When the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio, went dark last year, it was a familiar story for the region. Yet another manufacturing powerhouse — a pillar of the local economy and a rare source of good jobs — was shutting down.
But the closure of the plant was not the end of the story. The factory was sold to Lordstown Motors, a startup building an electric pickup truck that's scheduled to be unveiled on Thursday.
And now Lordstown is a symbol of the industrywide shift toward electric vehicles — and northeast Ohio's hopes for a battery-powered economic revival.
Steve Burns, the CEO of Lordstown Motors, says the company has ambitious plans to eventually hire thousands of people back to the plant. But one of the selling points of electric vehicles — their simplicity — also means they require fewer human hands to assemble them.
'Just another blow'
In its heyday, the General Motors plant in Lordstown bustled with more than 10,000 workers. The vast parking lots were full.
Youngstown native Frances Turnage worked at the plant for more than three decades starting in 1972, doing everything from assembly to welding. She says the work was difficult, but the pay and benefits for a unionized auto worker far surpassed the other jobs in the region.
Over the decades, she saw the plant transform.
"I looked around one day and I saw a lot of the jobs were empty and were replaced with robots," she says. "It got lonely. I actually would go in and make fun ... talking to the robots, you know, because that was all I had to talk to sometimes."
She retired well before GM shuttered the plant, but still wept at the decision. "That was just another blow," she said, to a region that had already lost so many jobs.
She's followed the news about Lordstown's plans for the facility. Like many in the community, she's wishing for the best.
"Oh, I hope it works," she says. "I pray it does work."
Rebooting and reprogramming
Inside the plant, teams have been working for months to convert assembly lines designed for the Chevy Cruze — a sedan with a gasoline-powered engine — so they can build a pickup truck powered by batteries instead.
Pickup trucks are popular and profitable, and multiple automakers are racing to bring electric versions to market within the next year or so. Tesla, which drove the industrywide shift toward electrification, has the Cybertruck. Ford is electrifying the F-150, and GM's new Hummer is an electric pickup. Then there are the startups: Nikola, Rivian and Bollinger, as well as Lordstown Motors.
George Syrianoudis, who worked in the GM plant for more than 30 years, retired when GM shut it down but leapt at the chance to come back and work on the retooling. Earlier this spring, he was powering robots back up to confirm that they still work.
"If something doesn't work, the nice thing is, we have a lot of extra robots that we're not going to need," he says.
Large portions of the vast manufacturing facility are walled off, dark and cold to save on power. The occasional worker passes through on a bicycle — the plant is 6 million square feet, or more than 100 football fields.
Much of the machinery for the Cruze can be resized or reprogrammed to work for the Endurance pickup. But not everything can make the switch. The battery pack line will have to be built from scratch, and the old engine line is completely irrelevant.
Instead of an internal combustion engine, the Endurance pickup truck is designed with four electric hub motors — that is, a motor incorporated into each of the four wheels.
Fewer moving parts
All electric vehicles are simple compared to gas- or diesel-powered cars. But the Endurance is simple even for an electric vehicle, CEO Burns says.
"This vehicle has four moving parts," says Burns, compared to hundreds or thousands for a typical vehicle. "You can't ever get simpler than the only moving parts are the wheels."
That means lower labor costs — which is to say, fewer jobs.
This is part of a much broader trend within the industry, says Kristin Dziczek, the vice president of labor, economics and manufacturing at the Center for Automotive Research. Think of Frances Turnage, talking to her robotic neighbors.
"Reducing complexity, improving the productivity of vehicle manufacturing, introducing more automation into the process — there are going to be fewer people building vehicles in the future no matter what they're building," she says.
But even a smaller number of jobs would be better than a totally empty factory.
"General Motors pulling out was terrible. Lost half my business," says Earl Ross Jr., whose family owns and operates a pub right across the street from the plant.
After the "rebirth" at Lordstown Motors, he's hoping for "brighter days ahead."
It's challenging to launch a new auto company at the best of times, and now Lordstown Motors is grappling with a recession. Still, the local community is hoping that, in the end, this will be a battery-powered success story.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A story now closer to home. When General Motors shut down the Chevy Cruze plant in Lordstown, Ohio, the local community was devastated. But now that plant has a second life. It's home to an electric vehicle startup called Lordstown Motors. On Thursday, the company is publicly unveiling its first vehicle, the Endurance pickup truck. NPR's Camila Domonoske has this report on the past and future of one of America's most famous auto plants.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Frances Turnage started working at the GM plant in Lordstown in 1972, doing everything from assembly to welding.
FRANCES TURNAGE: I used to have to lay down in the cars with my feet dangling underneath, hooking up some wires.
DOMONOSKE: The work was hard, but the pay was good. Turnage witnessed the plant's heyday, when it was bustling with more than 10,000 workers. And over the decades, she saw a transformation.
TURNAGE: I looked around one day, and I saw a lot of the jobs were empty and were replaced with robots. It got lonely. And I actually would go in there and make fun and say, hey, how you doing, bro? Talking to the robots, you know, because that's all I had to talk to sometimes.
DOMONOSKE: She retired. But the plant, with fewer workers, was still a pillar of the local economy. Then GM announced it was killing the Chevy Cruze and shutting the Lordstown plant down. Workers were laid off or reassigned. Even those robots went idle. And Frances Turnage, she wept for everyone who had to move away and everyone who was left behind.
TURNAGE: Seemed like it was just another blow.
DOMONOSKE: So far, this is a familiar story in this part of Ohio. But it's not the end of the story. Those robots are powering back up as the plant prepares to make electric pickups for Lordstown Motors. Earlier this spring, Dan Tasiemski was coaxing a machine back to life.
DAN TASIEMSKI: It's a little finicky. It's sat, you know, for about a year and it's a little tired, you know? You get up in the morning, your joints aren't working too good.
DOMONOSKE: A lot of the tools designed to build the Chevy Cruze can be repurposed for the electric pickup. George Syrianoudis worked at the GM plant for 33 years. After it shut down, he was retired and running a coffee shop.
GEORGE SYRIANOUDIS: I was just sitting around and putting on a lot extra pounds.
DOMONOSKE: So now, he's back in the plant, testing out those old robots before reprogramming them.
SYRIANOUDIS: If something doesn't work, the nice thing is we have a lot of extra robots that we're not going to need.
DOMONOSKE: A huge chunk of the factory is dark, cold and empty, except for the occasional worker passing through on a bicycle. The full plant is bigger than a hundred football fields. And here's one really significant difference between Lordstown past and future - electric motors are much, much simpler to build than traditional engines. The Lordstown Motors truck uses four electric motors, one in each wheel. Here's CEO Steve Burns.
STEVE BURNS: It's almost as simple as, you know, putting on and tightening up the five lugs.
DOMONOSKE: That means easier maintenance and fewer workers. This sounds familiar to the auto industry, new technology meaning fewer people are required to make a vehicle. Still, Burns says he wants to hire former GM workers. And he hopes to expand production until he can fill this plant once again. For now, locals say they're optimistic. And even a small number of jobs will be better than an empty factory.
EARL ROSS JR: General Motors pulling out was terrible, lost half my business.
DOMONOSKE: Earl Ross Jr. runs an eatery and pub right across the street from the plant. He says Lordstown Motors coming in was like a rebirth.
ROSS: Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I'm seeing new faces, so brighter days ahead.
DOMONOSKE: Starting a new auto company is a tall order. And now, the company is launching during a recession. But the community around Lordstown is hoping that this will be a battery-powered success story in the end.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF L.DRE'S "THE OFFICE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.