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Camaro workers proud to have a winner

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Camaro workers proud to have a winner


GM Oshawa workers build 55 of the hot-selling Camaros in an hour.

Sweating the details at GM's Oshawa factory builds sellout sports car.

May 14, 2010



OSHAWA—Forget that old saw about never buying a car that was built on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon.

Popular wisdom was that assembly line workers were likely either recovering from the previous weekend or anticipating the next one and unlikely to have their minds on the job.

But robots don’t punch a clock.

As for the humans putting together Camaros at General Motors’ Oshawa plant, they’re not only “professional car-builders,” says Ann Marie Paine, they also have a lot of pride invested in their jobs.

“The Camaro has had a lot of publicity, a lot of stories written,” says Paine, trim-area manager. “People write letters to the company, they even write blogs about the Camaro. It’s very exciting.

“But it’s not just pride about the car or about GM. There’s an Oshawa pride as well. This city builds cars and that’s what we’re doing — building something really good.

“These people have been through a rough time. They work hard.”

This is the car that’s flying out of showrooms all over North America since it was introduced in May 2009 and helping pull GM out of what looked, not so long ago, like a potentially fatal financial downturn.

“That Monday morning thing just doesn’t happen any more,” says body shop co-ordinator Dave Brown. “It’s like Tim Hortons. You expect to get your coffee the same way every time. That’s how it is here.”

Brown and Paine are two of the guides on a rare tour of the Camaro assembly line from the body shop where the shell is assembled to the trim department where everything comes together and, suddenly . . . it’s a car.

The Velcro-ed guards over rings, watches and belt-buckles everyone has to wear aren’t for your benefit — they’re so the vehicles don’t get scratched.

There’s a lot of this kind of attention to detail. And a constant series of checks and balances along the production line. These culminate in a water test to make sure there are no leaks and the car — still stationary — accelerating up to 115 km/h on rollers and lurching from side to side as each wheel’s brake is individually tested.

Even the 16.4 litres of gasoline that goes into the car before it’s driven off the line is cooled so it doesn’t bubble in the tank and goes in quicker.

It takes 24 hours to build a Camaro, from basic sheet-metal to the moment it’s driven off the production line. But that doesn’t happen in a single day. Those are production hours so it’s closer to a three-day job.

Tony LaRocca, communications director, recalls when he worked in the GM truck plant it was “like Home Depot” with parts stacked everywhere waiting to be used. Now everything is delivered when it’s needed and the body shop is a lot roomier, lighter and airier. Quieter than you might expect, too.

The robo-welding gear is driven by electricity rather than compressed air, says Brown. That helps keep the noise down.

He’s been with GM for 25 years, starting on the production line in the days when it turned out the Chevy Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Olds Cutlass and Buick Century.

There are about 90 humans working in the body shop. Sometimes there’ll be just one in a particular area, surrounded by robots.

If there’s any kind of glitch, whoever’s nearest yanks a yellow cord and triggers what sounds like the arrival of an ice-cream truck. But the musical tones simply tell the team leader the nature of the problem.

You stay very close to the green line when you’re walking around the plant. Pedestrians don’t have priority and if you tangle with a fully-loaded forklift you’ll lose. As body shells move through their various stages, often on automated pallets, traffic lights tell you when it’s clear to move.

Production of a Camaro convertible is expected to begin next January. The shop has been doing body tryouts since March to ensure that everything fits properly and it all goes smoothly. And before that, says Brown, the equipment had to be installed.

Plant manager Dan Hermer says the convertible could be 25 per cent of over-all production.

Public reaction to the Camaro “has been awesome,” he says. “There are always predictions of sports cars tailing off but there’s no sign of the Camaro tailing off. And our customers tell us these cars are rock-solid. We get a lot of letters.

“Certainly, it’s been outperforming expectations. We’re selling all we can build.”

As for the rival Ford Mustang, Hermer likes having it around, mainly because he says the Camaro handily outsells it. But a little competition keeps you sharp, he acknowledges.

“We watch them and they watch us,” he says. “You always want to keep coming out with something a little bit special.”

That includes a limited-edition Indy pace-car replica with a V8 but automatic transmission, “for more global appeal,” says Hermer.

Then there’s the “synergy green” V6 model in an eye-searing metallic shade that may not be to everyone’s taste but which GM brass insist has been in demand since it was first used on a concept car. There will be V8s in the colour soon.

(The V8 Camaro’s engine, incidentally, comes from St. Catharines; the V6 from Tonawanda, N.Y.)

It’s refreshing to see that the seemingly all-conquering silver doesn’t seem to be too popular as a Camaro colour, outnumbered on the production line by red, yellow and black. And synergy green.

The car steadily goes together — windows into doors, doors on to the bodyshell, drivetrain moving unerringly into position beneath the body. There are TV screens in the break areas so workers can be kept up to date with everything that’s going on, including the letters coming in about the Camaro.

So far, no one’s written to say, “Dear GM, I just lost my driver’s licence for two years. Thanks a lot!”

Camaro — by the numbers

• Daily output is 440 cars. That’s one shift building 55 Camaros an hour — almost one a minute.

• Last year, the plant built 82,188 Camaros. The over-all total to date is about 120,000.

• There are about 90 workers in the body shop and 190 in the trim area.

• The body shop has 734 robots.

• The stamping plant has seven presses, running for some 15 hours a day and capable of producing 25,000 pieces per shift.

• Other parts are supplied by 479 vendors.

• 375 individual parts are welded on each car, a total of 4,778 welds.

• The Camaro’s underbody comprises three pieces — motor compartment, floor panel and rear compartment — joined with more than 2,000 welds.

• This welding process takes less than six minutes.

• The trim department has a total conveyor length of almost a kilometre.

• The department uses 840 parts per car.



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