General Motors' Grand River assembly plant in Lansing, Mich., is the birthplace of the Cadillac CTS and STS sedans and the SRX sport wagon.
The robotic fixtures in the plant's body shop that hold the steel panels in place for welding are smart enough to construct a CTS in one cycle and follow it with an SRX in the next - without a long and expensive changeover.
The body building system, which GM calls C-Flex, can build up to 24 variations, a level of flexibility that the plant's T-shaped general assembly line can't handle, acknowledges Ken Knight, the plant's manager.
But the savings from C-Flex are so great - body shops can be up to 150,000 square feet smaller and the cost of introducing a product to the line can drop as much as $100 million - that GM has installed the system in six U.S. assembly plants in the past three years.
Plants in Lordstown, Ohio, and Orion, Mich., will begin using C-Flex this fall with the start of production of the Chevrolet Co-balt and Pontiac G6, respectively.
Flexibility is at the heart of automakers' and suppliers' manufacturing strategies. A combination of falling hardware prices and more capable software is enabling robots and automated systems to play a larger role in manufacturing.
With the addition of vision and force-sensing technologies, robots can handle more complex assembly tasks than before. And cost savings from robots make companies more competitive, which can counter the push to move jobs to low-wage countries such as China, executives at robot makers say.