In 2007, a $700 million renovation had turned Spring Hill into GM's most agile plant, where reprogrammable welding lines, paint booths and vehicle carriers were capable of building anything from a small car to a Chevrolet Tahoe SUV.
How long would it have taken Spring Hill to convert its production lines to the new family of small cars? "A matter of weeks," Herron estimates. "That was the point of our renovation — to be able to respond to market chang-es without a lot of new investment."
Orion Township, a 26-year-old plant, now will undergo its own $700 million makeover. The investment will bring Orion up to Spring Hill's level of flexibility in its body shop and paint operations by 2011.
The transformation also will require Orion to embrace "Value Added Assembly," a new GM practice that debuted at Spring Hill in 2008. The practice uses lower-paid employees of third-party companies to work inside the GM plant, assembling parts side by side with GM workers.
At Spring Hill, several hundred workers from Penske Logistics and Premier Manufacturing Support Services intermingle on the assembly lines and work the same shifts as their vehicle assembly brethren. But while the GM employees earn normal UAW hourly rates of about $28, the parts workers earn $12 to $14 an hour.
Premier workers, who previously cleaned out paint booths, unloaded trucks and maintained the plant grounds, now assemble headliners and door modules. Penske workers perform parts sequencing inside the GM plant and deliver parts to the line. The practice helped make the Chevy Traverse a profitable product.
Nissan North America and Toyota Motor Engineering and Manufacturing North America have adopted similar practices inside some of their U.S plants. But it remains a radical departure for GM and the UAW.