Saturn Manufacturing Techniques

Saturn's innovative manufacturing methods have not only helped it build world-class cars, but it also helped the company forge stronger labor ties with its workers. While all of Saturn's production techniques cannot be listed on one page, I've attempted to highlight a select few that stand out. These were methods used in Saturn's Spring Hill, TN manufacturing plant.

Here's a look at some of Saturn's different kind of assembly processes:

  • Line Control. Unlike most plants, line speed at Saturn's Spring Hill facility is controlled by the workers rather than management. If any team member spots a quality problem, the line can be by that person with a control panel like the one pictured below, to ensure correction to that unit and proper elimination of the problem upstream. This technique has proven to be a very effective tool at Saturn, and has since been applied to other manufacturing facilities throughout the country.

  • Moving Skillets. Saturn uses a conveyor system known as "skillets" in its Spring Hill plant. These moving platforms move not only the cars sideways down the line, but also some floor space around the cars. This allows the workers to travel with the car down the line. They're able to work standing still - instead of having to walk along-side.

  • Sub-Assemblies. Many manufacturing processes depend heavily in sub-assembly to piece together smaller components for later attachment to the finished good. Saturn takes the concept to new heights, including such perennial trouble-spots as the dashboard on the list. Dashboards are fully assembled outside the car on special tables that allow the team member to rotate the dash to whatever angle is needed to attach wiring, parts, etc. The traditional need to contort underneath the dash inside the frame is eliminated - ending fatigue and perception problem that can cause so many rattles and defects.

  • Lost Foam Casting. While not a new technology, lost foam casting had never before been implemented on large-scale automotive manufacturing prior to Saturn's application in Spring Hill. The process uses foam models instead of wood or plastic to create the molds for cast components (engines, mostly). The process embeds the foam in sand and pours molten aluminum or iron onto it, evaporating the foam (which is trapped and reused), leaving a near-perfect imprint of the part. Traditional methods require the mold to be separated, creating cracks or alignment errors that have to be machined out before the part can be used. With more precise parts, costs are lower and quality higher. General Motors has taken this idea from Saturn and has already begun using it in some of its other engine plants. The manufacturing facility that builds the 2.2L 4-cylinder engine uses lost foam casting techniques.

  • Teamwork. Saturn's teams are not a mere label. They're self-managing entities able to approve time off, job rotation, and other activities that effect production. The concept is simple: if people are involved in making decisions, they understand how their actions effect the product. Then they are able to accommodate special needs by working with the team. The method works well. Higher employee satisfaction and product quality are a direct result of this practice. Teams also meet to discuss the manufacturing process, share ideas, and make improvements to the way cars are built and designed.

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Sources: Saturn to Discontinue Vehicle Exchange Program in the New Year has learned from several reliable sources that Saturn will discontinue its Vehicle Exchange Program (VEP) on December 31, 2008 in an effort to cut costs and help create a more profitable business model for the company in the future. The program will reportedly continue to be offered on new Saturn vehicles sold and delivered through the end of the month.