Back in August, I was given the opportunity to tour some of GM’s facilities to learn more about how they operate and to watch GM’s Motors being built. I received an invite for a private tour to show me what goes behind the scenes. This article shows what I saw on the first part of that tour, looking at the assembly of the 1.4L GM engines. I learned that the GM of today is nowhere near what it was yesterday, and you’re about to see why.
Flint Engine Operations
On Wednesday night, my wife and I drove into the Detroit area and checked into our Hotel a few miles away from Pontiac, MI where I would be meeting up with Tom. To give you a bit of background, Tom is known as one of the many “believers” at GM, who faithfully embraces the truth that GM cannot settle for anything less than a superior product, built with transparency, excellence, and vision. As a representative for the CruzeTalk community, I worked with Tom to help GM narrow down the source of a problem the Cruze had early on related to a discrepancy in documentation.
At 9:00 AM, we met up with Tom at GM’s Powertrain Headquarters in Pontiac.
Meeting Tom for the first time was a genuine pleasure. He informed me that our first stop would actually be in Flint, MI, and that we’d be driving up there, so we walked out of the building and out to the parking lot. Here I was thinking that we’d probably hop into a fully loaded Impala or Malibu and drive out to the plant, but Tom threw me quite a surprise when he handed me the keys and stopped by the car I would be driving us around Detroit in, a 2012 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe.
You guys can ask me how driving that car was later, but let’s move on to our first stop, GM’s engine assembly plant in Flint, MI. Flint Engine Operations is where the 1.4T and 1.4 Voltec GM motors are built for the Chevy Cruze and the Chevy Volt. On entrance, we were greeted by a Quality Control Manager and another Tom; Flint’s Plant Communications Manager. We spent about one hour learning about the quality control processes GM has in place at this plant, as well as procedures that are followed should anything go wrong, and let me tell you guys, I was blown away.
GM’s Flint Engine Operations is a fairly new building that received $480.3 million in renovations since 2009 in order to support the production of the 1.4 engines. These are the 1.4L Voltec and 1.4L Ecotec Turbo engines that are installed in the Chevy Volt and the Chevy Cruze. This was GM Powertrain’s first plant to go “landfill free.” Zero plant waste has been sent to landfills since 2005. Want to talk green? This is it. Everything that gets discarded is melted down or recycled to create something new; an initiative that many of us can greatly respect and admire.
What I learned during the hour I spent in that office made me realize how far General Motors has come. The whole plant is set up specifically to prevent failure, error, and defect. The operations management is world-class in this facility.
Equipment Failure Prevention: GM closely monitors their equipment in this plant on a continual basis. They’ve created a science of keeping their equipment working in perfect order. If a bearing is expected to fail or shows even early signs of failure, they will plan for the replacement ahead of time in order to prevent any error from occurring during that machine’s use.
Employee Error Prevention: The processes in place here leave absolutely no room for error. Everything is handled in a sequential order, and each step has to be completed successfully before the engine can be moved onto the next step. If any process leaves any room for error or an error occurs, the cause is addressed immediately. As soon as an issue arises, the assembly line is stopped, and a “SWAT team of engineers” comes into the plant to analyze every aspect of that process to ensure that the error will never occur again. If they need to install laser precision measurement or high definition cameras on a specific part of the assembly line to ensure there is absolutely no way that anything can go wrong, they will take those measures and implement those steps. This results in extremely effective error prevention.
Here’s where you guys get to see what goes on inside that building. As I walked in, the first thing I noticed was how clean the place was. This place is an absolute museum. Without a shred of doubt, I can honestly say that I would eat dinner off of any engine that is produced here. The first place we stopped was naturally the spark plugs, which was coincidentally also one of the first steps in the assembly line. As you’ll note here, these aren’t just picked out of a large bin or bucket where they could be dented, damaged, or have the electrodes bent and the gap changed. These spark plugs are shipped in these trays to GM, and they rest on the outer area of the plug to ensure that the electrode is not touched by the packaging.
Here, people load items into trays that then get sent into a machine for scanning. Among these are valve springs, valves, camshafts, and spark plugs, and they are placed next to the cylinder head to be installed. Each tray is assigned a particular number, that is then tracked as the engine moves along.
Once they’ve traveled a bit, they come into a particular cell where they are measured and inspected. A set of high definition cameras and extremely high precision lasers inspects each of these parts. You can see the cam carriers being inspected in the third picture.
I can’t emphasize enough; this is all done with extreme precision. Not only that, but planned errors are regularly sent through the machine to ensure that it is accurately reading and detecting issues with the parts. Every few cycles, these trays are washed to ensure that no possible debris from any component is left behind to contaminate the next batch.
A few more pictures:
Finally, after all of the components have been installed, including valves and springs, spark plugs, cylinder head, timing chain, timing cover, valve cover, crankshaft, connecting rods and pistons, and oil pan (among many others), the engine enters this particular cell, which probably impressed me the most out of all of them. This is a cold dyno. This is probably the most fascinating step in this process. Once the engines is inside this cell, it is filled with oil, and a tube or wire is connected to every possible component on the engine. An electric motor is connected to the crankshaft, which then turns the motor at high speeds. During this time, the machine measures airflow through the intake ports, exhaust ports, the resistance and friction on the crankshaft as its being turned, any vibration being created by the engine, and the resistance of the spark plugs, just to name a small number of testing variables. To put it bluntly, if the motor isn’t perfect, it’s not getting past this machine. Every single engine that comes out of this Flint plant is absolutely perfect and ready to be driven without error or failure, at least with regard to assembly.
Once the engine has been thoroughly tested, it is thoroughly inspected before going onward to packaging, where it will be loaded onto a truck. During this whole process, each individual component was tracked based on VIN number, which is how they know how many vehicles are affected for a given TSB. At this point, your Cruze order has probably already been placed.
For the next part of the tour, we get to peek inside GM Powertrain Headquarters!