By CYNTHIA VINARSKY
VINDICATOR BUSINESS WRITER
LORDSTOWN -- How will General Motors keep its 7,090 Lordstown employees at work and producing cars while a $550 million construction and renovation project is going on around them?
The answer, GM officials say, is a method they call "concurrent build," and it's part of the business plan the company put together to justify bringing in a new small-car line here to replace the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire.
Bob Glass, assistant manager at the Lordstown Assembly Plant, said concurrent building calls for a slow ramp-up of a new vehicle model while workers continue building the old car.
"The business side of that is there's not a lot of lost volume, so financially you're continuing to feed the money machine with production while you're 'ramping up' the new car," he said.
Cavalier is a particularly good seller for GM.
Lordstown Assembly produced 240,788 Cavaliers last year and has manufactured 148,183 so far this year; the plant made 82,981 Sunfires last year and 57,005 so far this year.
'A major planning effort'
The big challenge, Glass explained, is installing new conveyors and equipment and training employees while the work goes on.
"How does it happen? A major, major planning effort. We're still working on that," he said. "Ideally we would have liked to have been doing this a year ago. We will have our hands very full over the next few years."
Gerald Johnson, manufacturing manager for GM's fabricating division, said the company is getting better at ramping up new products because it's been launching one new or significantly changed product a month for the past two years.
"It's tough, but we've got a great work force, and we've been doing this for a while at other facilities," Johnson said. "We've become particularly astute in launching new programs. It gives us a lot of practice and gets a lot of fresh products out on the market."
Johnson said GM will spend about $50 million at the fabricating plant, refurbishing press systems and buying or retooling equipment for the new vehicle. About $100 million will be split between the fab plant and the adjacent assembly plant, buying and retooling equipment.
The remaining $400 million will be used to reconfigure and retool the general assembly area, to retool the plant's body shop, and to construct a state-of-the-art paint shop.
Glass said the paint shop is the only new construction outside the walls of the plant. He could not provide the dimensions for the new structure but said it will be substantial.
The plant renovation will create many construction jobs, but Glass said the work will likely be done mostly by companies hired out of the Detroit area where GM is based.
"It's not unusual for some local contractors to pick up some work," he said. "They need skilled laborers to pick up the work that needs to be done, but we don't handle any of that here."
GM will be building its new small car on what it's calling the Delta platform, a base that's already being used for the new Saturn Ion set for release this fall. By using a common platform as the underpinning for several vehicle models the company saves on retooling costs, Glass explained.
John Buttermore, manufacturing manager for GM North America and a speaker at the press conference Thursday celebrating Lordstown's selection as the site to build the new vehicle, said the Mahoning Valley came "very close" to losing its auto plants.
"It took a lot of outstanding effort by a lot of people," he said, "and there were many days, many weeks, when I didn't think we would get it done."
Even now, Buttermore warned, "there are no guarantees" that the plant will stay.
One problem GM has had with the Cavalier and Sunfire is that the cars don't make money, even though they sell well. Glass said the new car will make money, but he said could not elaborate on how large the profit margin might be.
For competitive reasons, officials said, the company isn't releasing any details about the new car until much closer to its launch, which is scheduled for the 2005 model year. Plant renovations are to begin immediately, with plans to have the work done early enough in 2004 to launch the new car.
Maureen Midgely, who took over as assembly plant manager last year, was unable to attend the media event announcing GM's new product because she was traveling out of state on family business.
Herman Maass, who retired as assembly plant manager last spring, said he attended the press conference to celebrate the conclusion of a project he worked on for years. "I retired a year and three months ago, but I never really felt like my job was done," Maass said. "Now all the goals we set when we walked in the door have been met. Now, I'm really retired."