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A Changing Footprint

As part of the reorganization of General Motors Europe, Carl-Peter Forster moves from Opel chairman and managing director to president of GME, filling a spot vacated by the departure of Michael Burns, who left in May to head Dana Corp. Forster, a self-professed product guy, will focus on aligning GM�s European brands (Opel, Vauxhall, Saab, and to some extent, Daewoo), under one management umbrella, with the intent of integrating GME into the global GM family, utilizing the company�s assets to simplify processes, streamline decision making and hopefully, turn a profit.

Forster admits that it�s tough being a volume manufacturer in Europe right now and the only way to move the profit bar up is to further reduce costs.

�We�re having much discussion with our German unions right now and we have to get some of our German workers to understand what they need to accept in order to become competitive,� Forster says. �It�s one of the contributors of making us profitable. You can make money in Europe in volume manufacturing if you have the right footprint. You can�t have excess labor costs or inefficient structures and processes.�

It�s that �right footprint� that Forster alludes to that could dramatically alter the future landscape of GME manufacturing.

It was announced during those discussions that Opel�s Gliwice, Poland, plant was chosen over the German R?sselsheim facility to build an additional module of Zaphira. While union officials called the move �purely political,� Forster says the decision was financially based.

�We compared both investment and manufacturing costs,� Forster says, �and they were significantly lower in Poland than in R?sselsheim.�

Whichever way you look at it, the move was aimed right at Germany�s auto unions who are currently battling with DaimlerChrysler over similar issues.

Forster is matter-of-fact when he says that GM has told union representatives, �You have to look at (the situation) with open eyes. The supply industry is basically closing down their Western European plants and opening up in the East.�

Forster says that he would prefer that GM become competitive in Western Europe and build any additional capacity in Eastern Europe. If that isn�t achieved, then the next step would be to close the facilities in the west and shift all manufacturing to the east. In essence, if the union members want to continue working, they�ll have to accept whatever concessions GM wants.

�It�s a big shock to the system,� Forster says, �because many of them believe were still competitive compared to Western European standards.�

The R?sselsheim/Gliwice decision is just a hint at what the future may hold and it�s not just West Germany that might be looking at changes. In an effort to boost Saab sales, three new models have recently been announced. The 9-7X SUV that will be built in GM�s Moraine, Ohio, assembly plant alongside the Chevrolet Trailblazer. The 9-2X sport wagon that will be built by Subaru in Ota Gunma, Japan, and a future crossover vehicle that will be jointly developed with Subaru and built in Lafayette, Ind. � three new Saabs, none of which will be built in Sweden.

GME has been tapped to develop the next generation Epsilon platform that Forster says will be much more flexible than the current one. While the current cars have similar underpinnings, they are different enough to prevent what GM�s Bob Lutz calls �interbuildability,� or the ability to build any Epsilon-based car in any Epsilon plant. Forster says GM can now focus on creating real different vehicles (Chevrolet, Daewoo, Opel, Pontiac, Saab and Saturn), based on a very similar, shared architecture.

�And there will be some cross shipment of vehicles,� Forster says. �For example, in Europe we definitely want to be able to build Saab and Opel vehicles in the same plant in order to utilize our existing capacity.�

And though no definite decisions have been made yet, Forster hints at a next-generation Saab 9-5 in search of a global GM platform. It makes you wonder if the folks at Trollhattan should be just as concerned as those at R?sselsheim.

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Fri. July 19th, 2024

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