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.

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 Even GM chairman Roger Smith concedes that some parts of the Orion and Wentzville plants are already out of date.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.''

As it bores down on perhaps its biggest job of all time - meeting the competitive onslaught from Western Europe and Japan - the US auto industry has its eye, above all else, on quality.

The development and production of sounder American cars is the point behind today's new plants and the modular-assembly techniques and ''Star Wars'' automation that may still be a few miles down the road.

The industry's hope is that this emphasis on quality may eventually erase the recall campaigns which have been such an annoyance to company and consumer alike.

Meanwhile, carmakers are taking sometimes painful steps to ensure better products.

GM, for example, has fallen thousands of cars behind its projected output for C-body luxury cars because of nagging start-up problems at both Orion and Wentzville. Rather than produce poor-quality vehicles at the plants, GM spokesmen say, the big carmaker blew the whistle on its suppliers both within the company and from the outside.

''I think they've got the message now,'' a GM supervisor asserts. ''When you refuse to accept a parts shipment, the shipper soon knows you mean business.''

Further, GM plans to send the first 300 workers in its new joint-venture California plant to Toyota facilities in Japan for training, similar to the programs at both the new Honda Accord plant in Marysville, Ohio, and the Nissan light-truck plant in Smyrna, Tenn.

But talking about quality and taking some preliminary steps toward it are relatively easy. Achieving it can be difficult indeed.

There are two kinds of quality, according to Martin Anderson, executive director of the Future of the Automobile Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

First, there's the question of ''dealership defects.'' Unless a dealer takes the time to prepare a new car properly for delivery to a customer, making sure that the car runs as it should, that its appearance is free of glaring lapses, and that the car is equipped and delivered according to the specifications on the order form, customer complaints are likely to ensue.

Second, US carmakers have long been beset by the impression among motorists that their products are more shoddily built and just don't last as long as the imports. Long-term durability is at the heart of what a lot of people mean by ''quality.'' This concept of ''perceived quality'' has particularly favored the Japanese.

Mr. Anderson, in a sense, takes the domestic automobile industry partway off the hook. ''Nobody in the world can launch a new car without defects in the first year,'' he declares, explaining that ''the Japanese and the Germans keep their first-year production at home. We only get the cars after they've eliminated the bugs in their own home markets, whereas we see all of our bugs right up front.''

Frustration over well-publicized failures (GM X-car brakes, Ford and GM transmissions, poor-running diesels, and more) prompts James Donaldson, director of advanced car business and power-train planning at Ford, to lament: ''It's a jungle out there, whether you're forecasting sales or technology trends or anything else.''

The Ford executive declares, ''You're continually trying to go back to basics.''

The point is, the American carmakers appear to know the imports inside and out - you can see overseas cars all over the place when you tour their research facilities.

They have a good idea of what it will take to meet the imports' challenge in the showroom and on the road. But whether they can effectively tackle the job, in a cost-competitive manner, is still an open question.

The foreign competition, it should be remembered, is also moving rapidly ahead on the technological front.

Recognizing the reality of the situation, GM chairman Smith concludes: ''It's a race for survival, and only the fittest will finish.''

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