It was so nearly the factory visit that never was, although expectation was high as I grabbed this quick picture through the bus window before we entered Samsung's Cheonan plant, two hours south of Seoul on a buckaroo expressway.

As the gates opened for us, the blanket camera ban came into effect.

Cheonan is huge, and is at the heart of Samsung's plasma display panel production. Except yesterday it wasn't - producing, that is. A very short-term halt had been called, partly due to the effects of the global economic crisis and a spot of over-productivity, and partly to regroup and get things rolling again for production for the future.

The picture above shows what would have been happening if anything had been happening, but aside from some maintenance guys and a few staff taking displays out of their ageing/testing racks, not much was going on that day.

We were assured that the factory will be going like the clappers again in the next few days, but we still had the slightly surreal experience of being guided around a generally dark and deserted factory by the manager, who explained to us what the machines would be doing if they were actually doing anything.

But if Cheonan is huge, the nearby Tianjeong complex is positively scary colossal,  to the extent that we needed a guided bus tour merely to get round the place. This is Samsung LCD Panel Central, and in just one building we visited we watched an automated line producing panels at the rate of one every 15 seconds, 24 hours a day, in complete clean room conditions.

 

More after the break

"And," our guide explains, "we have ten lines on this floor, ten on the floor below, and 11 upstairs, so if you want to know how many panels we make a day, you can do the maths."

Travelling abacus to the fore, I reckon that makes a capacity of some 180,000 panels a day, all produced by highly automated assembly, with most of the staff being involved in quality control and checking the processes.

But even that, or the large tower blocks in which single staff-members can live for $30 a month, everything supplied, isn't the most impressive thing about this place - even though our tour guide hinted that there's a lively social scene in the dormitory blocks. They must have great parties, we suggested - to which she just replied, somewhat dreamily, "Friday nights...".

No, what really gets to you is how fast the plant is expanding. There are several enormous production buildings already, and more are on the way. One is just nearing completion, and when it's done will have taken just five months from ground-breaking to fit-out and production start-up.

Our guide tells us that of course it's being built by Samsung's construction company - other recent projects include one of the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Taipei 101 in Taiwan, which is currently the world's tallest building, and the Burj Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which will steal the crown from Taipei.

"And," she says, "since the factory works 24 hours a day, so do the construction workers."

I would have grabbed you a picture but the entire complex, even down to the perimeter fence out onto the street, is covered by CCTV. Take a snap and a fast response security team will be with you in 30sec or less, ready to erase your memory.

Or at least that in your camera.