White Marsh plant is model for reinventing auto industry

November 12, 2008|By JAY HANCOCK | JAY HANCOCK,jay.hancock@baltsun.com

We financial blowhards have been proclaiming forever that Detroit automakers had to end business as usual.

"The need for fundamental shifts in operating procedures is painfully obvious," said Business Week. That was in 1982. It wasn't obvious to General Motors, Chrysler and Ford.

Let's hope we're right this time. Big Three carmakers are facing their umpteenth crisis since the 1970s because they repeat a 1970s mistake: selling wasteful, giant vehicles in a time of high energy prices.

As impending bailouts herald another new era for Detroit, as the Obama team talks energy independence, as the nation prepares to address climate change, American carmakers must finally, irrevocably embrace the future.

Fortunately, the global auto industry offers some sleek and efficient prototypes for a retooling Detroit.

Not just Toyota and Honda. There's also a transmission plant in White Marsh - run by a company called General Motors.

The plant, which opened in 2000, proves GM can change. Its "lean manufacturing," smart workers and environmental responsibility represent the best of any industry, not just auto-making. Whatever the Big Three's next move, whoever is in charge, the more they can match what's going on in Baltimore County, the better off they'll be.

White Marsh demonstrates the successful retraining crucial to economic flexibility and keeping important factory jobs from going overseas. Most people making White Marsh's famous Allison A1000 transmission came from GM's defunct van plant in Baltimore.

Not only did they get months of re-education. The United Auto Workers approved a radical local contract that wiped out dozens of job classifications and allowed people to be trained for more than one duty. Most line workers are either "transmission technicians" or "transmission technician coordinators," switching between assignments as needed and reducing downtime.

Everybody wears shirts with GM and UAW logos. "I don't believe there are currently any open grievances on the books," says plant spokesman John Raut. White Marsh had one of GM's first "living" labor contracts, available for amendment in midterm if circumstances require.

"This is a modern, high-technology manufacturer where the workers have a new importance and high prominence in terms of their role in the decision-making," says David Iannucci, head of economic development for Baltimore County.

The plant is a showcase for "lean manufacturing," a multifaceted discipline that strives to eliminate wastes of time, energy and materials. Managers from organizations as diverse as Caterpillar Inc. and the Coast Guard have visited to learn.

How's this for lean? White Marsh bosses say they haven't sent one pound of production waste to the landfill in more than a year. Employees recycle hundreds of tons of scrap steel and aluminum. Packaging and wood pallets are burned for energy. Machining oil gets reused in fuel additives.

The plant was GM's eighth worldwide to be "landfill-free." Next year it'll get even greener, when it is scheduled to install five football fields' worth of solar panels that should cut electricity purchases by 20 percent. It will be GM's second factory rooftop solar setup. (The solar project is "on track" despite GM's cash shortage, says Raut.)

The factory is helping customers save energy and cut pollution, too. A year ago it began making transmissions for hybrid gas-electric vehicles such as the Chevrolet Tahoe, the GMC Yukon and even Chryslers made in Delaware.

Too bad the GM Detroit bosses aren't as sharp as the GM White Marsh workers. The plant has hit a rough patch because most of its transmissions are used in trucks and sport utility vehicles that dealers now can barely give away. GM again chose the wrong product for the wrong time.

Plant employment has fallen to 250 from 400 soon after it opened. There'll be more automaker downsizing even if the Big Three get government bailouts. This is almost certain now that ascendant Democrats seem to want to spread largesse to blue-collar employers as well as Wall Street. With its proven versatility and hybrid transmissions already coming off the line, however, White Marsh should eventually thrive.

The trick is to really, truly change. GM shares hit another 60-year low yesterday. If Detroit is to receive billions in taxpayer backing, it needs to get out of the future's way. That'll take government prodding and probably executive ejections.

The business that fiercely opposed improvements, from mandatory seat belts to mandatory air bags, must now get enthusiastic about a high-mileage, low-pollution economy. A factory off Interstate 95 that will soon have photovoltaic slabs on its roof is showing the way.

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