Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Making the Chevy Volt

Cool time-lapse video of the Volt on the line from start to finish. One thing to notice is the use of robots in assembly - a major factor in the increase of productivity and the decrease in automotive and other manufacturing jobs over the past few decades. While our main focus has been on offshoring, no one mentions how it's the robots who have taken over the place...

ICYMI: Yesterday GM held a Volt recognition ceremony at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, basically a media event to officially launch the car, but also as a pat on the back and a celebration for the workers and officials who made it all happen. At the ceremony, CEO Dan Akerson announced that GM will be adding 1,000 jobs in the next two years, mainly engineers and others who will work in the area of batteries and electric vehicles. Chrysler also jumped in on the game, announcing that they too will be adding 1,000 hi-tech jobs to work on their new lineup - and that they are bringing back the popular Viper.

But the day really belonged to the Volt, and the symbolism it carries. Electric vehicles are the future, whether the nay-sayers want to admit it or not. The Volt is here, all the major auto manufacturers have electric models set for release very soon or at least within the next two years, the infrastructure is falling into place (when Cracker Barrel announces charging stations, can the rest of the world be far behind?) - and the best thing of all - Michigan will be the epicenter for development as this technology continues to move forward.

Today, the state has 17 companies that help make batteries for electric vehicles, projected to create 63,000 Michigan jobs in the next decade, Gov. Jennifer Granholm said Tuesday at a Volt celebration at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, which builds the car.

More jobs are now on their way to an industry carving a path for a greener auto industry.

On Tuesday, GM and Chrysler announced plans to each hire 1,000 new workers, mostly engineers, as they ramp up production of new models. Michigan's manufacturing-related jobs already are increasing, with 467,000 jobs in October, up 33,000 jobs from a low of 434,000 in June 2009.

"I want GM to be in the forefront of these efforts, as the Volt demonstrates," CEO Dan Akerson told hundreds of workers and visitors gathered at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant. "It would have been easy, given everything that General Motors has been through in the last couple of years, to let the Volt die, but you didn't let that happen."

GM is dedicated to making this car at a profit while maintaining quality - both very good signs that management has changed its "go along to get along" slow and stodgy attitude of the past, and is committed to being proactive when it comes to developing and maintaining a successful and profitable product line. Right now, the Volt is close to the break-even point - but they aren't including the development costs. Working to reduce the costs of components will be the focus for engineers, and a big part of that will come with the mass production of the battery. LG Chem is looking to manufacture up to 60,000 batteries at its Holland plant by 2013 to supply the Volt and the Ford Focus, and they claim that they can double capacity for production with a year's notice. They also predict that the cost will drop by half within five to ten years.

They might want to consider this "notice" - meeting demand might be the biggest problem to start. GM is running a solid marketing campaign for this car, and 240,000 people have signed up to receive information on the web. And while the company isn't releasing initial order numbers, indications are the first run of 10,000 will sell-out almost immediately.

GM plans to build 10,000 Volts by the end of 2011 and at least 45,000 in 2012. Akerson said he has a gut feeling that demand will require additional Volts in 2012, so the company is studying ways to double or triple production. The plant is currently running on only one shift, when many of GM's North American plants are using three shifts.

"I have a sense that this is going to be ... a game-changer," Akerson said.

That may end up being the understatement of the year. It already is a game-changer, especially for Michigan.

Now we just need to keep working to diversify our economy. While all this automotive success is great news (and the November sales numbers to be released today are expected to rise 15-17%) - we can't forget the inherent danger of putting all our eggs in this one-industry basket again. In the meantime though, congrats to GM and everyone who made this happen - from the government officials to company management to the development engineers to the workers on the line and in the field, take a bow. It is well-deserved.