Assembly Lines, Shipping, and the Open Seas

Submitted by Hannah Grace Daggerhart
on 03/09/18

Most people do not know that here in South Carolina, we manufacture some of the world’s finest luxury cars.  BMW Manufacturing in Greer, SC produces the X3 and X5 Sports Activity Vehicle and the X4 and X6 Sports Activity Coupe.  Four million BMW’s have been manufactured in the Palmetto State since 1994.

While a fair share of these vehicles stays in the United States even South Carolina, the remainder head overseas to Asian and European markets. But before heading out on the open sea, an intricate ballet takes place that allows no room for error.

Gleaming BMWs fresh off the assembly line are loaded and stacked two high into colorful, graffiti-covered Norfolk Southern rail cars that rumble all night, every night, on their trek to the Port of Charleston, 200 miles away.  This literally takes the vehicles from one end of the state to the other, from the Upstate to the Lowcountry. Workers of the SC State Ports Authority unload 700 to 1,000 vehicles daily from the rail cars.  Workers must move the cargo quickly and carefully so the empty train can head back to the Upstate to begin the process again.

A team of about 16 drivers will drive the vehicles off the rail cars to mini-parking lots reserved for the global final destination of each vehicle. Each car on the terminal is time-stamped, scanned and inventoried before being parked into its numbered space. No vehicle is missed or lost.  Ever. Here they wait briefly until their containership arrives for export.

The empty Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics Torino, weighing in at 22,160 metric tons, arrives at Charleston Harbor, ready for its fill of luxury cars and SUVs.  Teams of longshoremen and dock workers now begin the most physically demanding part of the shipping safety dance.  The 75 longshoremen, an expert in driving both manual transmission and right-hand vehicles, move the vehicles from their mini parking lot and start the dizzying process of driving the vehicles up in the ship in tight circles until they reach their designated space within the belly of the ship.  Dock workers along the onboard route direct the drivers using flashing colored light wands.  Safety is of utmost importance as many workers and many cars fill the confined space of the container ship.  Because the work is so repetitive, it can be easy to lose focus on the task.  Drivers must be constantly aware of their surroundings.  Lost seconds add up to lost minutes.

Once inside, the casual observer (if one were allowed) would forget that they are inside a container ship.  The cavernous, gleaming, brightly-lit, extremely low-ceilinged facility is essentially a parking lot holding tens of millions of dollars’ worth of driver’s dream “wheels.”  Many people work a lifetime to be able to enjoy ownership of one of these fine vehicles.  They are indeed precious cargo to some driving enthusiasts, as approximately 80% of all BMWs manufactured in South Carolina are custom-designed for the buyer.

Once the vehicle is in its designated spot, the driver straps it down securely to ensure that it is immobile for the long journey on the high seas.  The driver then jumps in the waiting shuttle that takes him/her back down to the dock to start the process again.  And again.  And again. And again. Each driver will repeat this entire process an average of five times per hour.

Watching the workers move the vehicles from the dock to their designated places on board is much like watching men and women work the deck of an aircraft carrier.  No one is just standing around.  Everyone has a role. The work is fast, dangerous and precise.  There is no time or place for backing up a vehicle and trying again to get it straight into place.

Once loaded with its cargo of 5,500 vehicles, the Torino will begin its 12-day journey to Bremerhaven, Germany.

The Port of Charleston is now preparing to make room for the new Volvo S60 sedans that will roll off the assembly line closer to home in Berkeley County, SC, later this year.  The Volvo Manufacturing plant is yet another feather in the cap of South Carolina automotive production workers.

Before learning of the shipping process of these South Carolina-made beauties, I had never even thought of how new cars got from one place to another.  I only became interested in shipping containers when some missionary friends of our family moved all their belongings and their lives to New Zealand.  Loading their container while using an economy of space became an absolute puzzle.  Our friends had to sacrifice some of the belongings that they once thought were important to them.  However, their vehicle was not one of them.  I believe that they were secretly happy to leave it behind!

With Charleston, SC being one of the top vacation spots in the United States, it is certainly worth the time to cross the Ashley River and watch this port in action.  Just trying to imagine what could be in all the colorful “LegoTM-looking” containers being lifted onto the containerships is mesmerizing.

I have never shipped a vehicle or anything of value, as I am a young adult just beginning to think about my future.  Even when I begin college this fall, I won’t go far from home.  As a matter of fact, I will be only about 50 miles from the assembly line where our South Carolina-made BMWs begin.  I won’t have to ship my little hand-me-down Honda; I’ll simply drive it two hours from my home in the Midlands to my new “home” at Converse College in Spartanburg, SC.

However, I understand and now appreciate the need for quality shipping options that are affordable and reliable.  It is good to know that should I need to take my hand-me-down Honda with me someday, I now know who to call.

Thank you A-1 Auto Transport for offering this scholarship opportunity and for opening my eyes to this important service you offer.

Submitted by Hannah Grace Daggerhart
on 03/09/18

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