Flashback Friday: the "Trendsetting" Spring Hill Manufacturing Complex

Aerial Photo of the Former Saturn Plant

As part of its look back on General Motors' past 100 years, Assembly Magazine recently profiled what it considered to be "four trendsetting GM facilities that have opened in the United States since Richard Nixon was president." Among the plants discussed was the former Saturn plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. This "new kind of assembly plant" run by GM's different kind of car company, incorporated some of the best features from factories around the world, and offered some very unique innovations of its own. Many of the lessons learned in Spring Hill have been adopted in other newer GM plants, like the Lansing Delta Township factory in Michigan where the Saturn Outlook is made. The first Saturn rolled off the Spring Hill assembly line 18 years ago this week on July 30th, 1990.

Read an excerpt of the article about Spring Hill below. Click through the link at the bottom of the page to read the full story about all four plants.

The Spring Hill plant served as an incubator for several cutting-edge ideas. One of the most radical new concepts was the role of labor and management. As a result, the plant boasted of having the lowest absentee rate in the auto industry. "Saturn represents a profound change in the relationship between the union and management, and an equally profound change in the way that GM manages its people," proclaimed an article in the January 1991 issue of ASSEMBLY. "Instead of a traditional labor contract, GM and the UAW have developed an on-going memorandum of agreement that establishes a full partnership between [the two organizations]. This memo is based on the premise that people are the most valuable asset at Saturn and it defines a framework for consensus decision-making that is truly unique in the U.S. auto industry." Self-directed work teams, each comprised of six to 15 members, formed the basic building block of the Saturn manufacturing organization. Each team was empowered with the authority to take action on their decisions. They interviewed and hired new team members, developed production systems, and selected production equipment and suppliers. The Spring Hill plant was also flexible. Assemblers built both standard and high-performance engines on the same line, in addition to producing both manual and automatic transmissions. Instead of using traditional dedicated production equipment, 40 percent of the assembly tooling was shared between the manual and automatic transmissions in the assembly process. This flexibility enabled the plant to respond quickly to changing market conditions and customer demand. The most significant departure from conventional assembly methods at the new Saturn plant was the skillet conveyor system. "Derived from SKId + paLLET, the skillet is a moving platform that carries both the work and the work team, emulating a stop-station in that it allows the workers to remain stationary while working," explained the ASSEMBLY article. "The skillet system was discovered at GM's Russelsheim facility in Germany and its use at Saturn is the first application in the U.S." More than 50 percent of the assembly operations at Spring Hill, including the cockpit subassembly, door subassembly and vehicle final assembly, were done on skillets. ASSEMBLY claimed that the skillet system had many advantages over traditional chain-on-end conveyor systems. For instance, it was "ergonomically advantageous in that the operators never have to chase their jobs down the line. The skillet moves at about 14 feet per minute, giving the team members anywhere from 4.5 to 6 minutes to perform a group of operations, instead of 30 seconds as would be the case on a traditional assembly line. Each skillet also has a lift so that operators can raise or lower the car to the position most comfortable and convenient for them to work on." General Motors engineers also made extensive efforts to ensure that the assembly tooling and processes were user friendly and ergonomically sound. For example, electric power tools were used wherever possible to eliminate air exhaust noise and oil mist, and to minimize torque reaction on the operator. Battery-powered tools were also used for some fastening applications to eliminate power cords, tool carriers and balancers. Final assembly was done doors-off to give operators easy access to the interior for installing carpet, seats, internal trim and the cockpit. The Spring Hill plant is still one of GM's largest facilities, but it never came close to its original goal of expanding to produce 500,000 vehicles annually. It recently underwent an $800 million overhaul. The plant is scheduled to start building the new Chevrolet Traverse crossover in September.

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