As the farthest-flung outpost of the General Motors global empire, the Australian Holden subsidiary could well have suffered for lack of attention. But left largely to its own devices Holden has actually thrived. Dominating the small (800,000 unit) but very competitive local market, the Melbourne-based division has become a shining example to the rest of GM of how a lean and tightly focused operation can yield results.
This holds true particularly in Holden’s niche manufacturing operations, whose success hinges on an ultra-flexible multi-model, one platform strategy. Holden’s Elizabeth assembly plant in Adelaide employs 4,300 and currently produces 620 vehicles a day, a number that will increase to 760 in the near future as new models arrive and the company’s export business expands. Already the factory turns out 28 different models, including sedans, coupes, wagons and pick-ups, based on nine variations from a single, large car architecture — itself a development of Opel’s rear-wheel-drive Omega sedan.
By 2008, Holden forecasts it will be building 200,000 vehicles in Adelaide, 70,000 of which will be for export markets, including the Middle East, South Africa, Brazil and the U.S., which receives the Holden Monaro Coupe badged as the Pontiac GTO in late 2003. Add to the locally produced vehicles another 90,000 imported cars and Holden’s total sales five years hence should top 290,000, a comfortable figure which should maintain the company’s unusually profitable status among GM divisions.
To support these goals, over the next four years Holden will invest (AUS) $2 billion in its manufacturing operations, including launching GM’s new ‘high feature’ overhead cam V-6 engine at its plant in Victoria. One fifth of the total investment will bemade at the Elizabeth facility, which will replace two of its existing A class presses, re-shape and increase automation on its blanking line, upgrade tandem press lines with quick die change facilities and add a third transfer press.
|The locally invented ‘flying seat’ gives workers access to the car’s interior without having to crawl in on their hands and knees. Holden’s Elizabeth general assembly shop has a spur line to completely assemble the cockpit module.|
One advantage of the relatively low volume output at the Elizabeth plant is that it allows the use of laser cutting tools to trim the common floor panels shared by the sedan and wagon models. “Laser cutting helps keep costs down; it’s (AUS) $2.6 million for machine versus (AUS) $20 million for a press,” says Frank Woolford, director of vehicle operations. “It also helps the business case for low volume products.” In the metal stamping shop, the proliferation of models means that a quick die change capability is critical. “We have to make 25 parts per press versus 8-10 in a typical U.S. operation,” explains Woolford.
With an immature supplier base in Australia, Holden has had to produce many components — the rear suspension cross member for example — that in other major markets normally would be outsourced The factory has a major polypropylene injection molding and painting operation, for example, which produces 26,000 parts per day. Primary parts include fascias, rocker panel skirts, crash pads, instrument panels, glove boxes and center consoles.
Though the plastics shop represents a substantial investment, Lidauer argues that having such close control of quality and processes, especially on parts that the end user regularly sees, is a “significant competitive advantage.”
The crash pad production process was developed with Honda and has proved successful in dealing with the unusual demands of some of Holden’s markets, especially the Middle East, where extremely high temperatures can cause problems with plastic panel surfaces. With so many different models being produced by the plant, there are nearly 400 bumper variations. Consequently the operation runs on an on-demand basis, using an unusual robotic flame etching process to create the different fascia designs. The general assembly plant is linked to the plastics shop with a synchronous ordering system that delivers painted fascias and other components within 3.5 hours. “There is no room or time for mistakes,” says Woolford. “I’m not aware of any other plant where this is arranged in such a tight time loop.” Among the special measures developed for local market bumper fascias is a paint formula designed to cope with the unusually acidic fluids contained in Australian bugs.
A development in the main paint shop is a new automatic storage facility — ‘a pick and place store’ — for painted bodies. “This gives us the opportunity to balance production schedules in the plant to support batch painting, which is tremendous advantage in terms of cost and quality,” says Lidauer.
The biggest change to the plant will be seen in the general assembly shop, which will soon be upgraded with a new floor skillet and overhead conveyor system. Plant personnel admit the current ‘60s era line is archaic with its snake-like layout and narrow aisles. The new layout, which will be installed without major disruption to production, claim plant personnel, will follow the T-shaped design established by GM’s recently built factories, such as the one in Gliwice, Poland. “The change will give us a very modern, European-standard assembly line,” says Lidauer. “Wider aisles will improve material flow and the new layout will have a positive impact on quality.”
Even without a modern general assembly shop, Holden claims its quality figures are excellent, with 2001 being the best year ever in terms of direct run, warranty costs and consumer survey feedback. To ensure further quality improvements, automation will be increased to 78 percent and existing key assembly line tactics will be pursued in the new shop, including in-line sequencing of supplier components, minimizing walk time for line workers and providing operator aids. A locally invented worker aid that has generated a lot of interest among plant visitors is known as the ‘flying seat.” Essentially a seat mounted on a Cshaped arm, the device allows workers to access a car’s interior without having to crawl inside on their hands and knees. “Getting inside the cabin and engine bay are two big challenges of assembly line operations,” says Woolford.
|A robotic flame-etching process creates different fascias on the Holden vehicles.||Holden’s ‘pick and place store’ for painted bodies helps the company batch paint.|
|Holden laser cuts common floor panels on its sedan and wagon. This helps keep costs down vs. traditional pressing.|
Another unusual feature of the Elizabeth general assembly shop is a spur line that completely assembles the cockpit module including the pedals. Conveniently the whole module is inserted as one piece and the process makes it relatively easy to switch between right- and left-hand-drive cockpits. Woolford acknowledges the need for more parts buffering areas and says there will be increased involvement from certain key suppliers. For example, the plant used to do its own rear axle assembly, but Dana has taken over that job using a facility close to the plant. “Dana will be a lot more involved in future models.”
Though Holden will never become a high volume producer on the scale of some of GM’s U.S. and European operations, it has developed a unique position as a ‘multi-niche’ manufacturer. And while the Australian company’s geographic remoteness and small local market creates certain challenges, such as the presence of few top rank suppliers, the upside is a resourceful, go-it-alone approach, which has resulted in novel solutions to traditional problems.
The key attributes of Holden’s game plan — producing innovative new vehicles with low investment, short lead times and with leading edge manufacturing practices — should serve the company well over the next decade. And from parent GM’s perspective, Holden fulfills a useful role by meeting the demand in world markets for niche products that are difficult or unprofitable for larger manufacturing operations to produce.
“We are a dwarf by world standards,” says Peter Hanenberger, chairman and managing director of Holden. “But we are lean and we can develop strengths that you cannot as a giant.”
It wasn’t the first time Holden had been in the running to produce a vehicle for North American consumption — Jennings had been involved in a previous unfulfilled plan to export Commodores as Buicks – but this time Detroit reacted fast and the deal went through. “Bob Lutz responded right away and asked what it would take to do it,” recalls Jennings, engineering program manager for the GTO.
The answer to Lutz’s question was that it would take some important modifications to make the Monaro suitable for the U.S. market. But the task was achievable and production could start just 18 months from February 2002 — the time when Lutz and a group of top GM executives visited Holden. Compared to an all-new vehicle program, that’s fast and suits Lutz’s goal of revitalizing Pontiac with a halo performance car.
As a new model to the Australia market, the Commodore-based Monaro has a number of features that make it attractive to US tastes. Among them is size; it is the largest coupe in the world. The Monaro has also been developed as an enthusiast’s car, with a thoroughly-engineered independent rear suspension, sporting handling characteristics and plenty of performance from its North American-sourced LS1 300bhp-plus V-8 engine. In short it is perfect for Pontiac.
Jennings’ engineering team are focusing their efforts on changes to the Monaro’s interior, bumpers, fuel, electrical, lighting, safety and emissions systems as well as improving cold weather operation and corrosion protection.
Assuming all goes well and US consumers buy the GTO in the numbers anticipated — around 20,000 per year — then the project could be the precursor to a succession of Holden developed vehicles crossing the Pacific. One obvious candidate is the Ute, an El Camino-like car-based pick-up that has proven very popular in Australia. Standing in its way, however, is the 25 percent tariff imposed by the U.S. government on imported trucks and possible objections from the UAW. However the latter issue might be resolved were Holden to import a U.S.-made product, such as the Trailblazer, as a counterbalance to the Ute.
Lutz and company were also struck by the potential of forthcoming new Holden models, including the Cross8, essentially a four-door sedan with a pick-up bed, and the SSX, a large high performance hatchback sedan. Both models have four-wheel-drivetrains.
In the meantime the GTO program alone will mean adding a third shift to the line at the Elizabeth plant and go a long way to fulfilling Holden’s export-based expansion strategy.
Peter Hanenberger, Holden chairman, says his company is lean but can develop more strengths than a giant.
|New Holden models — and possible U.S. exports — include the SSX (left), a high performance hatchback sedan and the Cross8 (right), a 4-door sedan with a pick-up bed.|