Saturn Was Also a Different Kind of Manufacturer

SaturnFest 2009

In the early days, Saturn manufactured its own cars at its own plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee. In addition to innovating on the sales, service, and engineering sides of its business, Saturn's founding fathers spent a significant amount of time developing new manufacturing techniques that were based on some of the "best in class" processes used by companies from around the world.

All of Saturn's production techniques can't be listed on one page, but here are few.

  • Line Control. Unlike most plants, line speed at Saturn's Spring Hill facility was controlled by the workers rather than management. If any team member spotted a quality problem, the line could've been stopped 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. Workers were encouraged to stop the line to maintain a high-quality build rate.

  • Moving Skillets. Saturn used a conveyor system known as "skillets." These moving platforms held cars perpendicular to the line and included moving floor space. The workers then traveled with the car and were able to work standing still — instead of having to walk along-side a moving target, as is still common in many plants today.
  • Sub-Assemblies. Many manufacturing processes often rely heavily in sub-assembly to piece together smaller components for later attachment to the finished good. Saturn took that concept to new heights, including such perennial trouble-spots as the dashboard on the list. Dashboards were fully assembled outside the car on special tables that allowed team members 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. 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.

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

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