ANTWERP, Belgium — It was a little over a year ago when managers at Adam Opel AG's assembly plant here got the bad news.

Opel was under pressure from parent General Motors Corp. to cut costs and improve capacity utilization, meaning job cuts.

The facility was one of three producing the aging Opel Astra, and sales of that model were in a downward spiral. Newly appointed Plant Manager Diana Tremblay, who had just wrapped up the closure of GM Europe's Luton, U.K., assembly plant before moving to Belgium, had to deliver the news that Antwerp would lose one of two production lines.

“A lot of people thought I was coming here to close this plant. That was not the case. But I think I had built that reputation (from the Luton closure),” she says during a recent tour of the facility.

The moves would force the layoff of two shifts (720 employees), while converting the sole remaining line to three shifts, from its previous 2-shift operation. The remaining line now would be expected to produce 60 jobs per hour, compared with 40 jobs per hour before Opel's Project Olympia cost-cutting program was initiated.

There was one piece of good news resulting from Project Olympia, however. Opel Belgium received confirmation it, along with plants in Bochum, Germany, and Ellesmere Port, U.K., would build the new Astra.

GM and Opel moved quickly ahead with plans to invest E500 million ($574 million) to upgrade Antwerp. The largest outlay involved expansion of the stamping plant, which received a state-of-the-art Schuler compact crossbar transfer press — which alone carried a price tag of E17.5 million ($20 million).

Production of the new Astra is targeted to begin in January, with full output expected to be achieved by April. Changeover downtime will be minimal, with the new model joining the mix while the old version is still in production. The Antwerp plant also will be the sole European production site for the Astra 3-door, which will go into production in January 2005.

Tremblay says the Belgium facility has survived because its employees are willing to embrace new strategies to boost productivity.

The biggest improvement is found in the body shop, where GM's much-hyped “andon” system has been adopted. Tremblay says this is the first time any GM facility has adopted andon processes in its body shop.

Andon allows any team member in any operation to pull a rope that alerts plant management and maintenance crews to problems. If a team member notices a problem with a clamp on a part, for example, he can pull the rope, causing body shop operations to stop on the next cycle.

Unlike other GM facilities, Antwerp's andon process goes a step further, sending alert messages to team leaders and maintenance crews via the DECC (Digital Enhanced Cordless Communication) system. DECC provides team leaders and maintenance staff with cordless telephones that automatically receive text messages detailing the problem whenever an andon cord is pulled.

The Belgium facility also is home to GM Automotive Services Belgium (GMASB), which handles all logistics and subassembly duties for transporting materials inside and outside the plant. Unlike many European plants that outsource their logistics operations, Opel Belgium decided to work with its various unions to develop a 2-tier wage structure that would enable workers laid off as a result of the Project Olympia restructuring to maintain jobs in the logistics area.

GMASB workers, which number nearly 800, are paid 80% of the core shop wage rates. Tremblay says GMASB also must bid against outside contractors for the GM business when contracts are renewed.

The GMASB structure has been so successful that GM recently shifted responsibility to the enterprise for materials transportation for all Opel plants throughout Europe. The operation also will begin consolidating parts from GM's European operations bound for the U.S.

In September, GM announced it would boost output of the Astra from Antwerp by an additional 5,000 units.