Keeping the humanity in GM’s new engines, it’s full speed ahead at Tonawanda plant - The Buffalo News
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Keeping the humanity in GM’s new engines, it’s full speed ahead at Tonawanda plant

The newest engine line at General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda plant relies on a mix of automation and human skill, and reflects the automaker’s focus on efficient, flexible manufacturing.

Production of the new “Generation V” small-block V-8 and V-6 engines began earlier this year. GM Tonawanda makes them for the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette, Silverado and GMC Sierra. The new line is the result of a $400 million investment that GM announced in 2010.

GM Tonawanda on Wednesday hosted automotive industry journalists, most from out of town, to showcase its Generation V engines. The 2014 Sierra and Silverado are already in showrooms, and the 2014 Corvette is due to arrive by the end of the current quarter. The Generation V family of engines will power nine GM models by 2015, said Steve Finch, the Tonawanda plant manager.

The section of the vast GM complex devoted to producing the small-block engines is a hive of carefully coordinated activity. Yellow robots glide on tracks above the production floor, picking up and moving objects. Other machines make specific steps of the engine-building process run efficiently. Still other machines subject engines to checks, searching for leaks or other flaws.

“These machines get into hairsplitting kinds of accuracy on a repeatable basis, to make sure we’re producing every engine to the exact specifications,” Finch said.

As each engine is built, a “track and trace” system collects machining and assembly data about it. That way, even if problems arise much later, information about how an engine was built can be retrieved and analyzed.

One eye-catching operation on the plant floor is a machine called an automated cylinder head collection system, which can assemble 48 parts in just 40 seconds.

Finch acknowledged that when he first saw a video of how this “smart cell” machine works, he was not enthused about allowing it into the Tonawanda plant. He was wary of entrusting to the machine a complex subassembly task that, on previous engine lines, was handled by four to six robots and three to four people per shift.

But Finch says the results have won him over. “It’s been one of our best operating pieces of equipment we’ve had in the whole place,” he said.

The technology used in making Generation V engines emphasizes flexibility, so operators can switch between production of different kinds of products much more efficiently than in the past. “This is the newest, latest and greatest for General Motors that’s here today,” said Jordan Lee, global engineer and program manager for small-block engines. “It represents the latest technology we have.”

But automation is not the whole story.

“None of these engines make themselves,” Finch said. “Without the people in this process, none of this works.”

While some tasks in the creation of Generation V engines are automated, others are not. On the assembly line, GM moved toward a system that relies heavily on workers, Lee said.

“They’re craftsmen,” he said. “They really are hand-assembling these engines. And we went purposely back towards that because not only is it very viable to make a high-quality engine, it’s more interesting for the technician who’s putting engines together, and they feel like they are really creating something special, which we know that they are.”

With the new technologies installed at the plant, “we are not looking to eliminate jobs,” Lee said. “We’re not looking to replace people with machines. We want to make sure that people have a lot of high-quality work to do.”

GM Tonawanda employs a total of 1,862 hourly and salaried workers. The head count has been climbing thanks to the new Generation V line, as well as another engine line, representing a $425 million investment, that debuted last year. “We’re really very, very proud of the investment GM has made in this facility, and what it means to the community,” Finch said. In late August, about 8,000 people visited in one day for tours marking the plant’s 75th anniversary.

The Tonawanda engine plant produced more than 270,000 engines in 2012. Several years ago – prior to the recession, the phaseout of older engine lines and GM’s financial woes – the site routinely produced more than 1 million engines per year.

The plant is now in a “turnaround” phase, rebuilding its annual output with the new engine lines, Finch said.

“We probably won’t get back to that million within the next few years,” he said, “but we’re certainly getting close to that number.”


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