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Published: Friday, 6/11/2004

Local Powertrain plant again the most productive

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

DETROIT - General Motors Corp.'s Toledo Powertrain Plant was named North America's most productive transmission plant for the fifth year straight, helping the world's largest automaker continue to make manufacturing strides last year.

And while DaimlerChrysler AG's Toledo Jeep Assembly Plant again boosted productivity in making Libertys and Wranglers last year, it continued to lag some other sport-utility vehicle factories.

For the first time, Chrysler surpassed Ford Motor Co. last year when it came to North American productivity with its assembly, stamping, and powertrain operations, and for the second consecutive year was the most improved automaker on that overall measure with a nearly 8 percent gain in 2003, a industry benchmark study released yesterday showed.

GM was on top in the overall rankings with 35.20 hours needed to produce a vehicle, then Chrysler at 37.42 and Ford at 38.60. The Ford performance comes just two years after it was the leader among Detroit's Big Three, which each have had shrinking U.S. market share.

At Chrysler's Toledo North factory, it took took 21.73 hours last year to make each Liberty, more than 2 1/4 hours less than in 2002, while the aging Jeep Parkway and Stickney Avenue factories took 23.08 hours to build each Wrangler, shaving even a little more time off of 2002's results than the Liberty, according to the Harbour Consulting annual report.The Nissan Xterra plant was North America's most productive SUV factory last year, taking 18.35 hours to build each vehicle, according to the Harbour study. Toledo North was the fourth most productive SUV plant out of 19, and the Wrangler-making operations were ninth, the report said. The Wrangler factories are to be replaced by new shops in Toledo in 2006 as part of a $2.1 billion investment.

Nissan Motor Co.'s Smyrna, Tenn., plant was the overall most productive assembly factory in North America last year, taking 15.33 hours to build an Altima. The plant also makes the Xterra and other vehicles.

At Toledo Powertrain, it took just 3.11 hours to make each transmission last year, a 3.5 percent improvement from 2002 and 15 minutes faster than its next competitor. The factory is the only transmission plant to be ranked No. 1 for five consecutive years, earning praise from Harbour Consulting as well as from both GM and United Auto Workers Local 14 officials yesterday.

"To earn this recognition five years in a row is fantastic, particularly in light of the fact that our competition also improves each year," said Joe Farinella, the plant's personnel director.

"It never gets old, nor will we ever take it for granted."

Toledo Jeep was praised by Chrysler and UAW Local 12 officials. Nissan's Xterra plant has an advantage in the study because some jobs done at Toledo Jeep - such as sanitation and most equipment maintenance - are outsourced in Smyrna and therefore excluded from the daily labor-hour count, said Bruce Baumhower, Local 12's president.

"If everything was apples to apples, Jeep would be off the charts," he said. "They [Nissan] wouldn't stand a chance against these Jeep workers."

Still, Toledo North doesn't do some tasks performed at other factories, such as welding doors like North America's No. 2 SUV plant, a Ford facility in Kansas City that makes Escapes and Mazda Tributes, noted Laurie Felax, vice president of Harbour Consulting.

"I think there's some room for improvement," she said.

Tom LaSorda, Chrysler's chief operating officer, agreed that Toledo Jeep can do better, as can all of the automaker's plants.

"We're very, very happy with Toledo's performance," he said.

For the first time, Chrysler surpassed Ford last year when it came to North American productivity with its assembly, stamping, and powertrain operations, and for the second consecutive year was the most improved automaker on that overall measure with a nearly 8 percent gain in 2003.

GM was on top in the overall rankings with 35.20 hours per vehicle, then Chrysler at 37.42 and Ford at 38.60. The Ford performance comes just two years after it was the leader among Detroit's Big Three, which each have had shrinking U.S. market share.

Honda Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. submitted limited reports and were not included in the overall rankings.

Chrysler engineers, Mr. LaSorda said, are working to decrease the manufacturing complexity of vehicles, such as designing instrument panels with 50 parts instead of 100. Such an approach presumably includes the replacement for the Wrangler to be built in 2006 at the new operations planned for Toledo Jeep, as well as a Dodge derivative off the Liberty's platform expected that year.

Meanwhile, Ford's engine plant in Lima, Ohio, placed second in the 6-cylinder, overhead valve engine category, taking 3.69 hours to build each last year, down from 3.83 hours in 2002. That engine was ranked No. 14 out of 45, while the plant's other product, a V-8 engine, was ranked last with 15.04 hours of production time for each, down from 15.85.

Contact Julie M. McKinnon at:

jmckinnon@theblade.com

or 419-724-6087.



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