8/1/2001 | 10 MINUTE READ

Less is MORE

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Take one stripped-out full-size van, a satellite assembly plant, a union workforce, and more electronics than went to the moon, and what do you get? The largest second-stage manufacturing project in the industry, and an entrée into the booming aftermarket for both GM and Lear.


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Every day, there are a number of GM full-size G-vans–the Chevy Express/GMC Savana–coming off the line at the GM Wentzville Assembly plant in Missouri that don't have any interiors, save a corrugated cardboard driver's seat mounted to a standard seat base. It's not that some of the people in the plant forgot to install the seat, headliner, audio system, etc. They are bare because they will be transformed by Lear Corp. into the Chevy Express LT and GMC Savana SLT luxury vans just 10 miles away at the supplier's satellite plant in O'Fallon, MO. This is no ordinary ‘cut and shut' operation you'd find at a third-party outfitter. Each vehicle carries a full GM factory warranty, is fitted with OEM-spec. materials on a moving assembly line by union employees, and is accepted by GM as one of its own. Given Wentzville's sheer size, it's a surprise that a satellite plant is necessary. However, the political fallout from OEM and Tier 1 union labor working side-by-side for different wages is a problem no one has managed to solve. So the work is done offsite.

Mike Bakaric, operations manager at the O'Fallon facility, conducts the tour. His background includes time at Ford's Rouge plant, Visteon's Chesterfield, MI, trim plant, and a stint designing and building the interiors for nuclear submarines in Newport News, VA. He doesn't look old enough to have done all these things, but it takes little time to realize he's not one to sit still for long. "GM and Lear signed the contract to produce the vans in July 2000," Bakaric says. "And [plant manager] Kurt MacLennan and I arrived in Missouri in September 2000, and had 70 days to get the O'Fallon plant into production." A bare plant was ready in October, and the first units came off the line on December 1. The first customer unit (the initial vans went into GM's evaluation fleet) was produced on the first day of February.

"The plant has 190,000 ft2 of space of which 170,000 ft2 is dedicated to manufacturing," says MacLennan. "We have 500 ft of assembly line, 150 ft of off-line build area, and one day's inventory. Subassemblies are built in cells that feed directly to the line at the point they are needed in the assembly process, and everything is keyed by the vehicle VIN number so the parts are ready when it reaches that station." O'Fallon is far from over-extended, and it's no secret that other derivatives are in the planning stage at GM and Lear.

The empty vans from Wentzville arrive in batches and are parked in the O'Fallon receiving lot. Inside, the staff determines work flow based on VIN numbers received from Wentzville. Instead of building vans in batches of the same color, O'Fallon pops them out on an as-received basis. This keeps its production in sync with Wentzville's. The vans are driven from the receiving lot, up a ramp, through a door at the side of the plant, and straight into a wash area. "This keeps the assembly area clean, keeps us from tracking dirt into the vehicle, and preps the panels for the cladding installation," says Bakaric.

Almost immediately, the van makes a sharp turn over a set of pipes set into the floor. The tire sidewalls squeal as they rub against them as the van is pulled into position. "Those pipes are there to make sure the vans are lined up in exactly the same position each time," says Bakaric, "and don't move when we drill the holes and install the subfloor."

The subfloor is a large square-section tubular structure that ties into the vehicle frame, and provides the mounting points for the seats in the passenger compartment. A large, Lear-designed fixture is guided into place through the rear door opening, and fed forward until it comes into contact with the front seat mounting bolts. Using these, the lines in the floor, and a guide pin as locators, the unit is lowered into place, where it drills 16 mounting holes simultaneously. As it is backed out, small brooms at the front of the fixture sweep the metal shavings off the floor of the van. The approximately 250-lb. subfloor is then put in place.

The van is driven directly onto a lift where two workers fit large washers and nuts to the 16 protruding bolts, and drive them home. The torque reading for each nut is recorded against the VIN number, a process that continues at each stop along the assembly line. "We can track everything down to the part number," says Bakaric. This way, any recalls can be tracked to a specific vehicle or group of vehicles, and tracked to the assembler, part lot number, and supplier. Once off the lift, the van enters the main assembly line.

Sound deadening is added in the areas to be occupied by the Bose speakers (there are 12 of them), along the floor, and even in the right front fender to block wind noise. By the time the next cell is reached, 16 sound deadeners have been added to the wheelwells, floor, and inner door and side panels.

"When we began last December," says Bakaric, "we were at 30–45 minutes per station. Now we average seven minutes per station. Small teams are used at each station, and it took a lot of repetition to get the process flowing. The assembly teams would come up with faster, easier, more direct solutions to the problem which were shared with all of the teams. Each team member can take care of any of the up to 30 items in his station."

The thick floor insulation pad is topped by a temporary wood subfloor so operators on rolling chairs can begin building up the interior. While this is taking place, the gray "halo" around the top of the rear doors is removed and replaced by a body color piece drawn from a rack that feeds directly to the line in sequence. The old piece is recycled.

Magnetic templates are placed along the inner sides of the van, and frenetic hole drilling prior to installation of the wiring harness begins. As this happens, the base for the overhead console is put in place and pop riveted, and seven "rivnuts" are placed around the interior to act as grounds for the electrical system. The interior pieces are relatively generic, in that the interior color is the same for all of the vans. The only difference is whether the customer orders cloth or leather seating surfaces.

Three workers, two on rolling chairs, attack the interior and install the wiring harness. Separate plastic buckets carry the right and left harnesses. Each harness has a yellow tag to mark its midpoint, and it is attached to the body first. The rest is stretched fore and aft of this point and fastened to the body. Simultaneously, the third worker starts laying the video cable, which is tie-wrapped and placed under the front console.

Headliner clips are placed around the inner roof area, and speaker brackets are put along the rear quarter panels. A cell just off line builds the rear quarter panel subsystems, which are comprised of a metal plate with dual amplifiers, a large Bose speaker, sound deadening material, and various connectors. More speakers are added over the rear doors, the audio/video switcher is installed, and the door speakers are put in place. The wires in the upper front compartment are then routed behind A-pillars that have added sound deadening, and an electrochromic rearview mirror with digital readout is fitted. To make sure there's no need to rip things out later, each item is tested before installation and these results are tracked by the van's VIN number.

The next station adds the rear headliner–which spans the area from the B-pillar to the rear of the van, making it the largest headliner in the industry–as well as the front headliner and sun visors. Lear receives the headliner from Findlay Industries, cuts larger openings into which it adds the overhead speakers, installs air vents, and tops it off with more sound deadening. Lear will supply the headliner substrate for the 2002 van, eliminating the need for a build-up station at the line.

As the headliner is clipped into place, the HVAC ducts are connected, as are the twin overhead video monitors and control head for the rear climate control unit. Once the inner roof connections are completed, the subfloor is removed and placed in a container next to the line, ready for reuse.

Carpeted covers are placed over the rear wheelwells, and the front carpeting is installed. The rear carpet is folded in half along its width, placed on a gurney, and brought to the rear door opening like a patient to an ambulance. It is pulled inside and set in place before the front center console, lighted front door step wells and rear "kick guards" are installed. Next come the rear seat belts and assorted trim pieces. As might be expected, the seatbelt mountings are torque monitored and marked. Again, this information is matched to the VIN number.

Next, the D-pillar and upper garnish moldings are installed, connections made for the video game port, and the lower garnish panels and front seatbelts are added. The front and rear door panels are then pressed into place, and the temporary driver's seat is reinstalled.

Now it's time to make the van look different from the outside. First, the gray plastic door handle assemblies and rear license plate bucket are removed. Locks are stripped from the assemblies, and placed in new, color-keyed pieces. As it leaves this station, the van passes between two cleaning units indexed to the van. An alcohol solution is fed to an applicator covered by a towel. The towel is always clean because it travels from one spool to another as the van passes along its surface. Meanwhile, heat lamps on either side raise the temperature of the lower side panels to 75°º - 80°º F.

"Heating the lower body improves the glue bond," says Bakaric. So does heating the lower body cladding to 125°º F in ovens located next to the line. To install the panels correctly, the van is driven onto a hoist. Full-length tubular fixtures that align with the gutter and lower rocker panel are placed along either side of the van. Workers pull the cladding off the oven-fresh rolling carts, align it with reference points on the fixture, and press it in place. Next, a pneumatic roller attached to the fixture runs along the length of the cladding at bond height to make certain it's there for the duration.

While this is taking place, brackets for the color-keyed front fascia are installed, the fog lights placed on brackets outboard of the normal GM mounting points, a chrome and body color grille installed, the trailer hitch is sonic welded to the frame, and the front and rear bumper covers are put in place. Next comes the seat installation, and a visual and functional inspection.

"There's a lot of back and forth between Wentzville and Lear," says GM's Wheeler. "The current G-van is pretty standard, and there's a lot of room to meet the needs and desires of the buyer with more specialized versions. That could take us well beyond the 12,000 to 18,000 vehicles we will do with Lear on the luxury van." Says Bakaric: "We're ready."


We've Only Just Begun

According to Tom Sundberg, Lear's director, Second Stage Manufacturing, Specialty Vehicle Components, the G-van is just the tip of the iceberg. "We can literally start with our consumer research group, produce a list of items which tell what it'll take to bring a vehicle closer to the customer's needs, and build that vehicle for the OEM." But what's driving this desire?

"That's easy," says Sundberg. "It's the $24-billion aftermarket business. OEMs want a piece of the aftermarket. A good deal of the time, the OEM has the same level of creativity we can bring to a project, but they're strapped with building so many thousands of vehicles, they can't do it. We take the complexity off their hands."

That complexity includes complete program management. "A Tier 1 approach is needed to manage the supply base, instill quality control, and handle the validation," he says. "And, if you are going to market quickly, we have to come up with low-risk systems."

With validated, off-the-shelf components, Lear says it can set up a facility and execute within six to 25 weeks. This, says Sundberg, allows the automakers to watch vehicle line sales, "and call our team to determine a theme and pull a production plan together in a very short time," in order to revive sales. The GM G-van, he says, was developed, tooled and validated within 10 months of GM's acceptance of Lear's plan.