GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Plant Used Dark Days of Recession to Get Better

When the plant was idle and GM's future was in doubt, the facility focused 'on the people side of the business.'

During the darkest days of 2008 and 2009, Teri Quigley wasn't just worried about the future of her assembly plant. She -- and no doubt thousands of other GM employees -- wondered whether her longtime employer would continue to exist.

"It makes you think long and hard about what your next career might be," Quigley recalls, thinking back to the lowest points of the recession, which nearly wiped GM and Chrysler off the map.

Today, however, the U.S. automakers are hitting on all cylinders -- even as the overall economy sputters -- and GM's Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant is right in the thick of things.

GM spent $336 million to retool the plant for production of the Chevrolet Volt and Opel Ampera, and Detroit-Hamtramck has been cranking out the electric cars since November 2010.

Quigley, the plant manager, marvels at how quickly GM moved on the project -- the Volt was revealed as a concept car in 2007 -- and says it's indicative of the way the New GM operates.

"The GM of the past would've said, 'We can't do that now,'" Quigley asserts.

The GM of the past also might have scoffed at the idea of assembling electric vehicles on the same line as traditional gasoline-powered cars. But GM is prepping the 26-year-old plant to build the new Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan and the Impala large sedan -- alongside the Volt and Ampera.

"We are confident in the flexibility of the plant, the excellence of our workers and the great cars assembled here," GM North America President Mark Reuss said of the Detroit-Hamtramck plant in late May.

When production of the Malibu and Impala starts, it will add two shifts and 2,500 hourly and salaried workers at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Right now, the 3.6 million-square-foot assembly plant makes electric cars with one shift and more than 1,000 workers.

If Your Workforce Isn't Engaged, 'You've Got Nothing'

Plant leaders say the facility has earned the additional work by aggressively focusing on continuous improvement during plant shutdowns.

In particular, Industrial Engineering Manager Ed Fleming explains, the facility took advantage of downtime brought about by the recession "to focus on the people side of the business."

"If you don't have people who are engaged and truly interested and feel like they're being supported, you've got nothing," Fleming says. "You've got waste."

Initiatives related to employee involvement included boosting union-management collaboration; clearly defining job roles and responsibilities; improving communication; developing a team-leader curriculum; and creating a simulated work environment for joint training.

During an IndustryWeek Excellence in Action tour on Oct. 4, the plant highlighted other continuous-improvement strategies implemented at the facility, including:

  • Standardized work -- "If you don't have this in place, you will not move to the next step," Fleming says.
  • Inventory reduction -- By reducing the amount of inventory on the assembly line, and conducting pre-selection and inspection before material gets to line operators, "we're taking a lot of the decision making out of their hands and letting the team focus on building the vehicles instead of the other variables that get baked into the manufacturing process," Fleming explains.
  • Lean facility layout -- The plant has compressed the layout of the general assembly area, eliminating miles of overhead conveyor routes and reducing the number of workstations from 588 to 332.
  • Strategic insourcing -- "Bringing material back into the plant was the right decision for us and it saved us millions of dollars," Fleming says.
  • Just-in-time material inventory management -- Tier 1 supplier Magna Seating of America manages all seats and components on site. Seats are delivered in fully automated trailers, in sequential order. From the time orders and specs are electronically transmitted to Magna, GM installs the seats in a day and a half.
Plant leaders also highlighted the plant's recent investment in robotic technology in the paint shop. With the previous technology, roughly two-thirds of the paint was wasted in the process; now that waste has been reduced to around 15%.

Upgrading from P150 robots with gun applicators to P700 robots with bell applicators has saved the plant more than $1 million annually, the plant estimates.

With the previous hydraulic robots, Quigley says, paint-shop operators "were museum curators."

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