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As General Motors' Tonawanda plant gets started on its $500 million expansion, a GM executive sees two factors vital to its long-term success: well-trained workers and equipment that can change with the times.

Both of those elements will ensure the plant's viability in an automobile market with ever-shorter product life cycles, said Arvin F. Mueller, group vice president of GM's powertrain division.

Winning the expansion, which involves building new six-cylinder "in-line" engines, was considered critical for securing the site's future as older engine lines are phased out. About 600 of the plant's roughly 4,000 employees will work on the new engines.

"This isn't a cheap game by a long shot," Mueller said. "We put billions of dollars into this business each year around the world just to stay in the game."

Mueller was in town Thursday to attend the University at Buffalo Business Alliance's annual reception, which focused on the economic development benefits of partnerships between industry and the Alliance. The Mohawk Valley native joined GM 41 years ago and now oversees a powertrain group with 37 plants and 76,000 employees worldwide.

Mueller noted that the UB Business Alliance provided worker training for the launch of the L850 "world engine" at the Tonawanda plant, which was the first to produce that engine. The organization also helped administer a training grant, assessed training needs at the plant and assisted the site in achieving a crucial quality standard.

Kevin Donovan, the Buffalo area director of the United Auto Workers and another speaker at the event, said those steps were crucial in securing the $500 million project last summer. "Without that piece of the puzzle, some other community would have been celebrating GM's announcement," he said.

The expansion will be equipped with what's known as agile manufacturing equipment, giving the plant the flexibility to build different products without lots of additional capital investment -- far more economical than old-style mass production that focused on building one product, Mueller said.

"When you look at more than one product life cycle out of a set of equipment, that's the real long-term advantage of agile or flexible equipment," he said. "When you get the idea of what the next combustible engine is going to be, we can use much of that equipment over again.

"Product life cycles are going to be shorter and shorter, so when we want to do the next big block or whatever, it isn't going to take 30 years to do it, it's going to come in a shorter time," he said.

That will enable the Tonawanda plant to respond quickly to changes in the market, he said. "As the market shifts around between trucks and cars and small and large, we can keep the plant going."

Construction of the expansion is scheduled to be finished in time for the 2004 model year.

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