GM completely renovated, retooled, and expanded an existing factory into an ML award-winning plant to drive its all-electric vision for the future.
Company Fact File –
Company: General Motors
HQ location: Detroit, MI, U.S.
Revenues: $10 billion+ annually
Employees: 5,000+ employees
Web url: www.gm.com
General Motors, a global automotive leader with a rich history of innovation, is committed to its vision of a world with zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion through the creation and manufacturing of electric, self-driving, connected vehicles and shared mobility services that will transform how people get around.
But to advance this vision of an all-electric future that is inclusive and accessible to all, the company needed a fully dedicated electric vehicle assembly plant with contiguous battery assembly. Rather than start from scratch, GM undertook a complete renovation to transform an existing 38-year-old plant into the Factory ZERO Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, a project that won the company High Achiever status in the Engineering and Production Technology category during the recent 2022 Manufacturing Leadership Awards program.
“Built on quality and efficiency, Factory ZERO offers the agility to adapt vehicle production to meet market demands quickly.” — Phil Kienle
This was a monumental undertaking. In addition to adding a 1 million-square-foot expansion, retooling the general assembly area, modernizing and expanding the paint shop, and refurbishing and expanding the body shop, the company constructed a brand-new automated storage and retrieval addition for Ultium battery assembly. This allows for multiple vehicle styles and battery assembly to happen under one roof.
The Factory ZERO team proved it was up to the task. In less than 20 months, the plant began producing its first GMC HUMMER EV pickups. This is critically important for GM. Launching more EVs faster is the catalyst for growth, and the company is accelerating its volumes, growing to 1 million units of EV capacity in North America by the end of 2025, and expanding from there. In North America alone, GM is targeting production of 400,000 all-electric vehicles over the course of 2022 and 2023.“Built on quality and efficiency, Factory ZERO offers the agility to adapt vehicle production to meet market demands quickly,” says Phil Kienle, General Motors Vice President of North America Manufacturing & Labor Relations. “In fact, the ongoing process improvements and strategic resources used at Factor ZERO make it the company’s launchpad for the multi-brand all-EV and Autonomous Vehicle (AV) strategy that it hopes will accelerate GM’s journey into an all-electric future.”
In the process, it also results in savings in time, resources, and capital. Almost 80% of the original equipment and infrastructure were repurposed, which reduced material waste, and because the facility’s initial footprint was used as a foundation, nearly a third less capital was needed compared to building a greenfield site. The accelerated launch and production start also allowed the company to get EVs to customers sooner. And it also will help the company achieve its commitment to source 100% of its U.S. facilities with renewable energy by 2030.
“Through GM’s $2.2 billion investment in an all-electric future and a series of renovations and expansions – at the time, the largest ever for a GM manufacturing facility – Factory ZERO has become one of the most modern automotive plants in North America and provides a manufacturing advantage for General Motors,” adds Kienle.
Extensive Plant Transformation
The original Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant was already a world-class facility even before it was transformed into Factory ZERO, having manufactured more than 4 million vehicles since it first opened in 1985. But GM wanted to renovate and expand the factory to be the capstone upon which the company could build on its all-electric vision.
The improvements begin in the body shop, where the addition of Body-In-White scanning has transformed how the team evaluates the fit and finish in each vehicle. Through 3D laser scanning technology, the full-body and sub-assembly analysis provide a comprehensive quality review in under 90 minutes, replacing previous technology that was limited to raw data, and minimizing human error. As the body moves to the joining area, remote laser welds and MIG welding have standardized the optimal packaging to provide ample space and safety framework for the Ultium battery, enabling greater efficiency when team members complete verification checks multiple times per shift.
“The business impacts are many, but most boil down to improved flexibility, scalability, and consistent quality.”
The paint shop underwent a similar transformation, where the painted vehicle bodies now pass through an in-line paint defect detection and classification system. This automated process reduces defects that could be missed by individual inspection and records data that can be used to recognize potential recurring issues throughout multiple paint coats. Within the paint shop, floor plug insertion and sealing have also become automated processes. Due to their repetitive natures, which require frequent bending and wrist flexing, the automation of these processes reduces ergonomic risks and frees up team members to assist in other value-adding activities.
After ensuring the highest quality throughout multiple checks in the paint and body shops, the vehicles enter a modular assembly line, meaning the lines are decoupled and produce specific vehicles, rather than a traditional assembly line where every vehicle moves through the same process. This approach enables the integration of a new vehicle without impacting the rest of the general assembly for re-tooling or changing production needs. It also means that team members working on each line can become specialists in assembling the vehicle specific to their line, resulting in greater quality and accuracy. This area has also reached a new level of efficiency by using electronic job boards and virtual operator training to roll out any changes to a procedure in real time.
Factory ZERO: A Key Competitive Advantage
The business impacts are many, but most boil down to improved flexibility, scalability, and consistent quality. The Body-In-White scan and remote laser weld in the body shop, and the vision defect detection and automated sealing in the paint shop are key upgrades GM made to ensure that vehicles produced at Factory ZERO are of the highest quality.
“Preserving a reputation of excellence in every vehicle is key to customer satisfaction, and necessary to transition to an all-electric future successfully,” says Kienle.
“The success of this transformation serves as a blueprint for future conversion of existing North American manufacturing facilities.” — Phil Kienle
Another factor in preserving GM’s competitiveness in the EV market is the adaptability of production at Factory ZERO, and the ability to produce the right vehicle for the right customer. The modular approach to the general assembly area supports the changing needs of GM’s product portfolio, allowing the company to increase production of a popular vehicle, while maintaining the manufacturing levels of a vehicle that may be impacted by market uncertainties. The newly automated activities in the paint and body shops also increase uptime and will be critical in enabling production at full capacity.
Factory ZERO positions General Motors to realize greater market share and continue to improve the company’s reputation as a leader in sustainability.
Driving Future Innovations — and a More Sustainable Future
While the plant is key in reaching GM’s capacity of more than 1 million units of electric vehicles in North America by 2025, it also supports other facets of the company’s strategy, both in terms of people and sustainability.
At the heart of GM’s manufacturing advantage is the team, which will grow to more than 2,200 people when Factory ZERO is fully operational. Utilizing these team members effectively is a key part of maintaining GM’s manufacturing capabilities. Due to the process automations highlighted in the paint and body shops, team members can focus on initiatives that require human innovation, and in turn utilize these improvements in process and people allocation to increase uptime. The resulting positive production impact is supported by the modular footprint of the general assembly, which enables quicker introduction of new vehicles, and in turn aids in overall expansion of GM’s EV portfolio.
While the facility has been renovated with some of the most advanced technology and tooling, it has also been designed with sustainable manufacturing in mind. Factory ZERO will aid in achieving the company’s commitment to source 100% of its U.S. facilities with renewable energy by 2030. Through a partnership with Detroit’s local utility company, GM’s commitment to a cleaner future marked the largest renewable energy investment in the state of Michigan. Within Factory ZERO’s manufacturing processes, the transition to paperless job guides and use of virtual operator training and e-Labels has also helped maintain GM’s sustainability goals.
“GM wanted to renovate and expand the factory to be the capstone upon which the company could build on its all-electric vision.”
Factory ZERO’s transformation has combined the use of GM’s readily available resources and its investment in advanced manufacturing to maximize its production and engineering capabilities. These efforts enable GM to achieve its commitments to sustainability and quality while pursuing its vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion.
Blueprint for the Future
While the transformation of Factory ZERO is an achievement in and of itself, the innovation continues throughout the facility. Each area has been meticulously upgraded with maximum efficiency and quality in mind, from the addition of the full-body vehicle scans to the modular design of the general assembly.
As the epicenter for General Motor’s advancement of an all-electric future, Factory ZERO’s success offers innovative learnings for future conversion of existing North American manufacturing facilities.
“Factory ZERO’s unique scalability and flexibility position GM to stay ahead of the growing demand for electric vehicles while providing quality to balance the need to compete aggressively and win in today’s market with strong products,” says Kienle.
“The success of this transformation serves as a blueprint for future conversion of existing North American manufacturing facilities.” M
About the author:
Sue Pelletier, a contributing editor with the Manufacturing Leadership Journal, is a seasoned writer/editor with experience in online, social media, e-newsletter, tablet app, book and e-book, and print publications..