General Motors Corp. talks a lot about the need to be an "agile" manufacturer, and last year's Harbour Report on labor productivity illustrates just how much room there is for improvement.

In ranking the efficiency of engine plants in North America, Harbour found that GM boosted its labor productivity by 6% in 1997 - the fourth consecutive year of improvement - and remained ahead of last-place Chrysler Corp., now DaimlerChrysler Corp.

But the report also found that GM workers in 1997 spent on average 5.1 hours per engine, while Toyota Motor Mfg. USA led the pack at 3.2 hours per engine, even with the added production of a new V-6. Honda America Mfg. Inc. and Ford Motor Co. came in at 3.8 and 3.9 hours per engine, respectively.

Like a bloated athlete, GM Powertrain knows it needs an intensive fitness regimen, a strict diet and an open mind to new ideas.

Robert Agresta is one of the trainers trying to get the machine in shape. So far, it appears he has achieved a breakthrough of sorts with the launch at the Livonia engine plant of the Oldsmobile Intrigue 3.5L Twin Cam V-6, named by Ward's as one of the 10 Best Engines of 1999.

As agile manufacturing manager at Livonia, Mr. Agresta's job is to implement a highly efficient new system for building engines at GM.

For decades, GM and others have used massive transfer lines with dedicated machines dotted along the line for specific drilling and cutting procedures. But modern engine manufacturing is moving toward more compact computer-numerically controlled (CNC) machines capable of performing more than 20 different milling, drilling and tapping operations at a single station.

The improvements in flexibility and time-to-market are enormous.

For the Intrigue engine, 57 Makino J88 CNC machines were installed at Livonia to machine the aluminum blocks and cylinder heads and cast iron crankshafts. This is GM's first new full engine program to employ CNC on such a broad scale.

"We went from concept to first build in months, not years," Mr. Agresta says. "Agile manufacturing comes fast and clean with a common architecture."

System lead time was reduced by up to nine months. The plant's V-6 capacity is 600 a day, and by the end of January output had already reached nearly 400 a day. Production began in September.

The transformation has come at a significant cost, although Mr. Agresta declines to attach a pricetag. He does say that CNC machines cost 25% to 40% more than a traditional transfer line, but that lower costs soon could push that difference down to 15% to 20%.

It's a worthy investment, Mr. Agresta says, especially because CNC machines are easily convertible from plant to plant. At Livonia, 14 additional Makino CNC machines will arrive later this year from GM's St. Catharines, Ont., truck engine plant for production of V-8 Northstars for MY '00. Transfer lines still will be used for about 85% of cutting procedures.

Mr. Agresta credits Mason, OH-based Makino's more than 100 years of machining experience with providing technology critical for future engine production at GM. "They were committed to making it work," he says of Makino. "They've done a lot of learning, and fast."

Meanwhile, Mr. Agresta has to make sure his star athlete at Livonia stays fit, and he has to decide whether to grant requests for plant tours from competing managers at Ford and DaimlerChrysler. He hopes GM continues advancing in the Harbour Report, but he knows many improvements from agile manufacturing won't always show up in hours-per-engine rankings.

"Agile is a strategy, but it's not a panacea," he says.