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Aaron Barmore's job, inserting pistons into a four-cylinder engine, is not a popular one at General Motors Corp.'s plant in Tonawanda.

"In the old line, you would do the same job, all day long," the Buffalo resident said.

But on the new L850 engine, the "piston stuffer" task is easier, he said. A robot arm inserts the piston while team members switch off between assembling parts and stocking them in racks.

"The main difference on this line is we rotate jobs -- you get to use your head a little more," Barmore said.

The engine plant on River Road held a celebration for its newest product Wednesday, displaying what GM calls a state-of-the-art production line and team-manufacturing techniques that break down walls between jobs and departments.

With the L850 "world engine," the Tonawanda plant is aiming for productivity that beats not not just other GM facilities, but even industry leader Toyota, company sources said. Achieving that goal could boost the plant's quest for new products to support its 3,800 jobs.

But higher efficiency, while it strengthens the plant's competitive position, puts downward pressure on jobs in the long run. Barmore is one of three piston-stuffer workers on the L850 line, a task that would take 14 people under traditional production methods, according to the company.

Tonawanda won the L850 in 1996, a four-cylinder engine that powers Saturn's new LS sedan and wagon. Production is still in the ramp-up period, with about 200 workers producing 800 engines a day, less than half the line's eventual speed of 2,100 a day, manager Chris O'Sullivan said.

Workers in L850 production teams use their heads more than a little, O'Sullivan said. "We had some ergonomic problems with line height" in one part of L850 assembly, she said. Line workers rearranged production to eliminate the lifting and bending, without having to change the height of the equipment. "That saved us lots of money," she said.

Workers on the L850 line are expected to work with suppliers, engineers and managers, as well as each other, making decisions that would be passed up to a supervisor in a traditional manufacturing environment.

"It is a little different from the rest of the plant today," Ms. O'Sullivan said.

The look of the engine line is different too, with more lighting and less clutter than other parts of 2.5 million square-foot plant complex.

Tonawanda's other production lines are adopting "lean manufacturing" techniques practiced with L850 production, plant manager Arvin Jones said.

"We're starting to put those strategies in place around the whole site," he said. "We realize, as management, we can't do it alone."

United Auto Workers Local 774 at Tonawanda has pre-approved team manufacturing techniques for new products at the engine plant.

Workers have been expecting the company to announce new powertrain products since early this year, a development that may come after GM completes its national contract negotiations with the UAW, industry analysts say. The union's national contract expires Sept. 14.

The world engine, so called because of its globe-spanning design team, is attracting an international presence to Tonawanda now that it's in production, workers said. Engineers from around GM's operations tour the new production line, Barmore said, and even some from outside the company have visited.

"That just shows how confident we are," he said.

Tonawanda's main customer for the L850 is a Saturn LS assembly plant in Wilmington, Del. A sister production line in Kaiserslautern, Germany will make European versions of the lightweight, all-aluminum engine for GM's Open division starting in 2001. The L850 will also go into cars planned for Asia and South America markets, GM said.

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