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GM Manufacturing Operations More Flexible After Bankruptcy

Since emerging from a 39-day stint under Chapter 11 protection last year, GM has been working hard at breaking down walls between design, engineering and manufacturing, Diana Tremblay says.

TRAVERSE CITY, MI – General Motors Co. manufacturing and labor-relations chief Diana Tremblay says the reorganized auto maker is focusing more closely on maintaining flexibility, quality and inter-departmental relationships – and that is translating into more marketplace wins.

Speaking at the CAR Management Briefing Seminars here, Tremblay points to the auto maker’s decision to meet high demand for its Chevy Equinox by shuttling bodies from its Ingersoll, ON, Canada, plant for final assembly some 126 miles (204 km) south at its Oshawa, ON, facility.

GM expects the strategy to result in 60,000 to 80,000 additional units of Equinox and GMC Terrain production. Perhaps more importantly, however, Tremblay says the creative approach will get more units into the market at the height of the CUVs’ popularity.

“Should we build another plant?” she says, recalling the central question surrounding strategy sessions over how best to boost output. “That would take too much time. We’d probably miss the peak of the cycle of demand for the product. And it would cost too much.”

By utilizing unused capacity at Ingersoll and Oshawa, Tremblay says it will take six to eight months to reach the new production levels, compared with 12 to 18 months to ramp up another plant. The shuttles were scheduled to begin running today.

At the auto maker’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant, the new-for-’11 Chevy Volt extended-range electric vehicle is built on the same line as the big Buick Lucerne and Cadillac DTS sedans.

“We get a lot of requests to visit the Volt line,” she says. “Well, there is no Volt line, per se.”

In the future, GM also will add the next-generation Chevy Malibu sedan to the plant, further underscoring the facility’s flexibility.

In Orion Twp., MI, where GM shut down operations with its decision to kill the Pontiac brand, Tremblay says the plant’s interior has been completely remodeled in anticipation of production next year of the redesigned Aveo small car.

She tells Ward’s GM intends to begin working with the United Auto Workers union soon on staffing and training. Flexibility within in the plant and its workforce will allow GM to build a profitable small car in the U.S., Tremblay adds.

“I have every confidence we will be successful when we launch the next-generation Aveo,” she says, stopping short of providing details. “I won’t steal all the thunder about how we’re going to do that, but you will see creative approaches up and down the line.”

Since emerging from a 39-day stint under Chapter 11 protection last year, GM has been working hard at breaking down walls between design, engineering and manufacturing, Tremblay says, pointing to the new-for-’11 Cadillac CTS Coupe.

A tricky design on one of the car’s body-side outer panels previously would have brought production to a screeching halt, she claims.

“I would say old GM manufacturing might not have embraced that design,” says the GM veteran of more than 30 years. “It certainly presented a challenge to our stamping operations in Marion, IN.”

But working with the UAW on the shop floor, “we found a way to build it. And the results are a truly beautiful line.”

Tremblay says GM’s manufacturing operations are playing a role in remaking the auto maker’s image, dented by the bankruptcy and taxpayer bailout. Real employees inside real GM plants are used to film television commercials.

Salaried and hourly workers are encouraged to participate in social media, such as Facebook, to tout GM’s restructuring progress.

“We’re opening our doors and encouraging people to come see our operations and meet our teams,” she says.

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