ARLINGTON, Texas, November 3, 2012 — Big yellow tractors bounce down mounds of sand outside the General Motors Assembly Plant, rushing to keep the dirt flying.
About 1,000 construction workers scramble to finish an addition to the body shop, retool the assembly line and erect a new 200,000-square-foot stamping facility, probably by early 2013.
|A dirt path leads to the center of construction work on the new stamping facility.
As they scrape, bang and shovel, 2,500 GM workers inside the plant continue to build full-size SUVs.
Progress on the $531 million in projects remains on schedule, Plant Manager Paul Graham said.
“We are busy, and we are focused,” he said.
He declined to say when the massive project might be finished.
The Arlington plant is being expanded and refurbished to assemble GM’s next generation of Chevrolet Tahoes, GMC Yukons and Cadillac Escalades, all-new 2014 models of the plant’s current vehicles. The plant should be turning out the SUVs by the second quarter of 2013, industry observers say.
On top of all the construction work, the Arlington plant, GM’s only full-size SUV factory, will add a third shift in January. GM won’t confirm when the shift will start but acknowledged that it will add another 800 workers to the plant.
They will join about 300 people hired to work in the stamping plant and on new jobs from the retooling, bringing total employment to about 3,600.
That will be the largest number of employees at the plant in more than a decade.
“This is probably the biggest thing here since they announced [in 1954] that there would be a GM plant in Arlington,” said Mike Cartwright, president of United Auto Workers Local 276, which represents hourly workers at the plant.
Workers are already training for some of the new processes that will be used to build the 2014 SUVs, Cartwright said.
“We understand that we have to launch on time and it has to be perfect,” he said.
On a recent workday, 11 people crowded into the plant’s tiny front lobby, waiting to interview for some of the new jobs.
The flurry of activity speaks loudly of the Arlington plant’s robust health.
“In today’s times, this [investment] just gives you more life,” said George Hoffer, a business professor at the University of Richmond who follows the auto industry.
Four years ago, before GM’s bankruptcy and reorganization, the company had two factories building full-size SUVs — Arlington and a now-shuttered facility in Janesville, Wis., and could shift production between them.
With production capacity much tighter now, GM wants to make its surviving factories as productive and efficient as it can.
“It just makes sense to do that, and it is a more prudent approach than building green-field [new] factories,” Hoffer said.
The planned addition of the third shift in early 2013 “is even more bullish,” he said.
“By adding a third shift, you are making the Arlington plant even more profitable,” Hoffer said. “You increase production substantially without having to make a proportionate increase in your overhead.”
Although GM declined to provide many details of the new stamping plant, Jay Baron, PhD, of the Center for Automotive Research believes the facility will house three lines of presses with five or six presses in each line.
Each press can weigh up to 1.5 million pounds and be capable of exerting 25,000 tons of force, GM acknowledged.
The bases of the massive presses will reside in a 27-foot-deep trench inside the stamping facility.
Before GM decided to add the $200 million stamping plant in Arlington, metal and aluminum body pieces had to be shipped more than 1,000 miles from giant stamping facilities in the Midwest.
Blanks and dies
The process was costly and could also result in damage to the fenders, hoods, doors and other metal parts in transit.
Baron described GM’s decision to build a smaller, decentralized stamping facility at the Arlington plant as “state of the art.”
“If they’re investing in a stamping plant, they are making a real commitment to the [Arlington] plant,” he said.
Huge coils of steel weighing up to 20 tons will be shipped in, arriving at one end of the stamping plant, where they will be cut into smaller sheets of steel called blanks.
Gigantic molds for SUV parts, called dies, will be placed on the upper and lower portions of the presses and an oiled blank will be slid between them. The dies can weigh up to 120,000 pounds each, GM said.
The blank might move through multiple presses in the line to create a part.
“There are only three types of [stamping-press] lines, and the one at Arlington is probably a transfer press line, which typically costs about $40 million per line,” Baron said.
Raw body pieces will be transported to the body shop next door, ultimately saving the company about $40 million a year in expenses compared with the old system, GM said.
The stamping facility may even generate more than the 180 new jobs that GM has announced.
Someone has to make and maintain the dies, Baron noted.
“GM typically does not make or maintain its own dies, so I would look for a local tool and die shop coming in around the plant to do the work,” he said.
Source: dallasnews.com, © 2012, The Dallas Morning News Inc. All Rights Reserved
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