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GM's Tonawanda plant takes new direction

General Motors’ Town of Tonawanda engine plant is preparing for its next wave of production, with a new leader at the helm.

In late 2016, the manufacturing complex was celebrating the news that GM would invest $296 million in the site for future engine production.

As that new work ramps up, GM veteran Ram Ramanujam is settling into his new job as plant manager. Ramanujam has worked for the company since 1989 at a variety of GM facilities. His predecessor at the Tonawanda site, Steve Finch, retired last December after 11 years as plant manager.

The engine complex, which overlooks the Niagara River, has survived the ups and downs of the auto industry since opening in 1938. The facility projected that it would make 584,000 engines in 2017, pushing its all-time total to more than 74 million engines.

The plant has 1,625 hourly and salaried employees, with hourly workers represented by United Auto Workers Local 774. It functions as other modern manufacturing plants do, with a combination of sophisticated technology and human know-how. The plant has been successful at securing new engine lines to keep production flowing and workers on the job.

“It’s the best product portfolio that this plant I believe has ever had, with the number of vehicles that our engines are going into,” said Mary Ann Brown, a GM spokeswoman.

The Tonawanda plant produces engines for GM trucks, sport utility vehicles and cars. Sales of its Generation V engines, which go into vehicles including full-size trucks such as the Chevrolet Silverado and SUVs such as the Yukon, Suburban and Escalade, are strong.

The plant also makes 2-liter and 2.5-liter engines for passenger cars, a business segment that has struggled in light of customer vehicle preferences. However, those same engines go into GM’s small SUVs, helping offset the trend in car sales. The plant is supplying the 2018 Equinox, Traverse, Acadia and Terrain, providing a production boost.

“We haven’t lost volume at all, even with the car (segment sales) going down,” Ramanujam said.

Buffalo has a reputation as a robust market for sales of Chevrolet and other GM brands, partly because of the automaker’s long-standing presence in the region. Chevrolet does not disclose its retail sales figures, but Chevy dealers from Western New York in some months have been recognized as the brand’s top sellers in the nation.

GM has not yet provided details of which vehicles its new engine line at the Tonawanda plant will produce, citing competitive reasons. However, GM late last year unveiled the 2019 Chevrolet Silverado, and the Tonawanda plant is one of the facilities that supplies engines to Silverados.

GM remains one of the region’s largest manufacturing employers. In Lockport, GM operates a components plant, making parts like radiators and condensers.

The Lockport site, which has about 1,400 employees, has undergone a revival in recent years. It was awarded $32 million in new investment in late 2016. More recently, GM announced another $3.5 million in investment for the facility.

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