For workers at General Motors Corp.'s Toledo Powertrain plant, the difference between a steady paycheck and a long-term layoff as the automaker undergoes a $15 billion turnaround plan may come down to two extra gears.
Yesterday, GM announced a massive reorganization to shore up its dwindling cash reserves. It will cut vehicle production, reduce its salaried work force, and sell assets.
On Monday, workers at the Alexis Road plant produced their first "salable" six-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission - the product of a $500 million investment in drivetrain technology that promises to boost fuel economy for consumers and keep the most productive powertrain work force in North America on the job, even as GM plans to cut production at its facilities elsewhere.
"The first three we built were perfect. That raised some eyebrows very positively," explained Brad Dodrill, launch manager for the plant's new six-speed rear-drive transmission.
"We're all about quality. We cannot afford to let even one - not one - bad transmission out of this plant," he said.
The new rear-wheel drive transmissions are lighter and smoother and promise more power than the plant's current product, a four-speed, rear-wheel drive transmission used in pickups and large SUVs that has changed minimally in the last dozen years.
The new rear-drive transmissions can be built in four variations to fit everything from small European cars to large pickups and SUVs, depending on what GM's global production chain needs, Mr. Dodrill said.
Besides being lightweight, the six-speed transmissions will help GM vehicles achieve an extra 4 percent to 7 percent increase in fuel economy by operating more efficiently, company engineers said.
GM spokesman Wanda Wellman-Montion said plans call for the plant to "slowly clear out the floor space" used to make the four-speed transmissions. Eventually, the space will hold equipment to build a new front-wheel drive, six-speed transmission, a $350 million investment that the plant won in May, 2007.
When both lines are running in 2010, Toledo will be the only GM transmission plant building both front and rear-wheel powertrains.
The two products - and their variants spread across GM's vehicle lineup - should help keep the Toledo plant's 1,350 hourly and 250 salaried workers employed, especially given their repeated awards as the most productive transmission plant in North America, an honor the work force won again last month.
"Having the flexibility to build both truck and car transmissions allows us to offer [a product] to whatever [vehicles] the market demands. That positions Toledo in a unique position, probably a better position than most other powertrain plants," Ms. Wellman-Montion said.
"We're pretty fortunate. We've got two brand-new products," said Ray Wood, president of UAW Local 14. "GM is only going to invest in plants that are productive and doing good, quality work. We put ourselves in this position because we've got a good, quality work force and we've got a reputation for making a quality product."
Mr. Dodrill and Joan Schrader, his Local 14 counterpart, have spent two years overseeing the new transmission and accompanying work force changes. Workers on the new line form small teams, elect their own leaders, and have authority to shut down the line to fix problems.
"These two products are at least going to give us the opportunity to keep the doors open a little longer," Mr. Dodrill said. "We can't stop there, though. We have to figure out how to do better. A lot of hard work has come from UAW leadership and management leadership to make this happen. They've done just an outstanding job in knowing that you've got to change if you're going to move forward."
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