Genk Factory

As part of his Thesis into Design in Krisis – Ben conducted research into the closing of the Ford Plant in Genk, outlining some possible future scenarios for work. He interviewed many workers, politicians and business people to better understand the situation.


The closure of the Ford factory in Genk will leave behind a legacy on the labour sector in Limburg.

Addressing the 10,000 jobs as a whole is overkill– many will re-train or re-locate to other positions. But something immediate is required to replace this source of labour for those who stay.


Fordism built an intricate and efficient system which employs a large number of people who complete small repetitive tasks. Any solution needs to address the large group of workers, their ability to withstand monotonous work and the immediacy of the situation. If nothing else, an industry is needed to tie older workers through to retirement, and potentially give opportunities to new generations seeking work.


The three solutions presented here address the whole situation, while focussing on issues which are undervalued in the capitalist system, and especially in situations of crisis. They are Labour, Health and Ecology.


Labour – entrepreneurial beginnings.

In the current Ford factory, man and machine are one, operating in tandem. From the finger which pushes the button to the hand that pulls the lever, these body parts become part of a bio-machine. The rigid steel cannot operate without their human counter parts.

Specialisation of machines made them efficient in order to manufacture on mass, however this Fordist model of production is outdated. A more flexible system of organisation is now needed, which maintains the connection between worker and machine, and makes the machine more adaptable.

In order to promote entrepreneurship, I suggest down-scaling the assembly line process to small groups of 8-12 workers, manufacturing simple objects on flexible machines.

This manufacture station is matched directly with a worker. The conveyor belt bisects the station, bringing objects from one end to the other. Each station is powered, utilising home power tools to mechanize the labour.

The station is modular and can easily be combined with other station.  It operates modularly throughout, so that new processes can be plugged in or built from scratch.

This ‘flexible fordism’ could assemble small niche assemblies like home appliances, lamps, catering orders, tool boxes or ceramics to order. Flexible Fordism serves assembly which is either too small for mass manufacture, or not niche or secure enough for specialised equipment.

The working groups should form a collective to share costs and evenly split the profits.

This system maintains the social connections, the ability to commit to repetitive work, the efficiency of a system of divided tasks, and the symbiotic relation between man and machine.



Health – efficient care

This system compares Genk’s wealth of repetitive labour with the growing need to provide care for the ageing Belgian population.

The central principle of Fordism is to divide complicated tasks to many unskilled workers. Care is a series of repetitive tasks, for which the cost is currently too high. The demand for care is growing – Belgium’s elderly population will nearly double in the next 40 years.

Initially elderly care was performed by specialists and those close to the patient. Since the 1960’s the system has partially transferred to centralised healthcare, making use of shared facilities and labour. This process is mirrored by our historical cultural connection to food and its cultivation – which was initially home or locally grown, and has been centralised in hydroponic greenhouses and large industrial farms.

Some have already considered the health system an industry which could absorb the labour surplus.

Instead of cars on the conveyor belt, I suggest elderly people are the subject of attention by workers trained to undertake simple repetitive tasks. These could be done on a daily basis. If the current Ford factory assembles 1000 cars a day, then a clinic with 400 spots a day for check-ups could run at the same pace (and only open 8 hours a day).

The current nursing training takes 3 years, but if certain tasks could be taught in a shorter time (taking blood or measuring blood pressure) a worker accustomed to repetitive work could take on this job, also relieving nurses to more technical positions. This is not to mention non-contact duties like making beds or cleaning.

The government also profits, instead of funding both the workers welfare and the burgeoning health system, they consolidate spending to create a blanket system for elderly care.

Bringing the model of Fordism into healthcare, though it may seem to distance ourselves from the subjects, connects two ends of social democratic life – that citizens can work, and are cared for at the end of their working career.



Ecology – disassembling Ford.

Workers in the Ford Factory assemble one thousand cars a day, from about 30,000 parts. In the total life of the factory they will have made around 20 million cars.

The popular use of the car, means that despite its relatively high price, is relatively disposable. Some of the 20 million cars are still running, but many have been relegated to scrapyards. Throughout Ford’s operation, the production of cars has significantly polluted the local land and air.

Their lack of product stewardship is emblematic of corporate irresponsibility. The ecological remediation of the site is due to start in 2 years time, just after the closure of the factory.

Resource mining and manufacture is past its peak, with some rare earth metals there is just 10 years left of material use. Is the Ford factory land, and the disused capital which it produced now valuable as a resource?

Dissassembly reverses the conveyor belt to take apart cars and other waste. The systems needed to extract the valuable parts from cars are similar to those needed to strip e-waste, and materials derived from e-waste are more valuable.

Resource efficiency is high on the list of the EU’s goals, and it also makes significant fiscal sense. As one of the most dense areas of electronic and car consumption, Europe could be seen to have a localised resource of e-waste, which should not be sent abroad, but instead captured and re-used here.

Remediation of the environment is also an important step to make in an industrialised region like Limburg, ensuring that Ford funds the cleanup to the environment.

These arguments point towards a future where car and e-waste will be more valuable, while the Genk factory has the network, location, ability and workforce to disassemble.


With these three solutions, Genk could revive itself into a prosperous industrial centre – with a different scale and focus to past industries.




Machines cannot be ‘reused’, but the conveyor belt and arrangement of the building and assembly line could

Workers have the ability to withstand repetitive work, something which others do not

Fordism is a unique structure which utilises low-skilled workers to complete simple tasks, and returns them the output as affordable. The problem is not the system, but the difference between cost and profit, and the stagnant market.

A rumour is that Ford wanted to close because the land remediation is approaching (taking chemicals out of the ground)

Workers have a bleak look on the future, the fight is strong, but they also realise their position in the greater scheme of Europe



Bio-political manufacture


The closing of Ford will leave behind a significant amount of workers who have the ability to withstand repetitive work. They will be on the cusp of retirement.

Instead of the manufactured items on the conveyor belt, it is in fact the people who are on the belt, from birth, through working life, to retirement and old age. The life which is built for a factory worker, has the same rhythms as their daily work – a scale of rhythm. That is also why the factory closure is so significant. There was something reliable and ongoing about the Ford factory, many workers mentioned that they couldn’t believe that it would ever end, even though it was inevitable. Modernism promised a change to intellectual and non-material labour, but there has been, and for the foreseeable future will be people employed in simple service or production.


Man and machine are one. From the finger which pushes the button to the hand that pulls the lever, these body parts become part of a bio-machine. The rigid steel machine cannot operate without these flexible fleshy human parts.

Marx suggested that machines are not used to reduce the worker’s effort, rather to maximise their exploitation. He also writes that machines are “mechanical-intellectual-social assemblages” bringing together technology, workers and knowledge with the result of coordinating workers socially.


Bio-mechanics in the context of Fordism is also bio-political as it denotes a rhythm and power over social and political life. The communist leaning rhetoric of the Ford workers strengthens their devotion to a fair system of employment – many of the workers are not interested in service or intellectual pursuits. The reliability is matched by the incessant repetition of the work.


Fordism’s failure in the modern sense it its inability to produce specialised products. Each object assembled is practically identical – whereas the modern desire is for individuality. Fordism’s inflexibility leads it to demise as a producer of difference, while modern post-fordist manufactures (for instance in fast fashion) pieces which can be created in short runs according to market trends.


I propose to design a kind of ‘post-fordist Fordism’, a way of scaling down large scale production, to smaller scale machines, which utilises repetitive movements to bio-mechanise production. I will illustrate how this system could be used on a scale to produce objects, and also illustrate it in the concept of a service – the delivery of health. I see this at the end of line of developments, relating the machine to the body, and the rationalisation of service into a repetitive task. I think the service I wish to mechanise is of health – for which there is a need and an ability. We have already largely industrialised food production, so health services are a step further in this direction of greater bio and mechanical integration.


Given the recent trend of machines in c-fabriek, ECAL and in the Machine Exhibition used to perform industrial tasks in a mode of nostalgic glamour, this downscaling of the fordist production process eschews the aesthetic system of slow, and the egoist position of the designer, and instead responds to a cross over in industry – allowing a new scale of production to take place.


Standard machine stations which allow flexibility of production, but with three elements of a conveyor belt, an information point and a rotating top spindle. This relates to a spine and the digestive system.

Created the manufacturing process in open structures, so they can be added, subtracted, and modified.

Small scale production processes taking no more than 10-12 steps of repetitive, simple and mechanical processes.

Robust and reliable


to be disassembled






The strength of the Ford Factory is in its detailed assembly of people, together assembling around 30,000 parts for each car. The detailed scripted movements are repeated multiple times each day, creating up to 1000 cars. This means that over 30 million components are combined each day.


Fordism sees labor divided into simple unskilled repetitive tasks, assisted by machines. This mode of production has been successful in the mass manufacture of standardised products. The price of these products is also lowered according to the cost it takes to construct them, making them affordable and consumed by people to an extent like no product system before.


At the closure of the Ford plant, it will have built close to 20 million cars, some still running on the roads of Europe, but most relegated to scrapyards. Along with e-waste, cars use the most material in their construction, in comparison to their life use. The Ford plant and its operation owes a symbolic debt of manufacture, its product stewardship concept is almost non-existent. Belgium was the first continental European country to be industrialised – will it be the first to remediate this industry?


Dissassembly as a concept which involves running the conveyor belt and the systems which bring parts to the factory and take the cars away, to be completely reversed, to take apart cars and e-waste which it has created. I include cars and e-waste, because the systems needed to extract the valuable parts from the car are the same needed to extract e-waste.


This system is in line with the EU released new targets for EU countries on their recycling of e-waste:

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: “In these times of economic turmoil and rising prices for raw materials, resource efficiency is where environmental benefits and innovative growth opportunities come together. We now need to open new collection channels for electronic waste and improve the effectiveness of existing ones. “


The EU commission also identify the current system, where e-waste is typically mixed up with regular waste, or shipped out of Europe disguised as products for re-use to avoid significant waste taxes. Currently, only a third of the e-waste stream is captured.


An article in New Scientist from 2007 titled “Earth’s natural wealth: an audit” paints a picture of the shortage of earths resources which are needed for constant development and manufacture. The author, David Cohen, makes connections between mining rare earth metals and war in Africa, and highlights the monopoly which China holds over much of the REM mining. As one of the most dense areas of electronic and car consumption, Europe could be seen to have a localised resource of e-waste, which should not be sent abroad, but instead captured and re-used here.


The disassembly argument could be extended to the responsibility which Ford has over the land. They apparently have a contract coming up which means they need to remediate the land around the Ford factory, removing the chemicals and waste which have accumulated since the last cleanup.


These arguments point towards a future where car and e-waste will be more valuable, while the Genk factory has the network, location, ability and workforce to disassemble.







Genk’s tourism industry has increased in the last 5 years, largely because of the opening of the c-mine which opened in 2011. Much of the attraction of the Genk region is related to a nostalgic sense of history. Will car manufacture be treated with the same reverence in 10 years time?


The struggle itself could be a site for re-telling the story.