Gary Cowger, Group Vice President for Global Manufacturing and Labour Relations at General Motors discusses the carmaker’s “avowed aim” of manufacturing flexibility using its Global Manufacturing System

While flexibility is a much-used term that is often doublespeak for closing plants or re-negotiating labour contracts, GM is talking about “right-sizing” its capacity to effectively fight the competition worldwide.

According to Cowger, General Motors has been focusing on global manufacturing for several years now. In the past, Cowger was a ‘dual-hatted’ leader: President of the North American region and also the global process leader for manufacturing and labour relations. However, about two years ago, GM reorganised and divided these roles into global functional leaders and regional presidents.

Today, its functional leaders have responsibility for the company’s structural cost and directly control the functions, like manufacturing, product development, and purchasing, on a global scale. Now the regional leaders now are more focused on contribution margin and revenue enhancement.

“Our shift to operating more globally has really picked up the pace of getting the entire manufacturing team integrated on a global basis,” says Cowger – and it’s not a small task. He is responsible for the company’s 178 plants in 33 countries, which have the capability of building more than 9.2 million units a year. Also, he and his team manage relationships with 50 unions globally.

“When you see all this on the map of the world, you get an idea of the breadth of the GM manufacturing organisation worldwide,” he tells AMS.

The change to operating on a more global basis has also had an impact on how the company develops and applies common manufacturing processes. “Our new global team is really driving common processes and our Global Manufacturing System (GMS). We have made great headway on common implementation over the past six to eight years. Operating globally has only accelerated our pace of implementation. Whether you go to any one of our plants, be it Shanghai or Lansing Grand River [in Michigan], or Ellesmere Port in the UK, you will see the same production system, enablers and processes throughout,” Cowger adds.

“House of Flex”

Cowger says GM has made good progress on its manufacturing system but the next step is to look at manufacturing flexibility. He explains that while “flexibility” is usually thought of as a manufacturing term, it really begins in product development.

“We must remember that the product guys have the tough job of meeting legislative requirements on each vehicle in each market, plus the brand requirements. It also must be remembered that, at its basics, manufacturing requires the locator holes in the same place for flexibility to truly work. Our product development teams make sure this happens,” Cowger says.

Enablers like common locators and common geometric dimensioning and tolerancing allow the manufacturing systems to handle different brands, different models and different architectures. “When you have products developed with inter-buildability in mind, have good coordination with all the forthcoming global architectures and platforms, and have flexible plants around the world, it certainly allows for manufacturing flexibility. Then, you are able to move not only similar platforms from plant to plant, but also to cross-build a variety of platforms in plants around the world as demanded by the market.”

How does GM make it work? Cowger describes the systems as the “House of Flex”. Picture a symbolic house, with a foundation, supporting pillars, and the over-arching roof of flexibility. At GM, this figurative house is built on the foundation of GMS, so that, as Cowger says, “you have the same operating systems, principles and competitive work practices in all the plants” to provide a solid base.

The house is then supported by specific pillars, including a common bill of design, bill of material, and bill of process. This latter term means that, no matter whether GM is building a truck or a car, fundamentally the vehicles process the same way through the assembly plant. Cowger says this saves floor space, money and equipment that would otherwise be used trying to dual-build platforms which don’t build together.

“Under our system, we have 40 manufacturing process enablers in place to improve flexibility. We also have a scaleable bill of equipment, which is dictated by labour rates versus automation rates. For example, in higher labour rate areas, you can justify significantly more automation than you can in a lower wage country,” Cowger says.

Making flex work: a global initiative

Cowger is certain that GM measures up as a flexible manufacturer around the world but recognises that “there is still room to improve.”

“Looking at the US, I have to say that we have always been flexible on the truck side of the house, particularly on full-size trucks – from utilities to pickups. Because there is such an enormous number of build combinations, we have those [truck] plants linked so that we are always able to hit the market with whatever is either seasonably hot or simply a different style, such as a crew cab. We really have had excellent flexibility on the truck side.”

However, Cowger admits that GM has some work to do on the car side of the business. “We have not been as flexible in our global portfolio in our US car plants.

Obviously one of the reasons is the erosion of share on these products. We are continually in an over-capacity situation, which means the need for flex has not been as great. However, as we announced last year, we are right-sizing our capacity in car facilities with the idling of 12 plants. So, as we move into new flexibly designed car architectures, we will fix the flexibility of our US operations with each new car we roll-out.”

Of course, flexibility is a top priority for General Motors in all areas of the world. Cowger noted: “We have always been flexible and linked in Europe, where we can move product around and hit the market based on demand.

At Ellesmere Port, Antwerp, Bochum, Zaragoza, Gliwice, and Eisenach, Rüsselsheim and Trollhättan, we have had good linkage capability. In Latin America it is the same thing. We have always been able to ‘flex’ fairly well, depending on what segment of the market gets hot. Our plants in Brazil, Argentina and the Andean market are supplied fundamentally through our CKD operations, so the flexibility there has been good. As we build up our capability in Asia Pacific, we will be able to make that very flexible too.”

Moving east in Europe and beyond

Regarding the drive for cheaper labour by shifting production further east, Cowger looks at the big picture: “As well as lower labour rates in these emerging ‘auto nations’ [eastern Germany and the new European union nations], you also have a growing market for cars. We opened the Opel Polska plant in Gliwice, Poland in 1998 when I was Chairman of Opel and we could see then that there was a market opportunity as well as an averaging of wage cost.”

Cowger still has great faith and commitment to the West German plants of Rüsselsheim, Eisenach and Bochum and sees them remaining strong players in future product and manufacturing: “We always have to look at competitiveness but we have large investments, both fiscal and intellectual in these places. I am constantly benchmarking all our GM plants, assembly, stamping and powertrain. We look to see who is the best in the world. And, then the question is, what lessons can we learn from our low-cost and low-volume manufacturing that can be applied to high volume, high cost carmaking? You need to take ideas from wherever you can and continually ‘lean out’ your investment.”

Cowger’s views on technology

Cowger has a strong manufacturing shopfloor background and I was interested to know which new technologies have caught his attention recently and which could he see as ‘do-able’ within the highly cost-conscious high-volume environment. “From an architectural standpoint, I do think that hydroforming is a huge enabler that allows great new styling and structure possibilities,” he says.

“We have used increased hydroforming on platforms such as the Corvette for the frame. When I was at the GM Tech Centre we could not find an equipment maker with a hydroforming rig big enough for the side rails – so we designed it ourselves.”

Yet, while he expressed an interest in hydroforming, another technology has really attracted his attention. “The technology that I think will have the biggest impact on the factory floor is wireless production control – that, along with sensor technology that is getting better and smaller.

What is exciting is the fact that you are able to embed it in not only in equipment and machinery but also in the product which will only enhance the capability to build it right first time in-station and enable vehicle preventive maintenance notifications that becomes almost automatic.”

AGV applications

Cowger’s opinion of automatic guided vehicles (AGVs), which have traditionally been more widespread in Europe than the US, is that GM had used them in North America but results were mixed. “We went through a period of using them. I think we misused them in bodyshops and heavy processing where they were not the best solution.

I think that in the correct applications, AGVs can be very useful – in driveline transport and shifting material delivery systems at point of use. There you can use very low cost AGVs and get the best from them.”

He believes the sooner fork trucks are taken out of plants, the better the situation will be: “Safety is the number one reason for getting fork trucks out, and number two is that designing them out of new or remodelled facilities gives you more scope for planning flexibility.”

He believes there is greater safety and flexibility without forklift trucks.

Shifting bias

In the past, the American market has seen a strong bias toward SUVs and pickups. This is shifting towards smaller vehicles, sedans and wagons and the new generation of hybrids and alternative power vehicles. This is having some effects on line design and the crossover of technology. How is GM preparing for this new trend?

“You don’t need to have significant crossover between sedans, SUVs, wagons and hybrids, but you do need one flex plant where you can build body-on-frame and frontbody integral and we are focusing on creating that. We are ready for hybrid vehicles – the Saturn Green Line is out, along with the Saturn Aura hybrid and, later this year, we will be producing the dual-mode Tahoe full-size utility, and we will integrate the hybrids with regular production,” says Cowger.

On the wave of early retirements and renegotiated labour contracts sweeping the Big 3, Cowger is proud of working on this before others in North America: “We were the first US automaker to negotiate a special attrition package. In fact, 34,410 people either retired early or took a buy-out. This high take rate is because we had announced the overcapacity situation in North America, and idling 12 plants, so the retirements and the buy-outs were big enablers in helping us to restructure.

I think it has been very clear that the UAW has worked very constructively with us on tough issues from health care to right-sizing the capacity.”