Richard E. Dauch, president of American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. in Detroit, hears all the talk about the influences of European and Japanese automakers. But he says a lot of the innovations were homegrown in the United States.
How about three-shift factory schedules designed to wring more production out of an assembly plant? Ideas like that were introduced at General Motors in the 1960s and 1970s, he points out.
What about cleaning up environmental problems of paint shops? Or removing lead solder from body assembly operations? Chrysler Corp. was doing that in the early 1980s, he says.
'It's just good old-fashioned American ingenuity,' he says.
Still, Dauch admits, many improvements are borrowed from abroad. Dauch himself did a little cross-pollinating in the early 1990s while he was executive vice president of worldwide manufacturing at Chrysler.
In 1991, when he was helping to lay out Chrysler's Jefferson North assembly plant, Dauch was looking for ways to make the plant a more human place.
So Dauch introduced a Volkswagen-inspired procedure: Where workers needed to bolt parts to the underbody of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the assembly line would be raised to waist height and the vehicle body tilted at a sharp angle. That way, line workers could walk beside the truck and attach parts in an ergonomically friendly fashion.
Dauch's career amounts to a 34-year benchmarking exercise focused on some of the industry's top manufacturers.
After starting as a GM manufacturing manager, he joined Volkswagen in 1976 to set up the first high-volume transplant in the United States. He moved to Chrysler in 1980, where his main task was to rehabilitate the automaker's plants and bring in new manufacturing technology.
Then, in 1994, Dauch and two partners acquired five cast-off General Motors factories and turned them into the highly successful American Axle & Manu-facturing Inc. The venture is now ranked No. 16 on Automotive News' list of top 150 OEM suppliers to North America.
'We had to learn from the world,' he says. 'All the answers weren't in America.'