The new GM business model focuses on innovative ideas to save money
February 2012 - General Motors’ Marion Metal Center has been a mainstay in Marion, Ind., since production began in 1956. The plant was founded originally as Fisher Body but is now part of GM’s Manufacturing Stamping organization. It provides blanks, stampings and sheet metal assembly for GM cars, vans, trucks and SUVs.
The huge facility covers 2.758 million square feet on 187 acres, and some employees use bicycles to travel efficiently from end to end. The plant ships an average of 873 trucks per week to GM assembly plants, and Norfolk & Southern operates two rail tracks inside the facility that ship approximately 130 rail cars to assembly plants each week.
During its 50-plus years in business, Marion Metal Center has weathered several economic cycles. In 2009, the new General Motors Co. emerged from bankruptcy with a fresh outlook, revamped corporate structure and renewed commitment to its customers. The company consolidated to four core brands in the United States, a new lineup of automobiles and a competitive cost structure, cleaner balance sheet and stronger liquidity position.
Material cost-savings initiative
At Marion Metal Center, employees have contributed to the goals of the new GM by proposing, testing and implementing cost-savings initiatives, including re-engineering parts to save material and money. According to Stephanie Jentgen, plant communication manager, “by working with steel suppliers to re-engineer and reprocess systems, savings have accumulated. According to the Marion staff, this is a direct result of the new way of thinking in the new GM. In the past, we would not have made a change if it didn’t save at least $50,000. Now, we’ll consider a change if it saves $5,000. Incremental savings add up in a big way.”
Jentgen says the Marion facility was given a corporate savings target of $1.9 million for 2011. The plant achieved that goal in six months. By the end of 2011, it had saved $3.16 million in material costs.
In one application, the goal was to save material from going down the scrap chute and create more efficient production. Engineers at the facility proposed a more compact nesting of the front body hinge pillar reinforcement, along with a blank reduction and grade change.
“I absolutely love this material cost-savings initiative,” says Marc Haas, Ed.D., business unit manager for tool and die. “I don’t think any other initiative we do shows cost savings as well as this one does.”
Marion Metal Center uses 5,500 tons of steel coils a week, which are processed on five footprint press lines, 15 transfer press lines, five high-tech blanking lines, two coil feed oscillating shear lines and 18 metal assembly lines.
A grade change kicked off the cost savings on the pillar, with the part being transferred from cold-rolled to hot-rolled steel. “That’s where a majority of the savings came in, from exchanging the grade type,” says Bob Endres, GM’s material utilization manager for stamping and non-fab steel. “The grade change required product engineering to do an evaluation: Are the property values the same? Is the yield strength the same? Can we make the part small enough to make it out of hot-rolled material?”
After it was determined the product could fit on hot-rolled material, the team decided to “renest it to start saving material,” says Endres. “The blank reduction and the renesting gave us the opportunity to change the grade type of the material from cold-rolled to hot-rolled. Purchasing told us the maximum width that was available in the material, so we then engineered the blank to fit the coil, rotating the blank 90 degrees. That’s why the savings on this project were so significant.”
“We had to feel pretty good about that before we kicked off a new blank die,” Haas says. “That’s a big amount of money to spend, so after we were all fairly confident, then we said, ‘OK, build us a new blank die.’”
Reconfiguration and testing
However, according to Haas, “through a process of trial and error and reconfiguring the blank, we had to trim the blank to get it to nest. When you shave off little pieces of steel, it may or may not go through the die correctly.”
Some of the trimming “happened to be where we gauge it in the draw die to locate in the line,” Jason Lauer, Work Area 1 supervisor, says. “We had to go in and machine the die and put gauges in, and we actually had to make some new gauges to help locate this blank. Once we got that, if this blank twists at all, we lose the ability to trim it. So what we end up doing is bringing the dies up here, hitting some panels in the trim die to figure out where our gauge had to be. We had to go back and forth through the trim die to get our simulation right so that it would work in the production line at the speed we needed to run at.”
The blank change wasn’t easy and caused some problems. The operators on the line “had to fiddle with it to make it run,” Haas says. “I know it hurt, but it was great cost savings.”
“They reduced it to the absolute bare minimum now, because if it twists just a little bit, like the gauges come loose, you get short trim in the back. So we had to redrill the gauging to mount it in a different place so it’s a tighter fit. It was a little challenging,” says Lori Speidel, die maker, automation. “It’s absolutely unforgiving. If we move it one way, we get short trim on one side. If the other way, you get short trim or it’ll just bunch up on that one and stick in the die.”
“The employees are flexible when it comes to reworking, engineering and changes,” says Haas. “We throw these guys for a loop. We’re running production, and then we want them to try something different for two or three panels. It’s an inconvenience, but they do a really good job.”
Haas notes the part probably was designed originally to “have a little bit of play for the panel to move around. In the new GM, we can’t afford that any more; we’ve got to tighten it.”
The old blank was a “two-out blank die, where both blanks exit at the same time, use both pilers, and when the two pilers are full, we have to stop the blanking line. The coil stops feeding; everything stops and transfers out, which takes five to eight minutes,” says Steve Oxley, blank die engineer and one of the key architects of the project.
Given that Marion Metal Center has to ship 1,500 units of the pillar to Fort Wayne, Ind., and Flint, Mich., those five-minute breaks add up. “With two pilers of blanking, when we ran this, if both pilers were full at the same time, we’d have to stop everything. With the new blank, once they thread a coil, it’s continuous; it never stops,” Oxley says.
The initiative saved Marion Metal Center $1.3 million annually in material costs, and, according to Oxley, the regional steel distribution center in Holt, Mich., realized a 300-piece per hour gain in productivity. This equals 2,400 blanks per shift.
Marion Metal Center is operating between 93 and 96 percent capacity. “In the new GM, we can’t afford to run at less than full capacity; it just doesn’t make sense anymore,” Haas says.
In addition, the company’s new business model means everyone always is looking for ways to save money. Ideas from the various plants, product engineering departments, manufacturing engineering departments, management and suppliers are entered into a database and then fed into a cost-material savings tracker to gauge their viability, according to Endres. These ideas are then prioritized based on total savings or project logistics.
Endres creates a priority list to present to Haas and they determine “which ones we want to go after and ease into implementation. That’s a snapshot of the dialogue that happens between the plants, myself, the vendors and global purchasing. Purchasing is the last leg and that’s where they need to modify the contracts to reflect the savings.”
In addition to the considerable material cost savings, Marion Metal Center is looking toward the future in its processes. Three transfer presses were installed recently, reallocated from Grand Rapids, Mich. “That’s a huge vote of confidence by the corporation in Marion,” Haas says. “We’re excited to be entrusted with that much capital expenditure. In addition, in the back of the shop, we’re also refurbishing a couple of presses, which is also another big vote of confidence—to allow us to refurb that equipment. There is a lot of great stuff going on in this facility right now.” MM
Savings add up
The Marion Metal Center is adding wave forming to its capabilities, as well. Wave forming is a process in which the material enters the line with a saw-tooth edge. Although the potential for material savings is huge—approximately $3 million, implementing the technology is a “big project,” requiring trial and error to adapt processes downstream to run the original blanks as well as the wave-form blanks.
Wave-formed panels may not have enough material to stay within the beads of the die, causing failure. “When we run a part through the press, we gauge off the side of the blank,” says Marc Haas, Ed.D., business unit manager for tool and die. “We have the posts coming up to gauge the material. [With wave forming], the material is coming in with a saw-tooth edge on it, making it harder to gauge—you don’t have that nice, straight reference point. That’s an issue in the draw die, plus it’s also an issue in the destacker (the stacker coming into the press that we take the blank off). There are certain gauging mechanisms that rely on the edge of the blank. So we have to integrate slowly, line by line. We’ll basically have to reconfigure a line to accept the wave-form blank.”
With wave forming, the edge is still in the same location, but, according to Haas, “it’s the same amount of material, except every other void is the material that’s saved because it’s on the opposite end of the blank.”
That savings can be applied to most inner parts, including A-pillars and door panels. “One of the door panels we’re currently running has a section of wave-form line and it has $450,000 potential savings,” says Haas. “Right now, the formability and analysis group will consider all parts wave capable until proven otherwise.”
To see the Marion Metal Center's transfer press in action, click on the video below.