Special Coverage

The Flexible Industry

ORION TWP., MI – General Motors’ Orion Twp., MI, assembly site will join an elite group of plants later this year when it launches the Chevrolet Sonic and Buick Verano small cars.

The vehicles do not share a platform, but they will share a production line thanks to GM’s $145 million investment to retool the 28-year-old factory for greater flexibility.

Orion Twp. had been on a short list of sites targeted for shutdown because of the auto maker’s 2009 bankruptcy. But the United Auto Workers union agreed to a cost-saving 2-tier wage deal that allows GM to pay new hires about $14 an hour, half the current rate.

This boosts GM’s profitability outlook because U.S. small-car production historically has been a low-margin endeavor.

The economical Sonic, formerly called the Aveo and redesigned for ’11, rides on GM’s Gamma global subcompact platform. The auto maker’s larger Delta global compact-car architecture shoulders the all-new Verano, a small luxury-leaning first for GM in the U.S.

“They run on the exact same line from the beginning of the process in the body shop to paint to general assembly,” Orion Assembly Plant Manager Alicia Boler-Davis tells Ward’s on the floor of the 350-acre (142-ha) facility some 30 miles (48 km) north of Detroit.

“And we can run them back to back, every other vehicle, if that’s what we want to do,” she says.

GM’s Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant is the auto maker’s only other U.S. site building vehicles underpinned by different platforms on the same line.

At D-Ham, the electrified Chevy Volt compact car, which is based on GM’s Delta II platform, is built alongside the Cadillac DTS and Buick Lucerne large luxury cars.

Next year, the auto maker phases out the DTS and Lucerne and will add production of the next-generation Chevy Malibu, based on GM’s Epsilon global midsize car platform.

Boler-Davis declines to elaborate on key flexibility enablers at Orion, citing competitive reasons. But she points to GM’s lean-materials strategy as one important element.

“We have a real creative lean-materials strategy that we’re implementing here that also allows us to be very flexible and respond to changes very quickly,” she says. “It’s a lot of off-line kitting and sequencing and how it is delivered to the line; how it is presented to the team members to make it efficient and eliminate waste.”

Boler-Davis says long hours of up-front planning helped GM adapt its flexible blueprint to Orion.

“When we established the plant and its processes, we wanted to make sure we had very few restrictions to building what the consumers are expecting from the products,” she says.

Orion previously assembled the Pontiac G5 line of coupes, sedans and convertibles, but lost those products with the wind down of the brand in 2010. It also served as a supplemental source of Malibu output.

In 2008, the plant set an industry record with 10 million continuous man hours performed without a lost work day.

jamend@wardsauto.com