Lordstown upgrade to enable production of many models


By Don Shilling

In gloomy economy, a sign of light

The Chevrolet Cruze could just be the start of new vehicles coming to Lordstown.

A $350 million renovation will prepare the General Motors car factory for the new small car — and also for five or six other vehicles, said John Donahoe, complex manager. Among the possibilities would be a crossover vehicle.

The complex has never had such flexibility before, said Dave Green, president of United Auto Workers Local 1714 at the Lordstown fabricating plant. GM could bring back laid-off workers to make different types of vehicles in Lordstown if market conditions warrant, he said.

“If this economy turns around by next year, we’ll be in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Auto sales are so slow right now, however, that GM has announced just one model for the upgraded plant: Cruze.

Donahoe said at a Regional Chamber event in Boardman on Friday that Cruze production will begin in October. For the last three months of this year, a small number of the cars will be built to test the new manufacturing system. Some also will be sent to a GM test track in Michigan for a workout.

Lordstown is on schedule to begin making the Cruze for car dealers in April 2010, Donahoe said.

The key to making this happen is completing the construction of a new body shop, which is where the outer frame of the vehicle is welded together. Donahoe said about 90 percent of the $350 million being spent at Lordstown is going into the body shop.

That heavy investment follows about $300 million that was spent in 2004 and 2005 to construct a new paint shop at the complex. The paint shop also was designed with advanced technology to handle a variety of vehicles, Donahoe said.

Green said the new body shop is being built around the current body shop so that production of the Chevrolet Cobalt will not be interrupted. This also will allow the complex to build both the Cruze and the Cobalt for a time, he said.

A big change in the new system is that the body shop will construct the complete outer structure of the car once the new equipment is installed, Green said.

Now, presses in the fabricating plant stamp out metal parts that are used to build the car. The body shop, which is located in the fabricating plant, puts together the underbody of the car.

With the new equipment, the body shop also will attach the quarter panels, fenders, roof and doors to the underbody. Those parts now are attached in the assembly plant, along with interior parts.

Donahoe and Green said officials from the UAW headquarters in Detroit will decide whether workers from the assembly plant need to be transferred to the fabricating plant to handle the additional work. The two plants have separate UAW locals.

The complex has 4,200 hourly workers, but about 2,800 are in the process of being laid off as production is scaled back to meet reduced demand.

shilling@vindy.com

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