Made in the USA

6/1/2011

After spending our first full winter in northern Michigan and having newly retired from being live-aboard boaters after five years, Lisa and I decided it was time for some new summer attire. I realized my old boating clothes had gotten pretty ratty when Lisa started to say, “You’re not wearing that, are you?” I soon found myself headed toward a popular chain type department store and settled on three pairs of shorts and two short sleeve polo style shirts to update my oil stained, sun faded and tattered relics. I didn’t settle for any old average apparel, I went for the name brand stuff, the ones with the iconic names we all associate with being “Made in the USA.” We’ll, we got home and as I was taking all the price tags and paraphernalia off of everything I noticed something very troubling… not one of those iconically branded items was made in America.

Obviously the production of products has changed a great deal over the last couple of decades as discovered during our simple summer clothes-buying spree. This is one of the major reasons why, when we set out to get into the trailer trawler boating lifestyle, we liked the idea of having a boat and truck that was actually built in the USA. The good news is, after all the research, evaluations, test rides and tours, for our money, the best truck and boat we finally decided to purchase were indeed made in the USA.

Lisa and I have always had the philosophy that we should support our own community, state and country by being consumers within these confines, wherever and whenever we can but not at the sacrifice of quality. With quality in mind, value for our dollar spent, positive customer testimonials and the ability to meet our own personal demands for layout, looks, performance and resale value we were very pleased with our decisions. The Ranger Tugs 27 is made in Kent, Washington and our new GMC Sierra 2500 is made in Flint, Michigan.

This says it all!

One of the ancillary benefits of buying the American built Ranger Tug and GMC HD Truck, besides the obvious local, regional and national economic benefits of doing business in our own back yard, was the ability to tour the production facilities where they’re assembled. Our Ranger is scheduled for a production start date in late June so our plan is to tour the Ranger Tug facilities when we arrive out west in our GMC truck to take delivery of the R-27 in August. In the mean time, as spelled out in the previous BoatUS Log, we had decided on having a GMC Sierra 2500 built to replace our 11-year-old 6-cylinder Ford F150. Shortly after we placed the order I made arrangements for a plant tour to coordinate with the assembly week of our new truck.

The Flint Assembly Plant is located 200 miles south of our hometown, so we headed down state the day before to spend the night, so we could get an early start for our 8 a.m. tour. I could hardly sleep the night before! We met our host and guide, Bob Hooks, in the lobby of the plant’s Visitor’s Center. After a short introduction Bob proceeded to educate us first on the history of GMC followed by facts and figures of the amazingly modern, clean, quiet and efficient facility we were about to spend three hours touring. The plant, which opened in 1947, has over the years built the Chevrolet Bel Air and Corvette models as well as the Chevy and GMC Suburbans, light and heavy-duty pickup trucks. We found out that on September of 2010 they celebrated the 13,000,000 vehicle produced, when a 2011 GMC Sierra Denali 3500 rolled off the assembly line. There are currently 1,900 employees working two ten-hour shifts with plans to add 650 more in August, for a third shift. They build 31 trucks an hour for an average of 600 trucks per day. Bob told us it takes 17.5 hours from the time a truck’s production is started until it is complete and driven off the line and out to the shipping yard.

It’s interesting doing something for the very first time and often educational, at least it is for Lisa and me. We’re never quite sure what to expect before a tour or (speaking for myself) I may have visions in my minds eye about what I think things will be like. This was definitely true for Lisa and I as we walked down a flight of stairs and out onto the factory floor, and in reality what we saw at first glance and over the next three hours was so much better than we could ever have imagined. Of all the tours we’ve taken this was by far the most thorough and educational.

We hopped onto a 4-passenger electric cart and off we went, with Bob providing details about each step of the assembly process. As we zipped around the plant, I must have looked like a kid in a candy store; my head was turning every which way. I didn’t know what to look at first and surely I didn’t want to miss anything.

Freshly painted crew cab before all it goes in separate directions.

We first stopped where the cab doors (already painted) come down a moving assembly track, and are immediately assigned a vehicle identification number (VIN) so they can be prepared according to the build order. Nothing unusual about this step until I started to visualize how all the various assembly steps have to be choreographed so the proper frame (regular, extended or crew cab) has to meet up with the proper engine, transmission, seats, trim level, wheels and tires and accessories along the bi-level, serpentine assembly route.

Completed frames are flipped automatically on the right and proceed (to the left) to the driveline station.

Because of input from employees on the line, the efficiency and safety of the assembly process has improved dramatically over the years. Bob pointed out, for example, that the new computerized frame flipping station was a big improvement over the old one where workers used to work in floor pits below the frame to install axles, fuel tanks, etc. lifting everything overhead. Bob explained workers are encouraged to submit suggestions for improving safety and efficiency and one such suggestion was to assemble the frames from a standing position with the frame in the upside down position. One worker’s suggestion, when it was implemented, increased worker productivity, reduced health issues (less back and shoulder injuries from overhead lifting) and therefore improved product quality because of more continuity of the assembly line work force.

Two workers lowering the completed engine/transmission assembly onto the frame, taking only minutes.

Finished truck beds, above, working their way to the body marriage unit.

Body marriage happens by automation, now it’s starting to look like a truck.

As we continued our way through the plant the various independent parts and equipment started to develop into the completed frame, especially when the engine/transmission were attached along with the tires/wheels and the units were heading to the computer controlled body marriage station. Along the way there are production verification stations at the end of each department. The job here is to do just that, verify that an assembly department’s installed items are performed at quality control standards. Bob stated that by having standards to measure against and by checking on a continuous basis, making corrections when needed – it’s a lot easier maintaining a high quality final product.

Magically, it seems, the right colored doors arrive for installation, as the cab keeps moving along the line.

Although tours are not given of the paint department Bob explained the whole process. An unfinished bed, cab and front fenders are all placed on a single jig with the tailgate, doors and hood temporarily mounted in an opened position. The complete unit is de-magnetized, primed and dried, painted, dried and finally clear coated and dried one last time. After inspection under bright lights for quality everything is disassembled and it all goes in separate directions to eventually meet up later on down the line at its assembly point. When I see everything heading off in different directions I’m amazed at how effortlessly and efficiently it all seems to come together, at the right place and time. In my opinion this is a tribute to American ingenuity and the dedication of the men and women who work on the floor of the Flint Assembly Plant.

Almost finished!

When the trucks finally rest on their own tires they are moving on a conveyor belt towards the final assembly steps, including fenders, hood, grille and side moldings. Just before each completed truck’s engine is started and is driven off the line on its own power to the dynamometer (dyno) stations they go through one last quality inspection. The Customer Acceptance Review Evaluation (CARE) has seven individuals that touch, measure and evaluate every door, hinge, fitting, piece of trim and you can be sure it has been well inspected as they tediously look for anything that would not be acceptable to a customer. Any imperfections found get written up and finally corrected. Every five hours there is a meeting to review the prior five hours of production where the workers go over CARE reports or inconsistencies in production. The objective is to correct situations before they become problems, with the overall objective of maintaining and or improving quality control.

Bob Hooks (to the right), our VIP host, and I standing next to our finished GMC 2500.

During our tour, we saw and learned a great deal; so much so that I cannot do our three-hour tour justice in this log. Beyond the award winning trucks these hard working Americans produce they have also made significant contributions to their communities and the country thereby making us proud to be buying a GMC Sierra Truck. Through the efforts of the Flint Assembly Plant employee’s new trucks were donated to the New York City Fire Department after 9/11 in addition to their annual contributions. Last years many benefactors included adding 208 people to the National Bone Marrow Registry when a Bone Marrow Drive was held, frequent Red Cross Blood Drives, plus financial contributions of over $130,000 to the March of Dimes, Cell Phones for Soldiers, United Way, Toys for Tots and the Old News Boys. Made in the USA; what goes around comes around!