Special Coverage

The Flexible Industry

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler owned 95% of the U.S. market in 1955, with just six models accounting for 80% of total vehicle sales.

Fast forward to 2010, when the Detroit Three share dipped to 44.5%, including medium- and heavy-duty trucks. A total of 88 models accounted for 80% of all vehicles sold, and 290 models were available, according to Ward’s data.

Today, once high-volume vehicle segments are shrinking while smaller segments are growing. The result is a historic convergence of market segment volumes and market shares that promises to end the era of dedicated plants building a single vehicle model.

Add volatile fuel prices and increasingly fickle consumer tastes to the mix and the mandate for greater manufacturing flexibility has never been clearer.

Fortunately, the U.S. auto industry already is well on its way, but it has been a long time coming.

Most analysts say Toyota, Honda and Nissan lead the industry in flexibility. Indeed, in recent years each of these Japanese auto makers seamlessly has shuffled vehicles around their respective North American production sites in response to changing volumes and market demands.

But Detroit auto makers, and some Europeans, have done a good job in recent years of closing this apparent gap in flexibility.

No domestic-owned auto makers are at the level that some of the Asian plants require, although many are close, says manufacturing expert Ron Harbour, a partner at the Oliver Wyman management consulting firm.

“There are some plants in Japan, China (run by Japanese OEMs) and Korea that are running five, six, seven or as many as eight cars on the same line,” Harbour says.

“But there are more and more here that are doing three or four vehicles (on the same line). You don’t have to do it if you don’t need to. If you can fill a plant with one vehicle or two, then that’s fine.”

The Detroit Three were not slow to embrace flexibility because of complacency. They simply stuck with a good idea – high-volume mass production – too long.

The authors of the 1990 book “The Machine That Changed the World,” a renowned treatise on the growth of Toyota’s now legendary manufacturing system, explain that the high sales volume and low model counts of the 1950s encouraged rigid, highly standardized production methods that lowered costs, improved quality and maximized profits.

Nevertheless, Detroit auto makers did not start out with a standardized high-production model. True, Henry Ford was famous for telling Model T customers they could have any color they wanted, as long as it was black, but he actually offered many variations of the car during its early years of production.

It was only after years of soaring demand for new vehicles that the Detroit Three shifted to making more and more of only a few models.

And by 1955, U.S. sales climbed to a then-staggering 7 million units annually and volume was king. “As no year before, 1955 illustrated just how large and pervasive the auto industry and the (manufacturing) system on which it was based had become,” note the authors of “Machine.”

“For decades this system marched from victory to victory. The U.S. car companies dominated the world automotive industry, and the U.S. market accounted for the largest percentage of the world’s auto sales.”

And not inconsequentially, 1955 also was the year Alfred Sloan, the legendary GM chief who believed in selling cars “for every purse and purpose,” retired.

During the 1950s and 1960s in Japan, auto makers there struggled with the opposite problem: A tiny, fractionalized car market. The few auto plants existent at the time had to devise innovative ways to build many different types of vehicles in low volumes.

As sales and production grew, auto makers such as Toyota ignored U.S. ideas about mass production and continued to evolve its now much-imitated lean, highly flexible production system that has helped turn it into the world’s largest car company.

Like generals who use tactics from their last war to fight the new one, Detroit auto makers clung far too long to the old manufacturing habits.

However, visits to U.S. plants newly revamped by Detroit auto makers today show they clearly have changed their ways. At GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck facility, the high-tech Chevy Volt marches down the same production line as the big Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne.

Ford plants in Wayne, MI, and Chicago also are highly flexible.

Best of all, Harbour says assembling multiple vehicles on the same line does not require lots of expensive automation.

“Most of this is just really good management practices and techniques,” Harbour says.

What is critically important is having a common build sequence for the different vehicles, Harbour says. That means workers attach the same parts to each vehicle at the same workstation in a similar fashion.

It’s also important that each job be structured so individual tasks take the same amount of time and require the same tools and fasteners in the same sequence.

At that point, it does not matter to workers that they are assembling many different vehicles, Harbour says. “The best in the world do a really good job of that. Everybody is working on it, but I’d be lying to you if I said (all auto makers) accomplished that in every plant.”

dwinter@wardsauto.com