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Don't Stop Believin': Uncle Jim's Low-Tech Detroit

Just a city boy, born and raised in Northwest Detroit.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Parts of Detroit may be looking and acting more like Silicon Valley these days, but not the Gannes family steel plant.

The plant has looked the same since my grandfather bought it in 1959. It’s in a beaten-down Detroit neighborhood near the intersection of Schoolcraft and Grand River.

Same old carpet, same old furniture, same old equipment. There’s even an ancient working vending machine that will sell you a Coke for 10 cents.

The business has expanded and contracted and been fought over in family feuds, but it still does the same thing: Buys and sells and cuts steel for use in cars and everything else. Uncle Jim — my dad’s brother — has been running the plant since I was four years old. This fall, he reincorporated with a new partner. The motto on their new business cards says, “Cut in Detroit.”

The two bullet holes in the front window of the office are new. When I visit the plant this fall to report this Re/code special series on the tech-startup-sparked revitalization of Detroit, Jim tells me they happened overnight a few weeks ago. He couldn’t convince the police to come out and investigate, even after calling twice and going into the station to try to file a report in person. So he patched the holes with clear New-Skin bandages and moved on. You can see the entry holes where the bullets are presumably lodged in the ceiling.

Across the street from the plant are houses, some of them burned and unoccupied. A fenced-off field. A huge junk-car lot.

Jim Gannes at the steel plant
Jim Gannes at the steel plant
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Just a city boy, born and raised in South Northwest Detroit

My childhood was not a rooted one. We moved across the country multiple times, and never to be near family. We finally settled in Palo Alto, Calif., where my dad started a software company. Growing up in Silicon Valley in the ’90s, it wasn’t like I took apart and built computers as a kid, but it seemed like my dad was always clued into the next new thing in technology and would get us kids to try it, from Encarta to Google.

My uncle Jim is different. He’s rooted. He has lived in Detroit proper or the Detroit suburbs all his life. Jim lives in the house my great-grandfather built for his parents when Jim was in high school. He’s a shorter and rounder version of my dad, with the same wavy brown hair and the same way of emphasizing a point with a nod. Jim plays poker with the same circle of friends he’s had since high school.

And, at least in a Silicon Valley sense, Uncle Jim is low-tech, and proud of it. He still uses an AOL email account and a pre-World War II steel-cutting machine. They get the job done.

Caption Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

You could say Uncle Jim and I were reconnecting, but truth be told, my trips to Detroit and the plant this fall were by far the most one-on-one time I’ve ever spent with my uncle. Visiting as a reporter gave me the confidence to ask questions about our family history that had never been passed down to me. And my uncle generously helped me see Detroit through his eyes, a place where he knows how things are and always have been.

When you meet them and talk to them, it’s clear that my dad and uncle come from the same stock. But they are different people who chose very different paths. My dad is the gold-rush-seeking 49er who loves the thrill of being in the middle of what’s new in Silicon Valley. My uncle is the change-allergic stalwart who stayed true to his roots and takes pride in his place in the world.

I think the story of these two brothers has a larger resonance beyond just my personal discovery. Our family’s split in the road happened in countless other Detroit families, decade after decade. The people who stayed in Detroit lived through downturn, destruction and hardships, and they deeply internalized them.

Today, just about everyone you meet in Detroit is optimistic about the city’s future. Uncle Jim is, too. After so many years of corrupt politicians, finally all the wealth in the city seems to be directed toward making it a more livable place, he says. Billionaire downtown revitalizer Dan Gilbert is a local, and he’s making smart plays. But Jim, who is basically the definition of staying power, says he probably doesn’t have the patience.

“This Peruvian guy bought the old old auto plant in Detroit,” Jim tells me. This is Fernando Palazuelo, a developer who paid $400,000 for the massive ruined Packard Plant on the east side of Detroit in 2013, and hopes to put $400 million into it. “He says you’ll see a difference in 15 years. 15 years? I’m 63. I hope I’m not here. I want to be somewhere warm, not looking at an auto plant coming back.”

How has the recent enthusiasm about investing in Detroit, and Detroit technology, affected Jim?

“It hasn’t,” he says. “I’m impacted a lot by the manufacturing picture. Manufacturing chases cheap labor, and we’re not cheap labor. But I’m a small business, and a small business doesn’t take many orders to be successful.”

 Jim and Stuart Gannes
Jim and Stuart Gannes
Liz Gannes

Man of steel

Downstairs from the office is the football-field-sized room where the work happens. The building was made to hold steel, with a massive crane on the ceiling that braces the structure and lifts heavy coils of steel into stacks. There used to be something like 300 of these businesses in Detroit. Now there are about 30.

In the plant’s heyday, when Uncle Jim had a contract with Ford, he employed 42 people. These days, he gets the job done with three.

Uncle Jim is quick to note that steel is just as relevant as it used to be. He likes to say, if you look around, just about anywhere in the world, almost everything you see is either made of steel or was made by a machine made of steel.

The biggest deal Jim ever had was to make a bracket that stiffened the floor on full-size Ford cars. On that one piece of steel, he says, he put his three kids through private school.

“They put that bracket on every single full-size car for 16 years,” he says of Ford. “In automotive, when you win a job they don’t require it to be rebid every year. You have the life of a job. It ended when they stopped making that car. By the time they stopped making it, my main contact at Ford had died.”

Uncle Jim business card

Jim and my dad worked at the plant as kids, but Jim is fond of telling me that my dad was always in the office so he wouldn’t hurt himself, while he was out in the floor working with the machinery.

Down on the floor of the plant, Jim shows off one of the main pieces of equipment, the steel cutter. He points to where you load a flat, skinny piece of steel through two turning blades that are set at the width your customer wants. The machine cuts the steel and spits it out into a coil of the specified width.

Jim explains that the brass bearings at the end allow the shaft to turn, because brass is softer than steel. During World War II, people started using ball bearings instead of brass, because they roll around and reduce the points of contact between the moving parts. World War II is also when construction started using welding instead of rivets. But this machine is from 1939, before World War II. It’s still perfectly good, he says.

Jim tells me this machine is much better and more accurate than cutting metal with lasers, because the burn changes the molecular structure of the material.

But the old technology still has one big problem, he says.

I have no intuition for this machinery stuff. If my dad was out of place here as a teenager, a generation later, I feel infinitely more removed. The brass wears out, I guess?

No, it heats up and stops working well, Jim says. So you have to run it at a really slow speed.

Jim says the trick with this machine is, you try to cut as little as possible, knowing that steel breaks at an angle of nine degrees. The deeper the cut, the more horsepower it requires. This machine runs on 100 horsepower electric. But it’s extremely accurate.

“I know you guys are into technology,” Jim tells me. “This is low tech. This is the most primitive form of technology there is.”

Ford’s custom auditorium for showing off its new F-150 trucks includes full-size robots and enormous screens.
Ford’s custom auditorium for showing off its new F-150 trucks includes full-size robots and enormous screens.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

The same physics

On the last of my three reporting trips to Detroit for this series, Jim agrees to come with me to visit Ford’s newly redone truck plant. I’ve been set up on a tour accompanied by multiple PR people and a guide — but this is Jim’s home turf, not mine.

Jim and I get lost on our way to the visitor entrance, where we park one of the only non-Ford cars in the lot. (Something I didn’t know before this fall: Automakers have policies where employees who don’t drive their brand of car have to park farther out, sometimes miles away.)

When we finally find our way inside, out of the freezing December cold, we’re in for a Disneyfied factory tour experience. We get a private showing of an introductory video in a custom-built theater covered with enormous screens including one shaped like a full-sized truck, with pantomiming robot arms that depict various stages of the manufacturing process, accompanied by synchronized lights, swelling music and wind effects.

It’s quite a production, and we are among the first people to see it, but Jim is hard to impress. He says he’s seen plenty of splashy car presentations over the years at the Detroit auto show.

Then we walk across an interior bridge to the heart of the Rouge, the massive industrial complex just outside of Detroit, with a million square feet of coordinated machinery and people. The new Ford truck plant now includes all sorts of modern processes, including lots of robotic assistance — but also brings back old techniques: Rivets instead of welding, in part to cut down on noise. As Jim points out, it’s a pre-World War II technique.

The tour guide assures us that robots and humans are working here in harmony, and the redone factory actually employs more people (a total of about 5,000) than in the previous setup. After a nearly billion-dollar retooling, the plant is almost fully up and running, with a goal of making 60 trucks per hour.

“The F-150 has been America’s best-selling vehicle for 32 years and its best-selling truck for 37 years,” says the PR guy as we walk across a raised walkway and look down at the continuous assembly line below. “So all the way back to disco, this is the best-selling truck.”

At the nearest station, workers are putting in back-seat headrest supports, and behind them, part of the center console. Every job is timed at 41 seconds or less. Then the assembly line stops — there’s some kink up ahead, and the workers start checking their cellphones, so we move along.

Jim, who has gotten ahead of us on the walkway, points out that workers are rolling up carpets that apparently have some flaw. Some supplier is going to have a very bad day, he says.

The main goal of the big retooling was to create the new F-150 primarily out of aluminum, which is composed to be stronger and lighter than steel. This is Ford’s most significant and distinctive new project in years, and the company expects to push the advanced materials into its other lines, too. The new aluminum body takes 700 pounds of weight off the country’s most popular truck.

 The body of a new F-150 meets its new rear windshield on the assembly line.
The body of a new F-150 meets its new rear windshield on the assembly line.
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Made in Detroit

I’m wondering if all this criticism from my uncle is coming from his loyalty to steel.

He says it’s not.

“Aluminum and steel, the physics involved are the same. You cut at the same thickness, and you break at the same degrees. (That would be nine degrees, for those who are keeping track at home.) You use the same machines.”

“It’s a third of the weight, and if you can accomplish the same thing, aluminum is the most available resource we have on the globe, not iron ore,” says Jim. “Taking 700 pounds off is a big deal.”

Because I’m visiting from Silicon Valley, and because I ask, the Ford people tell me about all sorts of interesting new technology in the trucks — 360-degree cameras, lane assist, adaptive cruise control — basically all the top-of-the-market pre-autonomous-driving features.

Jim later tells me he thinks the larger point I should have learned was about manufacturing, and how exacting it is.

“I would have answered you differently,” he says. “It’s hard to get a million-vehicle-a-year assembly line up to speed.”

The interesting and impressive part of what Ford is doing — in Jim’s opinion — is ironing out the mistakes and bugs that cropped up early in the process. Manufacturing is painstaking. This may be new technology, but it’s not some flash in the pan. “When they ramp up, they probably won’t change the assembly line for five years,” he says.

That’s something any Detroiter would understand, Jim says.

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