Keeping up with the rapidly changing, highly profitable and extremely complex full-sized truck market is a daunting task.
One month customers are clamoring for extended-cab pickups. The next month they want luxury sport-utilities with all-wheel drive.
General Motors believes new costly body shops at all of its full-sized truck assembly plants finally give it the versatility to keep up with demand and handle production gaffes more efficiently.
GM also expects the body shops to enable it to introduce new models quickly as the life cycle for trucks continues to shrink.
'We're able to run different varieties of trucks in the same plant as well as across plants. That gives us flexibility not only in a plant, but from plant to plant,' said Guy Briggs, general manager of GM Truck Group Operations.
Last year, GM opened new body shops at three of its pickup truck plants when it switched to its new GMT800 full-sized truck platform from the old GMT400.
This year it added two more new body shops at its full-sized sport-utility plants in Janesville, Wis., and Silao, Mexico. Another new body shop will open at GM's sport-utility plant in Arlington, Texas, when that plant switches to the GMT800 next year.
GM won't say how much it is spending on each body shop. But to get an idea of the cost, GM is pumping more than $500 million into Arlington; most of that, it said, is for the body shop.
Each body shop now has the flexibility to handle a variety of body styles and models. Also, 100 percent of the welding is automated, compared with about 70 percent at the old body shops.
The automated welding 'really allows you to change faster,' Briggs said. 'You don't have to buy new tools; you can reconfigure and reprogram as required.'
GM was able to test its new-found flexibility last fall when a stamping die broke. It was a die that was used to make fenders for the new GMC Sierra pickup.
A year earlier, a problem like that would have cut deeply into GM's pickup inventory. With its new body shops, however, GM was able to switch production 100 percent to the Sierra's sister truck, the Chevrolet Silverado, and maintain a steady flow of product.
'We had the flexibility to run our Chevys full-bore there, rather than having to shut down the plant,' Briggs said.
But the real test will occur if there is a major change in market demand. Say there is an increase in demand for extended-cab pickups. In the past, GM made most of its extended cabs at its Oshawa, Ontario, assembly plant. If Oshawa was already at maximum capacity, increasing production would have meant reconfiguring another plant.
GM would be 'caught with their pants down,' said Ron Harbour, president of Harbour and Associates, a manufacturing consultant firm in Troy, Mich.
But if that happened today, GM is prepared to accelerate extended-cab production at its plants in Pontiac, Mich., and Fort Wayne, Ind. Briggs calls the system, in which the plants are flexible enough to quickly back each other, 'chaining.'
Harbour agrees the system is much better. 'You can build numerous varieties in all their plants,' Harbour said. 'Compared with the flexibility they had on the GMT400, the GMT800 is miles ahead.'
Briggs said GM will use chaining when it introduces its next-generation mid-sized sport-utilities, expected in 2001. That should mean new body shops for its assembly plants in Linden, N.J., and Moraine, Ohio, where GM assembles the Chevrolet Blazer, GMC Jimmy and Oldsmobile Bravada.
SHRINKING LIFE CYCLES
The new body shops at GM's full-sized truck plants could become even more crucial in six years, according to Briggs.
The life cycle for full-sized trucks continues to shrink. Before the GMT400 platform, it was about 17 years; the GMT400 lasted just over 10 years.
'We got 10 years of profitable production out of those (GMT400) body shops,' Briggs said.
GM wants more than one life-cycle out of its new body shops, especially if the life cycle drops to only six years, as Briggs suspects it will. Building new body shops every six years would be a 'expensive proposition,' he said.
That's where the GMT800 platform comes in. Briggs believes the new body architecture introduced in the GMT800 is good enough to last through more than one life cycle. As a result, GM can use the flexibility of the body shops to make inexpensive changes to the outside of the next-generation full-sized pickups and sport-utilities.
Said Briggs: 'You want to really look at the product and make sure you have the best architecture moving forward. Then you make the changes to the outside of the vehicle.'