After 85 years of making trucks, General Motors should be able to build its next generation of full-sized pickups blindfolded.
But the full-sized truck program, including the Chevrolet and GMC Suburban, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon sport-utilities that spring from it, will be so vital to GM's profits that the company is treating it as an unprecedented venture.
Before the first salable truck rolls down the assembly line in Oshawa, Ontario, this June, GM will have built more than 300 prototype copies in its new validation center in Pontiac, Mich.
The $103 million center opened in 1996 in a plant that until 1994 built Chevrolet Blazers. A miniature factory, it is part of a focused effort by the automaker to eliminate the early production glitches that slowed the launches of four critical products in 1994: the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire and the Chevrolet Lumina and Monte Carlo.
On the 800,000-square-foot shop floor, the GM Truck Group experimented with processes and equipment needed to build the trucks. Every assembly process except painting was practiced at the center before being implemented at the plant.
The goal is to slash the time it takes to ramp up to full production of the GMT800 from 26 weeks to 16, said Martin MacDonald, director of the center. The center has been so successful that other carmaking divisions within GM are using it to try out new processes, he said.
GMT800 Chief Engineer Ken Sohocki says preproduction vehicles have been rolling down assembly lines since January. One of the validation center's biggest contributions has been sorting out the complexities of building a truck on one line with dozens of configurations, including four gasoline engines, a diesel engine, four transmissions, three different axle sizes, four different transfer cases and a bevy of cargo box and cab configurations.
Eventually, the center may be replaced by advanced computer simulations able to replicate an entire assembly plant digitally, but Sohocki says there likely always will be a need to practice building vehicles physically. 'Some of the people you need to communicate with are operators on the line, and they can't quite necessarily make the leap into 3-D simulations.'
At a press briefing on the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this month, Chevrolet General Manager John Middlebrook said the truck is on schedule. The vehicles are expected in showrooms this fall.