GM Assembly Plant Tour
St. Therese, Quebec - Canada
With the F-car the plant is running at between 30 and 40 percent capacity. But while the plant is under-utilized at the moment, the Camaro is currently one of GM's more profitable vehicles. Except for the '98 "mid-cycle enhancement," which gave the Camaro a new nose and an LS1 engine, the platform has remained largely unchanged. This has kept overall investment costs, such as new tooling, to a minimum, enhancing profitability.
And there was some hefty investment when the car started its run down the 8.4 miles of Ste. Therese's conveyor lines, as the Camaro is not the easiest car to build. For example, there are seven substrates of the car that go through the paint shop, and only one of them is steel. The rest, which comprise the front fenders, doors, hatch, roof cover, and front and rear fascias, are made from different types of plastic composites.
After just a couple of minutes in the plant, we were struck by the brightness and cleanliness of the assembly line floor. Each station has brilliant lighting, and that lighting reflects off a polished concrete floor. We didn't see so much as a scrap of paper on the ground, either. At each work station along the assembly line containers full of components were stacked up neatly and within easy reach.
Ste. Therese utilizes a "just in time" materials delivery system, which means the plant and work stations stock only enough parts for several hours' work. Suppliers make deliveries to the plant as the components are needed and many components are larger sub-assemblies. Take the instrument panel, for example. Rather than stock the thousands of tiny parts and assemble the panels in-house, a supplier delivers complete instrument panels to be installed as a single part.
The plant's planning administrator, Barry Oakley, is proud of Ste. Therese's efficiencies. "It's a precise system that ensures better quality cars," he says. "We have a paperless schedule system, too, that makes it almost impossible for a car to be built with incorrect components or options."
A Camaro begins to take shape when the bodyside panels are joined to the floorpan. At this station, workers also install the roof panel. Whether a T-top or a hardtop, the cars get the same T-style roof panel. A hardtop car simply has a full-length support around the door opening on the bodyside panel. Note the extra metal in the door opening in this photo. It reinforces the side panel until it's welded to the floorpan. It gets trimmed off at the next station on the line.
Starting From Scratch
Each Camaro begins its journey down the assembly in several places. The body begins to take shape as the floorpan and steel bodysides are welded together. Ste. Therese doesn't stamp any of the sheetmetal parts; they're delivered pre-made. Some other GM plants, however, have an on-site stamping facility.
As the body is welded together and the composite body parts added, it continues down the line to the paint shop. (Camaros are painted with an environmentally friendly waterborne paint system.) Once painted, interior and exterior trim are added. At the same time, the drivetrain is assembled on a different line within the plant.
Just like the computerized tracking system ensures components are delivered "just in time," so, too, does another computer system ensure that the components are installed correctly. Throughout the plant many work stations have computer-controlled torque wrenches, for example. Not only are the wrenches programmed to cinch bolts to the specified torque, but the tool senses whether the bolt was installed correctly. If it detects, say, a cross-threaded bolt, the computer alerts the worker, and the bolt is removed and reinstalled.
Checked And Double-Checked
As fascinating as it was to watch the progress of a Camaro going from small scraps of stamped steel to a rolling finished product, the reality of the process is mostly unremarkable-and we mean that in a positive way. The workers move efficiently and quickly through their jobs, and the line rolls along virtually silent. There were no giant stamping sounds, nor the whir of air guns.
The biggest sound we heard was the blare of French-language pop music emanating from many a work station. As French is the dominating culture in Quebec, it is the dominant language in the plant. Asking workers about their jobs often required a translator...that 10th grade French class obviously didn't stick with us.
Near the end of the assembly line, a battery of final inspections is performed under bright fluorescent lights. Once drivable, the cars scurry off the line, over a series of tall bumps in the floor (to help settle the tight, new suspension), and into a chassis dyno-type bay. Here, the wheels are aligned, the headlamps are aimed, and other various adjustments are completed.
From here, most of the cars are driven outside to Ste. Therese's on-site rail yard. Some, though, are selected for a special 12- to 15-kilometer road test. These "audit" vehicles are put through a series of surface-street and freeway checks. Z28s that are destined to become SSs are loaded onto trucks for a trip to SLP's nearby conversion facility. They're returned to the same rail yard upon completion.
This story isn't about the death of the Camaro, it's about its birth. However, the F-car platform won't conform to certain 2003 Federal side-crash standards. So, the end is coming.
Our advice is to get yourself a new Camaro while you can. It's a heck of a performance value, and those Quebecers sure know how to build 'em.
As the body snakes through the body shop and paint shop, the drivetrain is assembled. Here, an LS1 and automatic combination inches down the line, where front and rear suspension components are added.
Dozens of LS1 engines are delivered for "just in time" installation. In this corner of the plant, the tantalizing tower of V-8 power was mirrored by an equally impressive stock of T-56 six-speed transmissions. Yes, we were drooling at the sight of it all.
Once out of the paint shop, each car inches farther down the line, with additional trim being added at each station. At this point, the drivetrain has not yet been installed.
Think about it: For every single Camaro, there are four, big, aluminum wheels. That means stacks of rims spreading out far and wide. A computer-operated machine mounts tires to the wheels, including the spares, in a specific sequence.
One of the numerous sub-assemblies that are delivered to the plant for more efficient installation is the instrument panel. Rather than build the instrument panels in-house, a vendor builds and delivers completed panels. It's then installed in a single, swift operation.
Now we're getting somewhere: A nearly complete chassis is lowered onto a waiting drivetrain. Although it sounds-and looks-like a complicated hook-up, it is a smooth, fast operation that Ste. Therese's workers perform with impressive agility.
With the drivetrain in place, the wheels and tires attached, and most of the trim installed, this Camaro is short a distance from the end of the line and a battery of final quality checks.
In a quiet corner of the plant, we spied a few export-market Camaros. Note the rear bumper, with its European-sized license plate pocket and extra reflectors. Front-fender signal repeaters and break-away side mirrors differentiate the cars from North American-spec Camaros, too.