Innovative Auto Plants Shuttered Under Leaner Reorganizations

October 10, 2009/Steve Tackett

MOTOR MATTERS FREEWHEELING BY BILL VISNIC

Fresh from midsummer “quick-rinse” bankruptcies — designed to make them leaner and meaner organizations — moves from the new General Motors and Chrysler Group are ripping up some innovative operations that helped change conventions about auto manufacturing in this country.
Both GM and Chrysler had to use bankruptcy to drastically and rapidly get their vast manufacturing empires in line with the new reality that both companies sell fewer vehicles. That means closing auto assembly plants — including some groundbreaking ones.
GM said in June it had to vacate its New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif. NUMMI, however, wasn’t just any GM plant: it was a pioneering joint venture with Toyota inaugurated in 1984 to assemble vehicles sold by both automakers. The NUMMI plant was Toyota’s first auto-assembly operation in the U.S.
Toyota says that, among other things, its involvement in NUMMI helped it gain experience from GM about how auto production works in the U.S. — and understand how to be a corporate citizen here. GM got plenty in return, gaining a firsthand view of Toyota’s famous lean-manufacturing and management techniques.
NUMMI has another significance: it was and still is the only full-scale auto-manufacturing site in California. The plant will close altogether when Toyota leaves next spring. GM also is jettisoning another revolutionary assembly plant, this one in Spring Hill, Tenn.
Car buffs know the town of Spring Hill as longtime home of Saturn.

Toyota Corolla

For many years, the only vehicles made at Spring Hill were Saturns and the town often was host to events and pilgrimages for the intensely faithful customers Saturn carefully cultivated.
But GM never gave Saturn (originally created to be a sort of touchy-feely “anti-GM” intended to woo the import-buying customers GM was losing) the resources and the corporate nurturing to expand.
So the brand evolved into another GM marketing division, like Oldsmobile or Pontiac (both of which now are gone, incidentally) and GM went on to produce a variety of non-Saturn vehicles at Spring Hill.
Chrysler also is breaking up an innovative manufacturing operation, this one for engines. It recently took sole ownership of the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance plant in Dundee, Mich., that currently makes Chrysler’s latest generation of four-cylinder engines.
GEMA began in 2005 as a visionary operation to make hundreds of thousands of engines annually for the three partners that invested in the design, development and manufacturing of the four-cylinder engines: Chrysler, Japan’s Mitsubishi and South Korea’s Hyundai.
The GEMA engine plant was designed to use a high degree of automation to cost-effectively churn out fuel-efficient engines for the vehicles each partner sold in the U.S.
As often is the case with novel auto assembly-plant strategies, the vision didn’t match reality: shortly after the plant was finished, tough times hit Mitsubishi and Hyundai’s ideas changed. Neither ever ended up with a single engine from GEMA, which ironically was measured as the most efficient powertrain plant in North America.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009