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GM Applies 'Keep it Simple' to Small-Car Manufacturing

Aug. 15, 2012
Through simplified processes, new technologies and a flexible union contract, GM has found a cost-competitive approach to building the subcompact Chevy Sonic -- in Michigan. 

When General Motors Co. (IW 500/4) first considered producing the Chevrolet Sonic at its assembly plant in Lake Orion, Mich., the automaker saw a facility that represented "everything that we thought was good in General Motors," recalled Scott Whybrew, GM's top manufacturing engineering executive.

The 4.3 million-square-foot plant boasted an army of robots, "the latest and greatest" conveyor system and the muscle to run 72 jobs per hour, said Whybrew, executive director of global manufacturing engineering for GM.

"The issue that we had was that to build a subcompact car, we had to cut our investment level and really go back to basics with the simplistic tooling concepts that we've used at other spots in the world to be competitive," Whybrew told attendees of the Center for Automotive Research's Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich.

"And now we're using the Sonic in Orion to be able to learn in manufacturing engineering to really simplify."

For example, instead of an overhead conveyor system, the plant uses automated guided carts on the floor to deliver parts and materials.

GM designed the carts to "accommodate multiple vehicle styles in sequence as well as flexibility for future models," Whybrew noted.

"Automated guided carts -- very simple," Whybrew said. "The operator can actually take and change out the battery, so we need no skilled tradesmen in order to keep this conveyance system working."

A geo-pallet system in the body shop has replaced the traditional underbody conveyor line.

"It allows us to exchange that pallet off of the weld line, and it allows us to build multi-platforms through the same operation and on the same line," Whybrew said. "Our geo-pallet approach helped us reduce our investment and overall operating cost."

Meanwhile, through the use of high-density welding cells, the Orion plant has shrunk its body-shop footprint by one-third.

"And that reduces our investment and the number of stations that we have to maintain," Whybrew added.

New Thinking in the Paint Shop

Whybrew also highlighted a number of changes in the paint shop, where GM is moving away from "traditional paint-shop thinking" to more environmentally friendly and cost-effective processes.

The shop's radiant-tube paint-oven heating system, for example, provides heat much more quickly than a traditional paint oven, reducing the plant's operating costs and time to market.  

"In a traditional paint shop, you would fire up the ovens four hours in advance of painting any type of vehicles for the day, and you would basically spend a lot of gas to do that," Whybrew explained.

By contrast, he said, the radiant-tube system functions more like a hot-water heater - "instant hot water."

"You also don't have a lot of air blowing around in the paint ovens themselves to be able to introduce dirt to the vehicle paint job," he added.

The radiant-tube system, which debuted at the Orion plant, will be implemented at other GM sites around the world, Whybrew noted.

Also in the paint shop, the Orion plant is using a thin-film pre-treatment process that initially was introduced at a GM plant in Brazil.

The process uses zirconium oxide in lieu of heavy metals, to clean the vehicle body's metal surface prior to electro-coating for corrosion resistance.

"The added benefit is less chemical usage and basically less power required," Whybrew said. "It's better for the environment, and for those of you who are in the painting business, we produce a lot less sludge that we have to try to dispose of into landfills."

The Power of Partnerships

GM in October 2010 announced its plans to invest $145 million in the Orion facility to build the Sonic and the compact Buick Verano.

Key to making that a reality, Whybrew said, has been "our innovative and flexible labor agreement with our partners at the UAW."
"Besides giving us the flexibility to allow third parties to operate in the plant, the UAW agreed to a wage structure that allows us to competitively build the Sonic in the United States," he said.

In the past, a plant such as Orion would've been served by a large offsite logistics center, Whybrew said. But the UAW pact allows the plant to bring logistics management in-house.

"Third-party subassembly and material preparation is performed in the plant, reducing logistics and eliminating waste of inventory," Whybrew said.

The savings in inventory costs alone "helped make Orion competitive for this subcompact build," he added.

The Orion assembly plant is the only GM site in the United States that produces a subcompact car.

"Third parties and our union relationship have really enabled us to be able to make Orion competitive," Whybrew concluded.

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