Craft Center takes GM beyond the assembly line. New system could revolutionize auto production

In the 75 years since Henry Ford revolutionized the auto industry by introducing the moving assembly line, the industry has followed a philosophy of ``more is better.'' Since then, carmakers have focused on building higher volumes of fewer products to maximize profits. Nowhere has this approach been used more than at General Motors Corporation, where the company's critically assailed engineering strategy has resulted in a sharp plunge in market share.

But now, GM has begun to look for ways to diversify its product lineup and reestablish the once-unique identities of each of its models. In the case of Buick, the division is counting on its Reatta, a $25,000, two-seat sporty ``niche car.''

Perhaps even more important, Buick is counting on the Reatta Craft Center, a low-volume production facility that relies as much on worker judgment as it does on the goal of rolling cars out the door.

Unlike more conventional models that must be sold in volumes of 100,000 units a year or more, first-year production for the Reatta is running at about 3,000 cars.

That kind of volume would normally send shivers up the spines of GM's cautious cadre of corporate bean-counters, but Reatta is designed not only to serve as a divisional pacesetter, but also as a profit center, and its unique production system could serve as one of the most significant deviations in automotive manufactur-ing since the first assembly-line-built Model-T.

The Reatta Craft Center in Lansing, Mich., is a converted forging facility and is barely a quarter the size of more conventional GM assembly lines. Employment may eventually climb to 850, as opposed to the 2,500 to 5,000 workers at a typical GM assembly plant.

Based on initial sales, the Reatta is proving to be one of GM's few big success stories right now, and if sales continue climbing, the Craft Center could ultimately boost production to as high as 25,000 units a year.

Even at that level, it would be virtually impossible to turn a profit building Reatta on a conventional moving assembly line, where vehicle bodies are carried along a conveyor system past as many as 1,000 separate work stations. At each, an employee has less than a minute to complete a car - over and over again - the same single operation, perhaps installing a bolt or a piece of glass.

The Reatta Craft Center, on the other hand, is designed specifically for low-volume production, and moving assembly lines are used only in the highly automated paint booth and again during a small run of final assembly where some tricky suspension parts are bolted together. Otherwise, the plant relies on automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, and fixed ``craft stations.''

Once a Reatta body has been painted, it is picked up by an AGV that carries it to a fixed work station where a team of workers spends half an hour completing a series of as many as 25 separate operations before the vehicle is moved again.

``On a conventional line, if you have a problem, if a part doesn't fit right, or a job isn't completed, you have to make a conscious decision to ... stop the line,'' explains Bob Thompson, manager of the Reatta plant. ``In a craft center, the worker has to complete all his work, inspect the vehicle himself, and then make a conscious decision to release the car to the next station.''

The process at the Craft Center here is far slower than a conventional assembly line. At maximum output, it will turn out just 56 cars on each of two eight-hour shifts. A conventional plant turns out more cars in one hour.

``We're not going to build [cars] as cost-effectively as you could in a plant building 60 cars an hour,'' Mr. Thompson acknowledges. On a man-hour-per-car basis, he says, the Reatta Craft Center is at least 15 percent less efficient.

The Lansing factory does have one distinct edge, however. To take advantage of the economies of scale at a conventional factory, an automaker must build a high-volume product, typically with sales of a 100,000 or more units a year.

In early March, GM canceled production of another niche vehicle, the sporty Pontiac Fiero, because it couldn't justify building just 25,000 vehicles a year at a plant designed to produce four times as many cars. But the Reatta center will operate in the black making less than 15,000 cars a year, Thompson says.

Though AGVs rank among the most advanced technology in use by the auto industry, the Craft Center has trimmed operating costs by using mostly low-tech systems. In fact, Thompson has cut the cost of presses to $200,000 by rebuilding equipment cast off by other GM plants.

In the body shop, only about 12 percent of all welds are made by robots, compared with 90 percent at a conventional assembly plant. Instead of emphasizing technology, the Craft Center relies on the team concept, where groups of employees work together, each capable of filling in for another team member.

As a result, says Stan Pewoski, shop committeeman with the United Automobile Workers union, the unskilled worker job classifications have been combined from perhaps 110 at a typical plant to just one. And there also fewer skilled trade classifications, he says.

There is a trade-off. Union workers earn more an hour, on the average, than their counterparts at other GM assembly plants, and the union has received assurances that job cuts won't be made in order to add more automation or to use outside sources for component subassemblies.

Ensuring a good working union/management relationship is essential to the craft center approach, Thompson and Mr. Pewoski agree. To that effect, Thompson has inaugurated a program in which he trades his suit for overalls one day a month and works on the line.

``We can't wait to get him down there,'' says Pewoski, grinning.

But though Thompson admits he has been assigned to some of the grubbiest jobs the union can give him, he insists it is ``the one day a month I look forward to,'' as a way ``to break down the barriers between hourly workers and management and to set an example for the rest of my managers.''

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