The site in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, that General Motors operates isn't called just a "car plant" or a "truck plant," although there are those on site. In fact, there are two car assembly plants—one producing the Chevy Impala four-door and the Chevy Monte Carlo two-door, the other producing the Buick Century and the Regal—and there is a truck plant—producing GMT 800 full-size trucks, the Chevy Silverado and the GMC Sierra. There is also a contiguous stamping plant that includes 11 press systems and produces 370 tons of steel parts per day for the assembly plant. There's an engineering center. And there is still more on the 650 acres.
Oshawa is called an "Autoplex."
That word, of course, sounds rather, well, futuristic. And in some regards, Oshawa can be considered a vision of the future that General Motors once had. In 1988, the plant was undoubtedly hailed as part of GM's bold move into the realm of seriously high technology manufacturing. For example, in the two car assembly body shops, there are 160 automated guided vehicles (AGVs) rolling through the plant carrying cars-in-becoming. There are no traditional conveyor lines. There are some overhead electrified monorail systems. But the floor-based systems follow wires embedded in the floor, they don't get tugged along by chains. Imagine how that must have looked back then, when the AGVs were shiny new and not showing the scratched decals and other signs of handling hundreds of thousands of vehicles through the years. (There are also AGVs in the truck plant. And, yes, an abundance of robots in both.)
Less Than Ideal.
According to Eric Stevens, plant manager for the Oshawa Car Assembly operations, the AGVs are a less-than-ideal approach to assembly, especially in the type of lean environment that they are promulgating in Oshawa. Part of the problem is that they're looking for shorter takt times, not longer, yet because of the nature of the AGVs (e.g., independent vehicles which are finite in number), the takt time is on the order of four minutes, not less than one. Consequently, AGVs drive the need for parallel processes, which can lead to problems with regard to quality and repeatability.
Yet for all that, they are doing some rather remarkable things throughout the Autoplex. For example, long takt times notwithstanding, in the category of hours per vehicle excluding launch for full-size trucks in the 2000 Harbour Report, GM Oshawa is best, with 21.74 hours per vehicle. Ford's Norfolk plant came in second, at 21.77 vehicles. It is worth taking into account that the actual production at Oshawa was 323,034; it was 230,628 at Norfolk. Oshawa Car Plant 1, where the Chevrolets are built, was the best GM car assembly plant with regard to hours per vehicle in the Harbour Report (third overall in North America).
Imagine how productive they could be without those AGVs. (Stevens points out that it wouldn't be cost-effective to simply take the AGVs out. However, he also says that they're "not sustainable," and that in about 10 years, when they wear out, they'll undoubtedly disappear from the Autoplex.)
More Than Empty Words.
So what's behind the success? It's people, not all of the technology. The technology is a tool. No matter how advanced the tools, it doesn't matter if they can't be deployed in the most productive manner. Oshawa is another brownfield example of where GM is implementing its Global Manufacturing System (GMS) with what are measurably good results. John Buttermore, manufacturing manager, GM Vehicle Manufacturing explains that the core of GMS is people. The company has developed a graphic of the GMS principles, which essentially resembles electrons circling around a nucleus. The nucleus is the GM GMS system. The individual electrons are "Continuous Improvement," "Standardization," "Built-in-Quality," "Short Lead Time," and "People Involvement." Notice that not one of them is "Machinery" or "Software" or the like.
At the core of people involvement, Buttermore explains, is the operator's job design. Around it are elements including standardized work, ergonomic guidelines for safety, workplace organization, error-proofing, material presentation (line-side), and tooling. The latter are certainly physical, but the others are, by and large, organizational in nature. And they are working hard to inculcate this thinking throughout the organization, not just throwing out slogans and banners and hoping something will catch until the next clever idea comes along.
But let's face it: there are several issues that need to be addressed, both from the standpoints of the supervisors and the people building the vehicles.
Stevens admits that there is an interest in making sure that the cars and trucks are built, and that in effect, the workers are "tied" to the "line," although in this case it is a line of AGVs rather than the traditional approach. But what he says is the difference between what they're doing now and what had been practiced in the past is that rather than optimizing the equipment, they are looking at the ways and means to make it easier for the operators to do their jobs. (This even goes all the way to having vehicles designed for production, and Stevens says that there are product engineers on-site in the plants who are involved in helping make sure that things are improved: When I pointed out an area where workers were working with their hands above their shoulders, Stevens admitted that there is still a way to go, but that the amount of work like that has been greatly diminished not only through job redesign, but through product modification, as well.)
So far as the supervisors go, Stevens says that one of the ways that they're making sure there is congruence all the way from the objectives of the top of the organization right on through is by driving the business plan deployment all the way down. So, for example, the supervisors all must measure Quality, Cost, Productivity, and Safety. He points out that it isn't good enough to score high on one of the metrics at the expense of another (e.g., getting out large number of vehicles that have lots of required rework: the Productivity is there, but the Quality isn't). There must be balance.
"It sounds simple, but it works," Stevens says. In fact, that could be said of GMS.