Following on from his interview in our 10th Anniversary issue, AMSwent back to GM’s Gary Cowger for more on how the auto manufacturing landscape has changed and what the future holds for General Motors Manufacturing

AMS - What changes in manufacturing technology have had the most impact?

GC - One of the biggest changes GM Manufacturing has had to manage over the last 10 years is product migration to lower-mass architectures. Lower-mass designs are an enabler to better fuel economy and the use of green technology, such as hybrids. The use of aluminum and high strength steels is much more mainstream in today’s vehicle designs and result in more forming and joining challenges than experienced on previous product offerings. Introduction of high strength steels allows Product Engineering to improve performance of strength dominated parts at lower mass and cost by reducing material gage.

The manufacturing challenges associated with high strength steels, most notably dimensional control and springback, are managed through multiple die iterations.

This migration comes at a time when we as an industry also must manage a manufacturing environment that places a premium on flexibility and recognizes capital constraints. Our challenge is to find the “sweet spot” between technology, capital, and operating costs while maintaining manufacturing flexibility and meeting ever-demanding product requirements.

AMS - And powertrain production?

GC - The largest change for our powertrain production has been our CNC machining centres being transitioned from prototyped to production machines. This gives us greater ability for Lean/Agile/Flexible operations.

AMS - What are your thoughts on hot and cold engine testing?

GC - The cold test has allowed us to improve the quality of the end product. We can check many parameters, like vibration and temperature, and we can do it without running on fuel or natural gas. Electronics can map an engine and compare that with a good engine. That lets us catch issues before they range out of tolerance and that saves time and money.

AMS - How do you manage paintshop costs and quality expectations?

GC - We have moved to overhead rail robotic painting that uses bell applicators. The round bell pattern reduced the required number of robot axis, making the robots a lower capital cost to install, along with significantly higher robotic uptime. The change has been a real win-win for manufacturing because even with reduced capital cost we were able to improve paint appearance. Compact robot designs allow for a reduced spray booth width, reducing the volume of air required to control over spray, reducing utility costs and our CO2 footprint.

GM has converted many plants to higher-efficiency bell applicators, reducing VOC emissions. We also use powder coatings for primer systems. When powder primer systems are combined with the higher-efficiency bell applicators and waterborne basecoat, we are one of the lowest VOC emissions plants in the world

The entire paintshop is modular, with all controls being cable connections. The entire setup and validation only takes two weeks to be production ready, which is a significant improvement over earlier systems. Major improvements in off-line robotic software has allowed a significant reduction in man-hours. What used to take several days to complete can now be done in hours, if not minutes.

GM has implemented ‘4 wet’ technology. The primer oven has been completely eliminated, saving energy and CO2 emissions. We now use what is called a functional primer layer sprayed in the topcoat booth, followed by a basecoat layer and a clearcoat layer, all wet on wet. Our system adds wet sealer, hence the ‘4 wet’ name.

Additionally, GM is the lead domestic supplier of a new pre-treatment material called Thin Film. This replaces the traditional phosphate coating system, and eliminates such metals as nickel, manganese and zinc. Energy and water usage has been reduced, and solid waste as been reduced by 85 to 90%.

AMS - What changes have you seen in trim and final assembly?

Within General Assembly (GA) trim operations, technology has been used to improve ergonomics and help the production operator. A few examples include the use of height-adjustable skillets to optimize vehicle height in relation to the operator, and the use of robotics to assist in moving heavy components, e.g. windshield glass or hybrid battery assemblies.

In final assembly, technology has been focused on improving quality, as our vehicles have become more and more complex. New technologies like lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control require testing and calibration; our end-of-line testing equipment must change to accommodate more infotainment and bluetooth technologies, hybrids and alternative propulsion technologies. However, advances in data communication technology have enabled the flash programming of multiple onboard electronic vehicle control modules in the assembly plant. This opens up customized vehicle calibrations, features and functions, reducing the number of parts and lead time required to implement changes.

AMS - Has increased automation made your job easier or more complex?

GC - Both. It is easier, because we have developed common solution sets that are reliably deployed around the world and our results are more predictable than ever. More complex, in that decisions have to be made earlier to ensure investment in automation is not wasted. This requires strict discipline within the design, product and manufacturing work teams.

AMS - What are your thoughts on labour force, education, training, and the cost of labour?

GC - In 1998, GM went through a major labour dispute at the Flint Metal Fabrication Plant that disrupted production throughout the corporation and cost millions in sales and lost market share. Things had to change, in both management and the union.

As a result, the manufacturing and labor relations organizations were merged and we began a new era with respect to the relationship between unions and management at GM.

Transplants were invading the US, but we were still internally focused and adversarial in our relationship with the UAW in 1998. Now we are focused on our external competition and closing the competitive gap – operationally and in labour costs. Employees are older overall, but they are more educated, better trained and more aware of events around the globe. There is regular, open, two-way communication between union and management to resolve issues early.

AMS - There have been dramatic changes in the last five years, even the last two years with the financial crisis.

GC - Over the last five years, the GM hourly population in the US has gone down by over 50% (from 125,000 to 61,000), an aggregate labour cost reduction of approximately two-thirds (from $18.4 to $7.6 billion). Customers are demanding more features and higher quality at reduced costs, forcing union an management to work together more than ever before. Shared sacrifices and aligned interests have resulted in a relationship that is the best it has ever been, even given the stress of today’s environment. This has generated game-changing agreements, such as:

  • 2005 Health Care VEBA
  • 2006 Hourly Attrition Program
  • Transformational 2007 National Agreement (VEBA and new Tier II language)
  • 2009 Addendum Agreement (in compliance with UST Term Sheets)
  • Local Competitive Operating Agreements (closing the competitive gap)

When these agreements are fully implemented, in line with our most current Viability Plan, labour costs will be reduced by yet another third (approx. $5 billion). Other changes in the last ten years that have influenced the labour climate include:

  • Globalization – Transplant production in the US has increased ten-fold; industry growth in other non-union regions of the world
  • Strikes/work stoppages – Decreased significantly from eight in 1997-’98 to two local strikes in the last decade
  • Significant increases in the complexity of product technology and content – requiring new skills of workers manufacturing and assembling vehicles
  • Step function improvement in both safety and quality
  • Less vertical integration – more focus on core manufacturing and the sourcing of commodities and 2nd

Tier work

The intensity of today’s hyper-competitive world has forced us into more collaboration, more innovation, and more flexibility. It has resulted in creative solutions and transformational agreements that no one would have thought possible just ten years ago.

AMS- How has GM’s global footprint changed over the past decade?

GC - Ten years ago, the GM Manufacturing footprint was made up of plants operated by independent business units within GM, across multiple global regions. These plants were predominately building products off of regional platforms for local markets. Today our global manufacturing footprint is a network of plants building products on global architectures, using our global manufacturing system with a common bill of process.

AMS - How green are your plants?

GC - Our manufacturing operations are very green. We have undergone a transformation in terms of energy conservation and environmental sustainability, reducing our global manufacturing energy consumption by 22% since 2005. Our recycling initiatives have generated $1 billion since 2008. Renewable resources provide 2.5% of GM’s US manufacturing energy needs. We currently have the world’s largest rooftop solar array installation, generating 12MW of electricity, in Zaragoza, Spain, with other solar rooftop installations in Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, California.

Our Lansing Delta Township assembly plant in Michigan is Gold Lead Certified and around the world we have 54 landfill-free operations. The minute a residential household puts one bag of trash on the curb, it is generating more trash than our 54 landfill-free operations put together.