Detroit floors the accelerator on technology
WHEN General Motors decided on two new assembly plants to build its down-scaled, front-drive luxury cars - Buick Electra, Oldsmobile 98, and Cadillac Fleetwood/DeVille - it pulled out all stops on current high-tech.Skip to next paragraph
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An army of robots, automated material-delivery systems, and computers close ranks with workers to produce cars at both Orion Township, Mich., and Wentzville , Mo. Beyond that, new management methods have been introduced which encourage a ''team spirit'' instead of the ''I'm better than you'' attitude of the past.
What it should mean here, as well as in other all-new or totally renovated plants elsewhere, is better-quality cars off the line.
All of this, however, is only the beginning. What is now operating at GM's two latest assembly plants will pale when new facilities come on stream in the late 1980s and beyond.
''Both plants are probably already passe,'' asserts Dr. John D. Caplan, executive director of the GM Research Laboratories in Warren, Mich. ''If we were starting tomorrow,'' he adds, ''we'd do it a lot different, because we've got much more technology.'' Even GM chairman Roger Smith concedes that some parts of the Orion and Wentzville plants are already out of date.
No matter, either plant would have made GM organizational genius Alfred B. Sloan proud.
''The old joke about technology changing so fast that the engineer who goes out for lunch has to be retrained when he gets back is just about literally true ,'' quipped Mr. Smith at the formal press tour of the Orion plant last month.
The imprint of Japan is visible all around, including a ''just-in-time'' parts-delivery system in which most parts can be delivered to the Orion plant, for instance, in less than six hours, saving not only inventory space, but money.
Both plants operate on the ''team concept.'' GM spokesmen say that this ''allows and encourages employees to have greater individual control over the organization and performance of their jobs.'' Scattered around the floor are more than 50 ''meeting places'' for the 370 work teams at each plant.
In Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, Chrysler Corporation completely gutted its assembly plant and installed state-of-the-art methods and equipment for production of its high-selling minivan, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager.
In nearby Dearborn, Mich., Paul F. Guy is director of Ford Motor Company's manufacturing engineering and systems office. His job, he explains, is ''to move Ford manufacturing along, keep it current and state of the art, and constantly press for new and better ways of making our products.''
When Ford builds a new assembly plant in Hermosillo, Mexico, to produce a derivative of the Japanese Mazda 626, it may be even more advanced than the latest GM plants.
GM is designing a ''plant of the future'' for its Saginaw Steering Gear Division. In the late '80s, the company plans to launch a new car that now goes by the code name ''Saturn.'' Both the Saginaw plant and the new car will employ entirely new production concepts.
''It's not so much that they'll be essentially entirely automated,'' explains GM chairman Smith, ''but they'll be a whole different approach to the assembly process. Flexible automation is the new key, and that's where it will go.''
Smith explains: ''A robot will pick up a tool, for example, and do a function , and then put that tool back and pick up another tool and do a different part.''
The robot, in effect, will have vision. The GM chairman warns, however: ''We've got to watch that we don't get overworked on it, but there is a tremendous future in the concept. It's absolutely incredible what kind of work we are going to see down the road.''