GM Detroit-Hamtramck: Slow Start but Gaining Speed

Gary S. Vasilash

When GM launched the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center in the mid-1980s, it was a showcase of automation—of sorts. You see, things didn't work quite as well as expected with some of the technology. But now the focus is on helping people build quality product.

Guy Briggs, General Motors vice president and general manager, Vehicle Manufacturing, lets out a knowing laugh.

He's asked whether the GM Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, which was piloted in 1984 and went into volume production in 1986 (remember the Buick Riviera and Olds Tornado? They were built there in '86, along with the Cadillac Eldorado and Seville), is, well, less technologically complex today then it was back then, whether there have been conscious efforts made to simplify operations. The facility—which is sometimes called the "Poletown" plant because of its location on the border in Hamtramck (part of the 362 acres goes into Detroit, too), a community with a large population of people of Polish descent (so much so that Pope John Paul II visited the city during one of his North American visits)—had notoriety for the wrong reasons early on. It was the ne plus ultra plant of its time, when visions of "automatic factories" were the Fata Morgana of automotive executives: Robots would do the heavy lifting, the complex tasks, and practically everything else. Perhaps Detroit-Hamtramck wouldn't be a lights-out factory, like those seemingly fantastic factories in Japan that everyone had heard about, but this would be a showplace. But things didn't work out quite that way. The technology got way ahead of the people systems. The technology was presumed to be able to do things that it couldn't appropriately handle. The technology, well, caused the plant to be described more by jibes than cheers.

Guy Briggs responds to the query: "We're concentrating on the Global Manufacturing System, not technology." He points out that they are trying to achieve the "right level" of technology at Detroit-Hamtramck, as well as at GM plants the world over. Briggs adds with obvious understatement: "There's been a little bit of change from a few years ago."

Implementing the System. It's not that they've pulled out the robots and automation, that they've turned their backs on technology. But what GM has done at Detroit-Hamtramck and at its other plants is to concentrate on creating a common manufacturing system that is people-based, one where technology is a means to produce what Gary Cowger, GM group vice president, Manufacturing and Labor Relations, likes to call "Great cars and trucks." Cowger emphasizes, "Customers don't buy manufacturing. Manufacturing is an enabler." And when the five key elements of the Global Manufacturing System (GMS) are enumerated, note what is first:

  • People Involvement
  • Built-in Quality
  • Standardization
  • Continuous Improvement
  • Short Lead Times

Cowger admits, "None of that may sound revolutionary, or even exciting, but it's a far different—a far more demanding—model than General Motors ever had in the past." Briggs describes GMS as being "based on support for the operator." So the more than 1,100 robots out on the 3.6-million-ft2 plant floor (its body shop is the biggest in all of GM) are aids, not ends onto themselves.

Getting Better All the Time. Today, there are three vehicles being produced at Detroit-Hamtramck: the DeVille, Seville, and the Buick LeSabre. They are producing 491 per shift, 982 per day with the two-shift operation. The build mix is 48% DeVille, 39% 
LeSabre, and 13% Seville. There are 3,377 hourly people represented by UAW Local 22; 247 people are on salary. The average age at the plant is 47 and the average time in the industry is 21 years. Joe Ponce, plant manager at Detroit-Hamtramck, notes that the results that have been realized since they've been working on the implementation of GMS are measurable. For one thing, he cites The Harbour Report, the annual industry "report card" for North American auto manufacturing facilities. In the 2001 report, GM has six of the 10 most improved assembly operations, including the top four: Detroit-Hamtramck is in the #4 position, with a 24.7% improvement. It tops the list of efficient luxury vehicle assembly plants.

According to Ponce, in 1999, it required 43.1 hours to build a car at Detroit- Hamtramck. The year-to-date average through September, 2001—thanks to elements of the GMS including people involvement, error-proofing, total productive maintenance, continuous improvement, andon, and problem solving—is 30.4 hours per vehicle. They've increased their direct run rate (a measure of first-time quality) by 38%, reduced their float (number of vehicles produced but not shipped—which is obviously affected by the direct-run rate performance: the less efficient in quality, the more cars in float) by 43%. They've realized an 80% reduction in non-scheduled overtime (which also goes back to the direct run rate: unscheduled overtime is often driven by the need to fix things). Local 22 president Craig Nothnagel points out, "Every plant has its own personality. It took some time for us to find it here." He credits such things as cultural awareness and problem-solving classes as beneficial. He adds, "We've come a long way." And the numbers prove it.

But they are working at going further. For example, so far they've performed error-proofing in assembly on 133 operations, which has taken them from 382 events per thousand vehicles to 0.024. These error-proofing devices include such things as light curtains and lighted pushbuttons to assure that the proper parts are selected to be fitted on a vehicle (remember that there are three different vehicles running down the line). More error-proofing locations have been identified. They have instituted a radio-frequency-based material replenishment system wherein hi-los are fitted with RF monitors that indicate precisely where products are needed, thereby greatly reducing the amount of travel. They have instituted a material pull system for smaller line-side parts that is based not on kanban cards (said to be too easily lost or misplaced), but on a set of counters that keeps track of cars being built and the parts used. Should the line be stopped—for example, if an andon cord is pulled, then the counters pause, as well.

There is a long way to go in terms of such things as space utilization, flexibility and even job design. But one thing is certain: They're working at getting there.