations, they appeared to be behind schedule.
Someone else noted right away, “That’s because they take their time – quality.”
My friend Joe Johnson, visiting from Las Vegas, was less reserved. And describing the plant later, was able to cite step by step the entire process, from the first cutting of aluminum sheets to the high-pressure water testing to the NASA-developed insulation used in each trailer.
“It was just incredible,” he said, almost giddy.
And Joe’s fervor is easily explained: He’s retired and he wants one. “I’d like to tour all the national parks. I’ve got it all planned out.”
Now he just has to convince his better half, Jane.
“She likes hotels,” he explains, grimacing yet hopeful. “They really are amazing though, don’t you think?”
“Yes Joe,” I say. “Amazing and shiny.”