New products are the lifeblood of an auto parts plant, like General Motors' engine plant in the Town of Tonawanda.
So when GM announced that the Tonawanda plant would make a new type of more fuel-efficient V-8 engine for its top-selling Chevrolet Silverado pick-up truck, beginning with the 2019 model that goes on sale this fall, it was a coup for the local factory, its 1,600 workers and Ram Ramanujam, its plant director.
The new engine is a $33.7 million piece of the plan GM announced in late 2016 to invest $296 million in the Tonawanda plant. The details on the rest of the investment are expected to be disclosed early next year, he said.
Ramanujam discussed what's new with the engine's Dynamic Fuel Management technology, which allows it to operate on anywhere between one and eight cylinders, and its impact on the plant.
Q: What makes this announcement so important?
A: It's industry-first technology starting here, right in Tonawanda. We're really a very high-tech manufacturing operation here. Sometimes people don't see that. This is not just taking technology that is developed. It is industry-first technology. There are a lot of design combinations that we in manufacturing have been working with them to be able to implement it on the line.
Q: What is new here?
A: In a nutshell, it's about improving the fuel economy and performance of the V-8 engine. It maximizes the efficiency of each of the cylinders so we can run at the full rate or at 17 different combinations of the cylinders. The fuel economy hasn't been announced yet. It will be coming out soon.
Q: What's the difference between the V-8 engines the plant already made and the new engine?
A: The Active Fuel Management engine is an eight-cylinder V-8 and it can switch between four and eight cylinders. So when you're cruising and you don't need to use all eight cylinders, it shuts four of them down, so you're really only running on four cylinders. It does it automatically.
The new engine can go from one to eight cylinders. We expect this V-8 engine to not run on eight cylinders more than 60 percent of the time. Today, with Active Fuel Management, it's 50-50. So there's 9 percent more time that you won't be using the eight cylinders. You'll be using something less.
Q: What is the difference between the existing Active Management technology and the technology that is going into the new engine?
A: This is an enhancement to that. It's not just four or eight. That's what we do today. This one can go from one to eight. What happens is it senses your throttle position and based on that, it activates the cylinders.
A lot of the challenge is there is a lot of vibration when you go from one to eight cylinders. There is a challenge on the transmission side to withstand the vibration. Now it gives you power whenever you need it. If you find you're running on two cylinders and you need power, you hit it. Plus you get better fuel economy because you're only using what you need.
Q: How important is it for the engine plant to stay ahead of the curve, especially as gas prices rise?
A: We want to give the customers what they need. We also know that fuel economy is key for the long term. So the ability for this plant to work into a product cycle that is an extremely important product for General Motors and to be first in this technology is really a huge driver. We've had a number of launches, but this one is a real key because it's a technology driver.
Q: How important is it to have a product that is technologically important, and also to have it go into a popular vehicle?
A: This product itself is key for GM. For us to be in that product is important from a Tonawanda/Buffalo community standpoint.Pick-ups are one of GM's most important vehicles. It really shows their belief in the skill set of this workforce, especially for a product that is GM's bread-and-butter.
The second piece of it is to be able to be there in a highly technical production environment. There are some nuances and enhancements to our production system to support a product like this. We have upgraded our technical processes here in the plant to be able to support the product.
Q: What is the timetable for bringing the new engine into production?
A: We have started making some of these. The official launch happens in June.
Q: How big of a product line will the new engine be for the plant?
A: We have multiple products that we make here. We make the 4.3 litre. That's been AFM. We make the 5.3 liter and the 6.2. The 5.3 and the 6.2 will convert complete to DFM.
Q: Will the new engine lead to new jobs?
A: What we're doing currently with this piece of it is more of an enhancement of what we do. It's more maintaining jobs.
Q: How does the new engine fit in with the mix of GM's sales?
A: Currently, people prefer the bigger vehicles, the SUVs, the pickups. So it's really important that we're in that market. We're fortunate at this site. We're talking about the V-8, but we also make the LGE engine on this site, which is a smaller 4-cylinder engine that supplies the lower end of SUVs as well.
So we're very fortunate. We've got the entire market covered.