It's no silver bullet - it won't solve all of General Motors Corp.'s production problems. And it definitely isn't Yellow-stone, company executives admit.

But the new assembly plant now under construction in Lansing, MI, is expected to be the most efficient and flexible facility in GM's global empire. It's also a 3-D brick-and-mortar testament to the automaker's new philosophy to develop common best practices in manufacturing, engineering and purchasing worldwide.

"There is no single, silver bullet solution (to building cars efficiently)," says Tom LaSorda, vice president-GM Quality, Reliability and Competitive Operations Implementation. "But where it makes sense, we are adopting common best practices in order to enhance our performance."

Lansing Grand River, the first new GM assembly plant in the U.S. since 1986's Saturn facility in Smyrna, TN, is now under construction on 82.5 acres (33 ha) adjacent to the existing Grand Am/Alero (Lansing M and C) facilities. Pilot production of next-generation Cadillac Cateras begins at the plant in fourth quarter 2001.

The new facility will mirror manufacturing methods pioneered at GM's Eisenach, Germany, plant, once headed by Mr. LaSorda and considered one of Europe's most efficient. But it also incorporates techniques the automaker has developed since then in building newer facilities in China, Brazil, Poland, Argentina and Thailand. And that shared-knowledge approach represents a big change for GM, says President and CEO-elect G. Richard Wagoner Jr.

"If we were sitting here 10 years ago, we may have started up six new plants in six new countries and you would come up with six different concepts," Mr. Wagoner says. "Today, we're not doing it that way. Building a new plant is our chance to learn across North America and across the world."

LGR is the first all-new plant to be rolled out from the Pontiac, MI-based Manufacturing Project Center (MPC), the automaker's year-old manufacturing think tank chartered with developing new production techniques and plant strategies and cultivating manufacturing A-teams. >From now on, MPC will be responsible for designing all GM assembly plants, drafting plant teams and sending them out into the field like disciples to teach and further refine the GM manufacturing system.

Mr. LaSorda has assembled manufacturing brainpower from throughout GM's worldwide organization at the MPC, as well as plucked key people from such competitors as Toyota Motor Corp., the hands-down industry title holder in manufacturing productivity. "We're not embarrassed to steal any great idea from anyone, including the competition," he says.

In addition to brainpower, computer power was employed like never before at GM, with 3-D math modeling used to construct a virtual reality version of the plant to ensure that the layout met productivity and safety concerns and that tooling worked well together. "In the past, we couldn't validate the production process until we put it on the floor," says Tim Lee, group director of manufacturing for GM's North America Car Group. "Now we can build a better system and layout, and when we put it on the floor it works the first time."

Of course, GM has promised break-through manufacturing processes before. Similar claims were made with the Hamtramck/Detroit facility, a monument to automation where expensive, high-tech robots were made the answer to costly, troublesome labor, but ended up breaking too many windshields, punching holes in body panels and spraying each other nearly as often as cars.

However, this time, GM may have gotten it right. The LGR production system is built around people and tried-and-true assembly techniques more than gee-whiz technology. And most of the automation on tap for the plant already has been worked out in other plants, including Orion Township, MI, and Oklahoma City.

"I think we realize what's going to make the difference is making sure we fully engage the workforce," says Mr. Wagoner. "Maybe in the old days we were talking more about the importance of mechanization and automation."

The LGR complex will consist of separate body, paint and final assembly shops connected via enclosed conveyor lines. That marks a big departure from the GM plants of the 1980s, when the philosophy was to put everything under one roof.

"Taking the waste out of the (production) process really is integral to the new general assembly layouts," says LGR Plant Manager Robert E. Anderson. "You can't do that in a big square building."

A common feature of the three operations is the "nerve center" located in the middle of each plant that allows management at a glance to see whether all lines are running properly. And because plant walls are wrapped tightly around the process, trucks will be able to deliver parts directly to the lines at drop off points all around the perimeter of each building.

Combined, the three facilities will cover 1.9 million sq.-ft. (176,500 sq.-m) and produce about 215,000 vehicles annually by fourth quarter 2003. That's about half the size of GM's 21-year-old Oklahoma City Malibu plant, which has capacity for 233,000 cars. Initially the new plant will be able to build about 160,000 cars annually (38 jobs per hour) on two shifts, but the plan eventually is to operate around the clock, either on three shifts or three crews. Along with the '02 Catera, LGR will build up to two other models, likely a car-sport/utility crossover for Cadillac and the next-generation Seville.

"The idea is to shrink-wrap this, make it small, and use the assets seven days a week," says Don Hackworth, group executive for the GM North America Car Group.

Investment also is being held to a minimum. At about $558 million, LGR will cost GM about two-thirds some of its previous-generation plants. Still, some question the wisdom of adding capacity in North America, particularly for car production. Making a car like the Catera, which has never sold more than 25,000 units, the centerpiece for this much investment also has raised some eyebrows.

But GM executives say overall LGR won't add to the company's North American capacity. As LGR comes up, one of Lansing's other two plants likely will phase down. In addition, the new facility will be flexible enough to build both unibody cars and body-on-frame trucks along the same line, Mr. Hackworth notes, so it could be a lynch-pin in company efforts to respond more quickly to changing market demands.

"Presently we're in the process of converting some of our car plants to truck, and I guess some of that still goes on," saysMr. Wagoner. "But we felt in the face of this kind of product, this sort of facility was worthwhile."

The 617,000-sq.-ft. (57,319-sq.-m) LGR assembly plant is a "T" layout, with lines stretching out from the command post in the center of the plant. The facility is half the size of a traditional assembly plant, and only half the number of vehicles will be in the system at any one time. Cars will move along the continuous line on AGV-type conveyors that will be able to adjust in height to each operator or assembly task. The process will be broken up into short segments with buffers in between so that when a Toyota-style andon cord is pulled to stop the line, the rest of the assembly operation can keep moving.

The 580,000-sq.-ft. (53,882-sq.-m) body shop will use GM's PAAS (programmable adaptive assembly systems) tooling that allows up to four platforms and body styles - either cars or trucks - to be produced along the same line.

Stamping operations are off-site, an unusual strategy for a new plant. Mr. Anderson blames that on the plant's relatively low volume and product complexity. But it is more likely a result of the automaker being saddled with too much stand-alone stamping capacity. Major pressed parts for LGR will come from satellite stamping plants in Michigan, with both Pontiac and Lansing operations in the running to receive some of the work.

The 690,000-sq.-ft. (64,101-sq.-m) paint operations are designed so that all workers will be located on one floor, unlike some older plants where they're spread along two to four levels. There will be only about 42 to 45 workers in the paint shop on a single shift, which is about a 20% improvement on even the leanest of operations, GM says. The paint shop will be kept hospital clean, with employees entering from a single point and undergoing an air shower to remove dust particles before admittance.

Because parts will flow directly off trucks to the line, there will be no need for forklifts in the assembly plant and there will be few used in the body operations - all part of an emphasis on safety, as well as productivity. GM says it already has cut reported plant injuries in half over the past three years and is targeting another 50% reduction by 2003. "We have set the benchmark in the industry on safety," Mr. Hackworth says. "And there's no one close to us."

The automaker is working shoulder-to-shoulder with its suppliers on the LGR project, but cautions this is no "Yellowstone," the ill-fated small car production strategy torpedoed by resistance from the United Auto Workers union, and will break no new ground in parts modularity.

"We use sequenced parts in some assemblies in every plant in North America, as does our competition," Mr. Anderson says. "We'll just be applying those same concepts here."

The difference will be what happens to those materials when they arrive at the plant. LGR will be set up to operate lean, with no more than two hours of material on line at any one point, officials say.

Parts will be delivered just-in-time by some 1,000 trucks daily. And major components, such as drivetrain parts, the engine/transmission cradle, front suspension, exhaust system, seats, tires, wheels and instrument panels, will be offloaded in sequence directly by the operator and placed on automated guided vehicles for installation on the line. Used containers and racks will horseshoe back onto a waiting truck to be returned to the supplier.

There will be no supplier park, but up to 20 Tier 1 partsmakers are expected to establish new facilities in the Lansing area in order to meet JIT delivery schedules.

GM isn't laying out any hard and fast targets, but Mr. Wagoner says he would expect the facility to be lean and agile enough to meet the 10- to 12-day order-to-delivery times he believes will be needed to be competitive in 2002.

"We will schedule the bodies out of the paint shop and trigger components in sequence at that point," says Mr. Anderson. "So theoretically, we'll be able to change the order after it's painted. That takes half the process time out."

In all, employment is expected to total 1,500 workers eventually, 1,320 hourly and 180 salaried, with most of the workers expected to be drawn from the Lansing C and M plants as some production there is phased down.

"If we do a perfect job, we'll be able to staff the new plant with workers from the other two," Mr. Hackworth says.

Training will be extensive. Each employee will get 250 hours in the classroom, much of it in problem solving. "Problem solving is not an easy task," says Mr. Lee. "Typically in a plant you treat the symptoms, not the problem."

Skilled trades will receive up to 2,000 hours of training, with some workers headed to Eisenach for up to three weeks of indoctrination.

Although other new plants are planned, GM says the production strategies developed at the Manufacturing Project Center also will be utilized in existing facilities over time. "We realize we won't be building many greenfield plants," says Mr. Hackworth. "So most of our work has to be adapted to brownfield plants."

The decision whether to re-use an existing structure or build an all-new plant will depend on the new vehicle program and plant, Mr. Wagoner says. But clearly GM's ability to bring these new facilities in for about $500 million means it often can be more cost effective to start from scratch than trying to make an innovative production system work within an existing architecture.

"In the old days, you would do just about anything to keep an existing building," says Mr. Wagoner. "And what you would do is kind of shoe horn the optimized manufacturing process into the building. We've come to the conclusion that it's better to form-fit a new building - and you don't break the bank as much as you used to. That's kind of new learning over the last five, 10 years."

GM won't say how much productivity will improve with the new plant, though it is clear it expects to knock a few hours off its 31 labor-hours-per-car average and close its 7-hour-per-car gap with rival Ford Motor Co. Some analysts predict LGR could get build times down to 20 hours or below, on par with industry leaders, Nissan Motor Mfg. Corp. U.S.A., Honda of America Mfg. Inc. and Toyota Motor Mfg. Inc.

"I think its safe to say we're not just trying something here," says Mr. Wagoner. "We expect this plant to be successful. It is certainly important to show that the processes work. What we talk about in this whole one-company theme is that every new plant should be the best we have, because we've had a chance to learn from everything that went before us. And the people here are going to be expected to help out on the next-generation plants, just as they learned from everybody around the world.

"That's part of how we're going to succeed."