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“This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”
GM Baltimore Operations at White Marsh

October 2011

While that 1980s era advertising campaign may long be forgotten – and the Oldsmobile brand no longer in production – it still seems to capture the essence of what General Motors exudes at its transmission plant in White Marsh. With its current facility recycling 100 percent of its waste and construction starting on a new building to make electric motor parts, GM seems poised to craft a similar announcement to the world – “This is not your father’s GM manufacturing plant.”

In and around Baltimore, the term “manufacturing” usually conjures up images of working “at Broening Highway” or “at the Point.” On a recent visit, the glossy tiled floor in GM’s lobby, the vaulted glass walls and the wood-trimmed conference room doors, however, certainly did not correspond to those images. There were not hundreds of men with dirty fingernails and Paul Bunyan frames milling about. Nor was there thick, black smoke pouring from the rooftop or steam whistling from machines as it soaked the workers already wet from sweat. Instead, neatly uniformed employees whizzed by on forklifts or briskly walked along safety paths to their workstations. A bulletin board covered in daily metrics sheets and production schedules stood next to a board covered with photos and letters of appreciation from local students after a recent field trip when they planted 200 trees to create a wildlife habitat outside. In fact, one entire production line – the hybrid 2-mode transmission – is not even running on this particular day. When a large number of employees requested the same vacation week, Union and Management worked together to move employees over from the hybrid line who had been cross-trained on the A-1000 line to allow the vacation requests to go through. “That is a 21st century, a ‘next- generation manufacturing’ scenario that would not have been possible 10 years ago,” explains Plant Manager William Tiger.

Not That Long Ago

“Back in the ’70s, ’80s and even in the ’90s, plants were built with dedicated lines that only made components for one product. Employees were trained to do one job on that line. That’s it. The mindset was that high volume manufacturing of one product proved to be the most cost-effective. There was no other way to do it,” says Tiger.

However, when market share eroded with increased competition and consumer demands began changing more quickly, the dedicated line model proved to be faulty and costly. “If the technology advanced, if volume dropped, if consumers wanted something different; you weren’t able to make the adjustments to the line to accommodate those changes. You would have to abandon the line and create a new one,” adds Tiger. The result would be an idle workforce, a layoff, expensive investment in new equipment and training, and little to no production while the new line got up and running. Design improvements couldn’t be tested and flaws couldn’t be detected and corrected until production started causing down time while the line was re-tooled or engineers found a solution. The old way just couldn’t respond to the changing world around it.

Lean. Agile. Flexible.

Today, General Motors utilizes “next-generation manufacturing” strategies at the transmission and hybrid motor plant off Route 7. Next-generation manufacturing (NGM) refers to a methodology, a set of integrated attributes into the company’s operations. According to an NGM report by the National Science Foundation, a next-generation company will “respond quickly to customer needs by rapidly producing customized, inexpensive and high-quality products. This will require factories that can be quickly reconfigured to adapt to changing production and that can be operated by highly-motivated and skilled, knowledgeable workers. Workers organized into teams – both within and outside a company – will become a vital aspect of manufacturing. As participants in extended enterprises, next-generation companies will only undertake that part of the manufacturing process that they can do better than others, something industry calls ‘adding value.’”

“Depending on the industry, ‘next-generation manufacturing’ has its own nuances,” says Tiger. “Here at GM, we define it as our goal to be lean, agile and flexible.”

Lean doesn’t equate to a skeleton crew or being short-staffed at the plant. It means that employees and jobs are fully utilized and efficient and always open to improvement. With next

Completed transmissions ready to be shipped to one of GM’s customers that make heavy duty pickup trucks.

generation manufacturing, it’s more brain vs. brawn. The GM Baltimore Operations facility is 100 percent team-based with each team consisting of four to six employees plus a team leader. A Group Leader leads several teams and is the first salaried position to enter the organizational chart. Each team owns its dashboard of measurements to gauge success toward the company’s goals. And, management is included. The metrics from the floor roll up into the metrics that guide the executive and management levels as well. Their dashboards are displayed on bulletin boards outside their offices and in hallways, just like on the floor, so everyone can see the value of their contribution as well as areas that need attention.

Tiger explains how they view “agility” as the new technologies, machines and systems they are using. GM can produce several products on the same line with minor tweaks and adjustments to the computer program or tooling. They can run new technology into a line that is already running without shutting down.

Leaning to the intellectual definition, he points to GM’s incorporation of a more sophisticated knowledge base into the manufacturing phase at the floor and line level as another example of agility. He says, “We use a CMM machine, coordinate-measuring machine, out here that 15 to 20 years was strictly laboratory equipment. Only highly skilled, professor-type people were trained to operate them. Now, those machines are out on our floor, and our team leaders run them. In some of our plants the operators run them.”

That doesn’t mean that everyone who works at a NGM plant needs to be an engineer, but it helps if they can think like one.

“Years ago, our electricians, would have pulled wires, changed breakers and fuses. Nowadays, the trouble shooting you need to do on a multi-axle CNC machine is another whole skill set,” explains Tiger. Adding, “Our employees don’t have to perform the computer coding or system programming, but they have to understand the intended outcomes in order to identify potential problems.”
Flexibility in GM’s model of next-generation manufacturing is both a philosophy and the intention to reconfigure the floor and what it produces without too much trouble. If a new fuel source is identified or an advancement is made in energy conversion or battery life, the goal/ideal is that GM can make that change quickly and efficiently with minimal impact.

Employee input is another paradigm shift with NGM principles. Tiger points out, “For many years, workers were basically told to check their brains at the door and do what they were told all day. Now it’s about empowering all employees to take an active role in every aspect of the business. We encourage employees to speak up about problems they see and offer solutions when they can. They have the power to make changes and see if they work.”

As in the past, engineering has been heavily involved up front during the product design phase. That’s still true, but with NGM there’s a new twist. Tiger says, “After the announcement of the 4-mode transmission and the electric engine production facility, employees were very excited about the news and wanted to be part of it from the beginning. So we put together launch teams – plant workers who are involved in all aspects of integrating this business. They have been to Michigan building prototypes and learning how to put together the new drive units we’ll be making. They are also developing the standardized work that will be followed to assemble the units at this plant while they collaborate on what may not be working right. They’re looking at what they can change now to make it easier to build in the plant when it gets here. In the old days, those positions would have been determined solely by seniority. But, with our team-based approach, it was a selection process put together by management and the union and that really resonated with the employees.” The launch team will also be responsible for proving out the standardized work for GM’s quality systems, safety, ergonomics, packaging, material and part delivery to the job.

Former Senator and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a 2008 facility tour in the final assembly area. Also shown is Governor Martin O’Malley and Senator Barbara Mikulski.

The rapid pace of change guarantees that the principles of next-generation manufacturing are here to stay. Companies like GM will have to continually figure out adaptive, decision-making processes and software and employ people with the skill set to execute them. Knowledge and ideas have become manufacturing’s most important raw materials. “If you understand that today’s manufacturing is an enterprise-wide production process,” says Eugene Wong, former director of the National Science Foundation Directorate for Engineering and professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, “you see that information management will assume an increasingly important role, one that may already have transcended the importance of transforming materials into products.”

Tiger agrees. “Critical thinking and problem-solving are the skills we need today. We are training our current staff at every opportunity to be able to look at a situation, break it down and find a solution. I couldn’t hire someone with prior experience for many of the new jobs coming to the plant because the machines they would be operating don’t exist yet. So it is more important that a new hire can think on their feet, work collaboratively in teams and apply the knowledge to get the job done. Our current team leaders who have those skills are critical to the future success of this plant.” I95