Man and machine work together at GM Tonawanda

September 5, 2013 Updated Sep 5, 2013 at 7:45 AM EDT

By David Bertola, Buffalo Business First Reporter

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Man and machine work together at GM Tonawanda

September 5, 2013 Updated Sep 5, 2013 at 7:45 AM EDT


As a new automated cylinder head sub assembly does its work at General Motors Co. Tonawanda Engine Plant, manager Steve Finch said with a smile, "I could watch this all day."

That wasn't always the case. When he first saw the massive robot in action, spinning and assembling parts, he didn't like the idea of it being used in his plant. The robot drops in valves, seals, springs, retainers and other parts and sends it along its way on the production line. It can assemble 48 parts in 40 seconds, one step in the plant's sophisticated, automated process to manufacture an estimated 1,000 engines a day. In 2012, the plant manufactured over 272,000 engines.

While initially cold to the idea of the robot, Finch is now a big fan.

"When I saw all those tools in one place, flipping and turning, I thought 'how will we be able to maintain it?' I was afraid of the machine going down, but it's been extremely reliable."

GM executives including Finch, who has worked 37 years with the automaker, hosted national and local media on Sept. 4 to show off the brand new Gen 5 engine line in Plant 1. It's the high-tech machinery that allows for precision levels of quality to be checked that drew reporters from Popular Mechanics, WardsAuto and gear head website www.planetvehicle.com.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Finch said, when robots were introduced to manufacturing, he said there was a fear that they would replace people. He told a story of a trip to Japan around 1988 where he watched an entire shift run by robots. The lights were off as automated guided vehicles - mobile robots that follow markers or wires in the floor, or use laser technology to guide it - rolled along the floor to deliver parts. The only people in the building were maintenance workers and those in a control room.

Finch said present-day robots provide an extreme level of accuracy and repeatability that otherwise couldn't be achieved.

One of the stars of the media tour was the databolt, which is installed on each block and head at the beginning of the assembly process to make sure no processes are missed. At the end of machining, the databolt travels with the part to the assembly line where the block and head are assembled into an engine. Databolts can reliably identify the exact time and place a block or head goes through each process.

Even with all the robots and new technology, the plant needs a lot of people. It employs 1,862, most of whom were hired within the past year as the plant installed its Gen 5 engine line, which makes Ecotec 2.0L Turbo and 2.5L engines for the 2013 Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac ATS. Other models the Ecotec engines will be used in are the 2014 Cadillac CTS, Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups and the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette.

In recent years, with the future of the American auto industry on shaky ground, the plant's future was, too. But in 2010, when General Motors awarded Tonawanda Engine two new product lines: Ecotec 2.0/2.5 liter engines, and V-8 small block engine, it represented $825 million in investments. All total $2.3 billion has been invested into Tonawanda Engine over the last decade.

Without having to worry about the future, Finch said that he and the staff can breathe a sigh of relief and focus on their work.

"We're not worried about jobs or whether we'll be here; the focus has shifted to making sure we're successful on these new lines and to meet customer expectations," he said. "The mood and atmosphere here are so positive. It's a good feeling, but there's still a lot of work to do."

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