TRAVERSE CITY, MI – When General Motors announced plans to build the Chevrolet Sonic at its Orion Township, MI, assembly plant, industry eyebrows were raised due to the long-held belief that building a small car in the U.S. with union labor would be a money-losing proposition.

But armed with a historic agreement with the United Auto Workers union and best practices borrowed from other GM small-car plants around the world, the auto maker drove ahead, launching production of the B-car last year.

Scott Whybrew, GM executive director-global manufacturing engineering, says when the decision was made to transform the shuttered Orion facility for Sonic production, management found 4 million sq.-ft. (371,612 sq.-m) of what “they thought was good at GM.”

“There were lots of robotics, lots of conveyor systems – the latest and greatest,” he says at the Center for Automotive Research’s Management Briefing Seminars here.

“To build a subcompact car, we had to cut our investment level and go back to basics with simplistic tooling concepts we’ve used in other spots in the world to be competitive.”

While retooling the facility, GM was prudent in its spending, with “money spent only where it needed to be spent,” he says.

A new conveyor system hailed from GM’s small-car operations in Brazil. 

Unlike traditional underbody conveyor systems, the “geo-conveyor” is located on the floor and cut the plant’s operating costs significantly, Whybrew says.

“This geo-pallet is very simple. It has simplified utilities to it, and it allows us to exchange that pallet off the weld line and allows us to build multi-platforms throughout the operation and on the same line. Our geo-pallet approach helped us reduce our investment and overall operating costs.”

To move materials around the plant floor, automated guided carts replaced the traditional overhead units.

The carts cut operating costs by reducing maintenance expenditures and allowing a number of models to be built at the facility, which also assembles the all-new Buick Verano C-car.

“We designed (the carts) to accommodate multiple vehicle styles in sequence,” Whybrew says.

The plant’s paint shop underwent a massive overhaul, with new technologies installed that not only saved money, but also were more environmentally friendly than the previous setup.

A 3-wet process was added, which allows for the application of the primer, color and clear coat materials in the same booth. This reduces the overall number of booths and ovens needed and reduces energy usage.

Additionally, GM developed a radiant tube-paint oven heating system that was implemented for the first time in Orion and will migrate globally.

“In a traditional paint shop, you would fire up the ovens four hours in advance of painting, and you would spend a lot of gas to do that,” Whybrew says. “We can get that temperature up in the oven much quicker and shut that thing down, and you don’t have a lot of air blowing around in the paint ovens to introduce dirt to the paint job.”

Another technology is a thin film pretreatment process that cleans and transforms the metal surface prior to electro-coating for better overall corrosion resistance.

Whybrew says the film was used first in Brazil and brought to Orion. It employs zirconium oxide in place of heavy metals, so the added benefit is less chemical usage and reduced energy consumption. “It’s better for the environment and produces less sludge to be disposed of in landfills.”

Despite all the new technologies, Whybrew gives most of the credit for the transformation of the Orion plant to the UAW, which agreed to a 2-tier wage system that paved the way for Sonic production.

The UAW also agreed to allow third-party work to be conducted onsite, which opened the door for further savings.

“We have third-party subassembly in the body shop, which is almost unheard of,” Whybrew says. “Third-party subassembly and material preparation is performed within the plant, reducing logistics and eliminating inventory.”

bpope@wardsauto.com