A longtime Detroit journalist confided recently that he was extremely skeptical of General Motors’ boast that its new Lansing (MI) Grand River plant is the world’s most-modern assembly plant. The $560 million plant replaces older, obsolete facilities, is more efficient and demonstrates better relations with unionized workers, GM claims.

The seasoned reporter, however, recalls a similar claim made by then GM Chairman Roger Smith about the auto maker’s controversial Cadillac plant in Detroit’s Poletown in the mid-1980s -- an era when GM was convinced the only way to compete with Japanese manufacturing efficiencies was with the use of robotics. Workers complained they were made to feel redundant.

But GM had no experience with such automation and was chagrinned when out-of-control robots began painting one another instead of the cars. It took a long time to live down the early failures. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported in 1986 -- seven months after the plant opened -- that, “So far, the Hamtramck plant, instead of a showcase, looks more like a basket case.”

But Lansing Grand River is different, and GM has plenty to brag about when it calls it a “benchmark” for plants to come. That’s because it represents a culmination of efficiencies culled from the auto maker’s worldwide manufacturing experience. One of the benefits of being a global company is to try new concepts in emerging markets first.

If that sounds like a slam against the United Auto Workers, it’s not meant to be. Unions are formed to protect workers’ jobs. Auto makers look to build cars efficiently, so they can price them affordably, still make a profit and reward shareholders. The two need not be irreconcilable.

And perhaps this time GM has gotten it right. It’s mended many fences since the devastating strikes in 1998, when talk of the “Yellowstone” concept of supplier-assisted modular assembly drove union leaders into a rage.

Yet, this latest plant brags of modular assembly among its innovations, which is the packaging of parts into a subcomponent by an outside supplier and delivered to the plant as a single unit -- cutting the auto maker’s cost. Plus, automation plays a significant role at the facility. The difference is union and management worked together to set production targets, acknowledging the requirement for state-of-the art manufacturing.

The Japanese, most notably Toyota, have perfected lean manufacturing techniques, but they don’t own them. GM has been a dedicated student and the results are evident in its latest assembly plants in Thailand, China, Brazil and the new Russelsheim plant under construction in Germany.

Yet, the most tangible difference between the Grand River plant and Poletown is that GM’s reliance on machines now has melded with its reliance on the team concept -- another Japanese innovation. Union workers say the smaller workforce at Lansing Grand River is a trade off for a bigger voice at the plant. The payoff is considerable for both.