Decades after GM wouldn't listen to Edward Deming (the father of the Toyota Way, the Japanese manufacturer's secret production sauce), General Motor's Gary Cowger, GM's group VP for global manufacturing and labor relations, is on the PR train talking about the company's vision for new production techniques. General Motors calls its new factory method for building small vehicles profitably in North America ... get ready ... "interbuildability."
According to Automotive News, the concept is better known among competitors simply as standardization. Obviously, GM is not the first to hit on the idea. As Chrysler learned it its Belvidere, Illinois plant, the concept is harder to execute than it is to plan, and quality issues were a major hurdle for Chrysler to solve as that plant struggled with building a Jeep Compass after a Jeep Patriot. The key to the strategy is to build different models on the same architecture using "plug and play" component modules, such as exhaust systems and front-end modules.
When BMW invited me to drive the then-new 2008 BMW 1-Series, we visited their 3-Series plant in Munich. All manner of 3-Series are built on the same line, including coupes, station wagons, and sedans. The complexity and supply issues are staggering, but BMW made it work. GM should be able to as well.
Cowger said a new group of mid-sized cars is the first to demonstrate the system which GM hopes will result in a 29-percent savings on engineering. That group includes the 2009 Opel Insignia and a new Buick Regal that will begin production in the United States next year. (As we write this, we're checking into what "Regal" Cowger is referencing, but we're thinking it's for China). We would also expect to see this process used at the plant selected to produce the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and Orlando, two models that share the same underpinnings.
Cowger described the global manufacturing strategy at the Automotive News Manufacturing Conference. He said that from the United States to China, new methods are being put in place to allow GM to spread vehicle development and production costs across multiple markets and products.
Cowger said the global factory makeover has been under way for four years and will be 82 percent complete by 2012.
As we learn more about GM's push to move forward, we'll keep you up to speed on how this is shaking out. Somewhere, Edward Deming is saying, "I told you so."