DETROIT - General Motors still trails its rivals in manufacturing efficiency, but one consultant says the automaker has begun to improve.
Ron Harbour, author of 'The Harbour Report 1997,' says GM substantially boosts manufacturing efficiency every time it designs a new car or truck.
'GM continues to make good strides,' said Harbour, president of Harbour and Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Troy, Mich. 'This is a company that brought out a car (the Chevrolet Malibu) that requires 20 percent fewer workers. They've done a lot of great things.'
Last year, GM boosted manufacturing efficiency 5 percent, according to Harbour's annual survey, which compares the efficiency of North America's assembly, powertrain, transmission and stamping plants.
Japanese automakers still run the most efficient assembly plants, but the Big 3 are closing the gap.
According to Harbour, Nissan Corp. was the continent's most efficient vehicle manufacturer, followed by Honda Motor Co. Ltd., New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. and Toyota Motor Corp.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s assembly plant in Smyrna, Tenn., required 2.23 workers per vehicle - the fourth straight year it has led the industry. Ford Motor Co. was the most efficient Big 3 producer, averaging 3.09 workers per vehicle.
General Motors again was the least efficient North American automaker, but it showed the most improvement. In 1996, GM's assembly plants averaged 3.47 workers per vehicle. Although GM remains last, its plants are 22 percent more efficient than in 1992.
During a June 11 press briefing, Harbour attributed much of GM's improvement to the better design of new vehicles like the Malibu.
The Malibu is easier to assemble because it has fewer components, Harbour said. A bumper on an older GM car might have 24 bolts and fasteners, while a new one might have only four.
GM is learning a lesson that Ford absorbed in 1985, when it introduced the easy-to-build Taurus. Since then, Ford has led the Big 3 in efficiency. But over the past four years, Ford's productivity has slipped.
According to Harbour, the current Taurus, Sable, Contour and Mystique models are more difficult to assemble than their predecessors. Harbour predicted Ford will reverse that trend with its next generation of vehicles.
Nissan, Honda and Toyota lead the Big 3 in productivity for several reasons, Harbour said. Their plants employ a smaller proportion of indirect labor - skilled workers, inspectors, janitors and others who do not build cars.
The transplants' workers usually handle more job assignments, giving management more flexibility. At Toyota, for example, workers who operate the machinery also perform basic maintenance.
At Smyrna, Nissan is very good at balancing work assignments on the assembly line, so that workers in one sector do not stand idle while others rush to complete their tasks.
Smyrna remains productive because of 'good, basic industrial engineering,' Harbour said. He also had a warning for automakers that fail to boost productivity.
'Somebody is going to die,' he said. 'Somebody will be left in the cold. Can the Big 3 improve? Yes. If they don't, they won't be around.'