GM uses smart manufacturing to save time, money
Delta Township — One man and a 3-D printer have saved General Motors Co. $300,000 over the last two years.
GM’s largest 3-D printer, which cost roughly $28,000, is housed in a room near the cafeteria at its Lansing Delta Township Assembly Plant, which builds the Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave.
It’s manned by Zane Meike, who says his skills with the 3-D printer are mostly self-taught. Meike’s job is to provide the plant with what’s known as “additive manufacturing” parts.
That means he’s designing pieces and gadgets for the plant floor that he can quickly 3-D print in order to help keep the line moving smoothly. Right now, he’s not printing parts for cars.
Meike, a member of the United Auto Workers who works in the printer room with an engineer, showed off a tool he printed recently — used for engine and transmission VIN number alignment. GM used to order that tool from a vendor for $3,000 a pop. Meike prints them now for just under $3.
That’s just the latest smart-manufacturing technology to hit the Lansing Delta floor. Opened in 2006, Lansing Delta Township assembly is GM’s newest plant in the U.S. aside from the Brownstown Battery Assembly plant opened in 2009. Lansing Delta has been one of the pioneers of the automaker’s manufacturing technologies in recent years.
From “collaborative robots” that help calibrate adaptive-cruise systems and automatic headlights to Meike’s 3-D printer, there’s a slew of new technology workers are scrambling to keep up with.
The UAW-GM department has taken most of its apprenticeship and training in-house so it can focus more acutely on the rapidly changing technology on GM’s plant floors, said Steve Long, the UAW-GM department’s coordinator for skilled trades.
For the last two years, the department’s apprentice program has done more classroom instruction at the UAW-GM Center for Human Resources in Detroit. The program is churning out electricians and die-makers to fill positions caused by retirements among those workers.
But it’s also training workers in robotics and analytics, with the ultimate goal being a plant floor equipped with digital tablets that monitor the high-tech equipment.
“Our challenge is to make sure our members are prepared to maintain, install and debug this equipment as it comes through,” Long said after a robotics demonstration on the Lansing Delta plant floor. “Our trades guys historically weren’t concerned about the quality and the metrics and all of the things that go with it, but they need to understand what all of that is.”
There’s also an effort underway to develop entirely new apprenticeships to teach specific skills like 3-D printing, Long said.
That could be crucial for meeting GM’s needs. There are already 18 GM plants with 3-D printers — the one at Lansing Delta is the largest — but the ultimate goal is to make them a standard piece of equipment in every plant, said Dan Grieshaber, GM’s director of global manufacturing integration.
And the need for actual workers is still very real.
“The whole people side of this is really critical to us,” Grieshaber said. “The technology is largely about making our people more productive and helping them operate safely; helping them operate efficiently and helping our systems become more productive.”
That’s a lesson Silicon Valley rival Tesla Inc. learned recently as it tried to find its way out of what CEO Elon Musk called “production hell.” Musk said earlier this year that production of its crucial Model 3 was challenged by the level of automation the company initially installed on the production line.
The Model 3 repeatedly missed production deadlines until this weekend, when the company reached its milestone of building 5,000 Model 3 vehicles in the final week of the quarter.
“People are infinitely flexible,” said Kristin Dziczek, the Center for Automotive Research’s vice president. “You don’t have to program people. You do have to train them, but they can adapt and change on the fly much more fluidly than machines.”
GM is focusing on “surgically applied” smart manufacturing rather than “technology for technology’s sake,” Grieshaber said.
That’s demonstrated in Meike’s 3-D printing operation, in robotic gloves GM developed with help from NASA to help workers grip heavy pieces of equipment, and in a variety of collaborative robots on the plant floor.
“Integrating new technology with existing technology,” Grieshaber said, “is really important.”