GRAVATAI, Brazil - For the first time, the world's largest automaker is putting one of its suppliers on a vehicle assembly line.
At General Motors' much-studied Blue Macaw project here in the south Brazilian countryside, Lear Corp. has been assigned its own 720-square-meter subassembly area within the main plant, preparing doors for the new Chevrolet Celta.
Not only do 10 to 12 Lear employees install locks, windows and other components in the doors, but they detach those doors after the car body leaves the paint shop and reattach the finished pieces as the vehicle nears completion on the assembly line.
The $554 million Blue Macaw plant was officially dedicated earlier this month. The Celta, a basic, three-door hatchback derivative of the Opel/Vauxhall Corsa, will go on sale in September.
Not only is the Gravatai setup a first for GM and Lear, it may be unique throughout the global car industry. A more radical approach, however, was implemented in Volkswagen's commercial truck plant in Resende, Brazil, where eight suppliers assemble their units inside the factory and attach those modules to the vehicle as it travels down the assembly line.
Though Lear's activity within the Gravatai plant is considered experimental, the setup may be copied in future GM manufacturing operations, officials said. The rest of the world automotive industry will also cast curious eyes upon the plant, as carmakers continue to seek ways to cut cost and improve manufacturing logistics.
'I see a very strong potential for the future having many suppliers supplying the subassemblies directly to the line,' said Paulino Varela, GM production manager at Gravatai.
GM workers, however, will insist on fastening modules to the vehicle on the assembly line, Varela said, as the company seeks to maintain quality and safety controls over final product. The resistance of labor unions, especially in North America, will also play a role in how the concept is deployed.
In Brazil, though, GM's decision to award the door business to Lear came down to greater production flexibility, simpler assembly and putting the work in the hands of a company expert in that component business, participants in the partnership said.
'What we have here is a bold step forward in determining new, innovative and best ways to produce an automobile,' said Americo Nesti, president of Lear's South American operations. 'This is going to be a benchmark for other plants.'
Lear, the world's fifth-largest auto supplier, also supplies headliner and seat modules to the Celta from a $15 million, 5,760-square-meter facility adjacent to the assembly plant. It is one of 16 suppliers that built adjacent plants to supply GM with co-designed modules for the Celta.
GM eventually expects to adopt many of the tactics of Gravatai - from the use of large modules to the co-design of parts in tandem with suppliers - in future manufacturing operations. Said GM Chairman Jack Smith: 'Anything we look at new, I believe the whole focus is looking here.'